The 50 Best Inventions

The year's most inspired ideas, innovations and revolutions, from the microscopic to the stratospheric

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Phillip Toledano / Trunk Archive

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12 MICRONS (ONE CELL) | What happens to all the fat that gets vacuumed out of our bellies and thighs during liposuction? Old answer: it's thrown out. New answer: it could be transformed into heart cells to compensate for dying tissue after a heart attack. Fat contains stem cells that can be turned into heart muscle in a lab dish, so researchers have developed a method for extracting stem cells from a liposuction sample and giving them a new cellular identity. Such cells are currently being tested in heart-attack patients. Because they are made from a patient's own fat, the hope is they will repair the damage done when the heart is deprived of oxygen without causing any tissue rejection.


2 CENTIMETERS (ONE VIAL) | One of the deadliest diseases in the developing world, malaria kills about 780,000 people every year. But after 24 years of research, Joe Cohen, a scientist at GlaxoSmithKline, and his team have found a malaria-vaccine candidate. RTS,S — or more familiarly, Mosquirix — is still in its trial stages, but so far it's showing great success. The Phase 3 efficacy trial, taking place in seven African countries, is cutting the chances of children's contracting malaria in half. If the trials continue at this rate, Mosquirix could hit the market as soon as 2015.


2 CENTIMETERS | Enough sheer solar energy strikes the planet's surface every hour to power the world for an entire year, but little of that energy can be stored for later use. Nature found a way around that problem: the humble leaf converts solar energy into storable chemical energy through photosynthesis. So Daniel Nocera — a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and a TIME 100 honoree) — took a page from nature, developing an artificial leaf that turns sunlight into chemical fuel. The leaf — a thin silicon solar cell with cheap catalytic materials bonded on both sides — can split water into hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to sunlight, with the gases usable later to power a fuel cell.


3.2 CENTIMETERS | Lithium is an amazing element — not much else can be used for both batteries and antidepressants — but it has an unfortunate habit of bursting into flames when exposed to oxygen, even in water. That's too bad, because a battery that could harness lithium in air or even water would provide more energy than the standard lithium-ion battery found in your phone. That's exactly what Steve Visco and his colleagues at PolyPlus created: a working lithium-water battery. PolyPlus made a membrane that encloses the lithium, sealing it from the water — and preventing combustion — while still enabling an electrical charge. The result is a battery that can last far longer than a conventional lithium-ion cell.

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