Popular Mechanics: The Breakthrough Awards

By October 5, 2006Energy, Innovation

Looks like it was a big night last night for Popular Mechanics, as the magazine/Internet/multimedia juggernaut commemorated its annual Breakthrough Awards, presented to great innovators. Any ceremony that celebrates aeronautics pioneer Bert Rutan is AOK by us.

We also applaud Popular Mechanics’ consistent emphasis on energy issues in its reporting, or as in last night, its awards. As major consumers of energy, manufacturers in the United States are intent on conservation and improving efficiency.

Case in point — Breakthrough winner, Richard Bourgeois and GE’s low-cost electrolyzer:

FUTURISTS PROMISE that hydrogen will replace fossil fuels someday. There’s just one problem: Today, 95 percent of the world’s available hydrogen is extracted from natural gas. Getting hydrogen from water, the greener alternative, is too expensive to be practical. Or it was, until a recent innovation by engineer Richard Bourgeois and his colleagues at a General Electric research facility in Niskayuna, N.Y.

Bourgeois’s prototype electrolyzer cuts the equipment cost of using electricity to grab hydrogen from H2O. The key was replacing tooled metal with a moldable, high-tech GE plastic called Noryl, saving on materials, manufacturing and assembly. The result? A kilogram of hydrogen — the energy equivalent of roughly a gallon of gas — that costs $3 instead of the current $6 to $8. “I could imagine a small box that sits on-site making hydrogen for a factory,” Bourgeois says. “Eventually, even filling stations may make their own hydrogen.”

Popular Mechanics covered the evening’s events in its blog here, and the Breakthrough recipients are all great stories. Stories that evoke a “gee whiz” response, as well, like this account (also energy-related) from MIT:

Working with colleagues Paula Hammond and Yet-Ming Chiang, Belcher genetically altered a virus, the M-13 bacteriophage, inducing it to grab a pair of conductive metals — cobalt oxide and gold — from a solution. As the viruses rearrange themselves, they form highly aligned organic nanowires that can be used as a lithium-ion battery electrode — one so densely packed it can store two or three times the energy of conventional electrodes of the same size and weight.

So congratulations to all these great innovators, and once you’re done taking a look at their accomplishments, head over to GE’s new blog, too!

UPDATE: I just realized, I failed to credit Glenn Reynolds for directing our attention to the awards.

Reynolds has done a fine job in mentioning Popular Mechanics, nanotechnology, and, well, other stuff, so kudos, salutes, and thanks!

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