Two years ago, on a rainy Monday in October, Queen Elizabeth II handed the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering to Dr Robert Langer. Only the second person to receive the award, the chemical engineer was honoured for his life’s work in developing ways to control the release of large-molecule drugs over time.
Used by 300 pharmaceutical, chemical and biotechnology companies, and featuring in some 1000 patents, Bob’s work has touched the lives of 2 billion people worldwide. His technology has helped develop treatments for cancer, diabetes and mental illnesses. He has even worked with famed voice surgeon, Steven Zeitels, to treat vocal injuries like those suffered by Julie Andrews and Adele.
Two years after receiving the award, Bob remains delightfully humbled by his success. “It was such a tremendous honour,” he said. “Firstly, it was a thrill to meet the Queen, who was so nice, and to meet five other members of the Royal Family. It’s such a wonderful prize and it’s hard for me to believe I could receive such an honour.”
Michael was clearly frightened. He said he’d seen a flash of light and the next thing he knew a dark curtain had come across his vision. Two hours later, he’d been sent from the emergency room to me – a trainee eye surgeon – and I was straining to get a good view of his retina to diagnose the problem. Seeing the disappointment and desperation on his face, I wished I had a way of sharing down the phone with my consultant what I had seen.
Three years later, I was working in Uganda. A young teacher called Abraham came to the eye clinic, having lost sight in his only seeing eye. Like Michael, he’d had the same symptoms of a flash then a dark curtain. This time, however, I was able to examine him and correctly diagnose a retinal detachment.
Engineers at Sandia’s Combustion Research Facility and the Technical University of Denmark have discovered a new way to see and photograph pollutants in car engines. By understanding when – and how – soot forms inside engines, researchers can cut harmful emissions at the source.
Traditional engines work by pulling petrol and air into a cylinder, compressing it with a piston and igniting it with a spark. The resulting explosion forces the piston down, producing power. In a bid to clean up their cars, many manufacturers are adopting low emission, ‘direct injection’ fuel systems. Instead of mixing the air and fuel beforehand, nozzles spray petrol under high pressure directly into the cylinder. This burns less fuel with each explosion, giving better fuel economy and lower carbon dioxide emission per mile driven.
Stepping outside our office in central London, it’s impossible to miss the impact of this year’s QEPrize-winning innovation. Tourists wear expensive SLR cameras slung casually about their necks; school children gather on Westminster Bridge, all vying for a selfie in front of Big Ben; and every so often the insect-like chatter of shutters explodes from a flurry of press photographers camped outside No.10 Downing Street.
Quizzed about digital imaging, most of us will instantly think of our mobile phones. High-resolution cameras are now common-place in the pocket-sized devices we carry every day. They give us quality face time with friends a world away and can upload a hipster shot of your ‘latte art’ before it’s even begun to cool.
Smart phones are the most iconic piece of technology of the modern age. They combine processors much faster than those that put a man on the moon, with colour touchscreens and high resolution digital imaging sensors. They can wirelessly send data to anywhere in the world and are ubiquitous; approximately 1 in 3 people worldwide own a cell-phone. Smart phones are changing the world, but still the potential of their technology is relatively untapped.
It’s a cold morning in San Francisco and I’m in an Uber wishing I’d had time to rent a bike. We’re meandering slowly through commuter traffic to get to a talk with what now feels like the toughest audience I have ever faced. I’m talking about the 321 five to 11-year old students of North Hillsborough School, a respected primary in the suburbs of this great city. As CEO of a UK clean-tech company, Pavegen, I suddenly feel exposed and nervous. Will the slides work on the school’s set-up? Do I have any jokes for this age group? Will the kids get it?
I needn’t have worried. The children and their teachers were amazing. We’ve had a good deal of experience in schools, but I’m always blown away by the intensity of the reaction that our technology inspires in young people.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Transcending languages, they cross oceans, reach out from space and show us inside the human body. In December, the winners of the 2017 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering will receive their award at Buckingham Palace. They are to be honoured for creating digital imaging sensors. Together, they have revolutionised the way we see and capture the world around us.
Digital imaging allows people worldwide access to a vast array of pictures and videos. They have enable high-speed, low-cost colour imaging at a resolution and sensitivity that can exceed that of the human eye. From snaps of individual cells to stars billions of light years away, image sensors have transformed our lives.
A team of engineers at RMIT University in Melbourne have found a novel use for the trillions of cigarette butts that litter our streets.
By coating discarded butts in paraffin or bitumen, the team can mix them into asphalt concrete, making a new building material. this new asphalt mixture can create cooler, greener pavements in cities and towns. By lowering the asphalt’s density, pavements become more porous, draining surface water away. Another useful property is the asphalt’s lower thermal conductivity. By soaking up less of the sun’s heat, the cool pavements could cut the ‘urban heat island’ effect felt in many cities.