Top Technologies to Watch: Experts Identify Recent Innovations with High Potential Impacts

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Experts identify recent innovations with high potential impacts.

In the midst of a technology revolution, it's hard to foresee which new innovations will have the greatest impacts. Industry Week magazine, however, recently selected 25 technologies for its annual awards, and they show the development of new products and designs that promise major future impacts. Here's a selection of some of the more interesting leading-edge innovations now available or expected in the near future:

* Breakthrough designs for improved autos. New design techniques and materials are smashing through old manufacturing limitations. One example is the 1997 Audi A8, a car built on an aluminum "space frame" 40% lighter than a conventional steel frame, yet also 40% stronger. This could be the first of many such vehicles, offering more volume, safety, and fuel-efficiency for the same weight as a smaller vehicle.

* Portable sunshine for room lighting. Electric lights are transportable but cost money. Sunlight is free, but hard to transport - until now. A consortium led by the U.S. Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is developing methods to collect natural light and deploy it through optical fibers inside a building. Rooms would still need some artificial electric light, but less than now, saving power. Still in the research stage, such hybrid lighting systems could be on the market within 10 years.

* Better fusion research. Although much research into fusion focuses on finding optimum materials, a new machine from Sandia National Laboratories, called the Z accelerator, could provide a bigger research boost. X-rays are critical to the study of fusion, and the Z accelerator creates larger and longer-lasting X-rays than lasers do, making them more useful to fusion research. In a smaller version, the same technology used in the Z accelerator can be used in manufacturing to toughen ceramic, plastic, and metal surfaces and make them more able to resist fatigue and corrosion.

* Amazing new crystal devices. Scientists at Pennsylvania State University have discovered crystals that change their shape in response to electricity. The effect allows the crystals to be used in switches and other electronic devices that now require moving parts. The military is interested in creating improved sonar, and clearer ultrasound pictures of fetuses could be on the way as well.

* Digital X-rays instead of film. Researchers at General Electric have successfully tested a digital X-ray detector that uses solid-state electronics instead of film to create the X-ray image. …