Horizon (1964) s00e76 Episode Script

Tomorrow's World

'Man has taken his greatest stride towards turning light into day.
' 'The invention of microfilm has' 'This is the software' 'Identified as penicillium' 'The laser beam has an information capacity' 'The white heat of technology come to life' This is D-4, one of eight hangars belonging to the UK's Science Museum, a mind-boggling collection of hundreds of thousands of inventions, all of which have changed our world.
Everything from steam engines to some of the very first computers.
I find this an inspiring place.
A reminder of how inventive we can be.
But I've come here to find out about some of the most exciting of today's inventions.
I am going to meet the men and women who are the driving forces behind some of the inventions that are changing our world.
They're pioneers in four areas of science that are shaping our future.
But it's not just about the inventions themselves.
I want to know how they go about it, what inspires them, how do they drive their ideas forward and ultimately end up with a ground-breaking invention? I am hoping to get a sneak preview of tomorrow's world.
For over a million years, this, a simple flint tool, was the pinnacle of human invention.
It remained pretty much unchanged for 30,000 generations.
But in the past 150 years, the pace of invention, from planes to rockets to smart phones, has been extraordinary and it shows no signs of slowing down.
In the US alone, more patents have been filed since the year 2000 than in the previous 40 years combined.
More scientific papers are being published globally year on year.
And more countries than ever before are getting involved.
Today anyone can innovate, anywhere in the world, whether that's in the West in a garage or in Nairobi on a mobile phone.
Google, two guys from Stanford University wrote a very simple algorithm that now is a multi-billion dollar company.
I think we're only at the very beginning of our journey.
If you like new ideas, and you like disrupting things, and you like change and doing the new, then there has never been a better time to be alive.
'We havewe have lift-off.
' I want to start with one area that has fascinated me since I was a child - the exploration of space.
It's an area which is being revolutionised by 21st-century inventors, like Peter Diamandis.
He started out as an engineer and physician, but now he's an entrepreneur who's spearheading a new race to space.
OK, sure.
Do you need me to draft And he has some friends in high places.
It's the White House.
If I had to put one thing that inspired me, it was the Apollo programme.
You know, seeing humanity going to the moon and then seeing America stop going in 1972, that really said, OK, they're not going.
What am I going to do to get us there? The lunar programme was brought to a halt in part because of the huge price tag.
The equivalent of over 100 billion in today's money.
Peter's challenge was to find a way to encourage the private sector to pick up where the state had left off.
He found inspiration in one of history's great aviators, Charles Lindbergh, and his quest to be the first to cross the Atlantic solo.
One day a very close friend of mine gave me a copy of Lindbergh's book and I read about the fact that Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927 to win a prize.
I had no idea.
He was going after a 25,000 prize and that 25,000 drove nine different teams who spent 400,000, 16 times the prize money, going after that prize.
The idea of creating a space prize for private space flight came to mind.
I called it the X Prize cos I had no idea who would put up the money.
The X was a variable to be replaced by the name of the sponsor.
It's a pleasure to celebrate the launch of the Google Lunar X Prize.
In 2007, Diamandis set up the Google Lunar X Prize.
It offers a 20 million reward to the first private team that can successfully land a robot on the moon, get it to travel 500 metres across its surface .
and send data and high-definition images back to earth.
The Google Lunar X Prize is a competition that will demonstrate that small dedicated teams of individuals can do what was thought only once possible by governments.
One of the front-runners for the prize is Moon Express.
They're based here at Moffatt Field, California, where they're using some of NASA's surplus research facilities.
Their CEO is Bob Richards.
The Google Lunar X Prize is a master stroke.
It's an inspiration and a motivation for small teams to try what was only accessible to superpowers in the past.
What used to take thousands of people with slide rules can now be done with young engineers sitting in a room with desktop computers, and the spacecraft themselves can be so much smaller because micro-miniaturisation of technology has shrunk electronics and shrunk propulsion, and this brings the economics into the realm of the private sector.
Moon Express's technology is already pretty advanced.
So this is the lander test facility that we use to replicate the spacecraft and what it experiences on its journey to the moon, all the way from Mission Control to its landing on the surface, so we can actually make it think it's landing on the moon and we can watch how it behaves and adjust all the software so it just perfectly knows where it is and can land softly on the moon.
Their work isn't open to the public .
The team have been designing unique landing gear and cutting-edge miniature radar systems.
And the competition is attracting young scientists and engineers.
The project manager, Mike Vergalla, is just 27.
'What we're doing is taking commercial off-the-shelf parts 'and we're able to make a full vehicle in a very tiny package.
' Probably good to couple that with the RPMs.
Oh, you're in the red zone.
This is a small rover with HD cameras there and this little guy sits on the side, and we land, pop him off and it goes and it explores.
It roves around and we're able to map, look at items of interest, do sample collection, try to do spectroscopy and learn about this new world.
And these are some of the other entries from all over the world.
To date, since the announcement, we've had 25 teams from round the world who have registered to compete from nearly a dozen nations.
And if you think about it, there's only two countries have ever been to the moon - the United States and the Soviet Union and today any number of companies, individuals or countries could go to the moon privately.
But private sector involvement means that these moon missions have a more commercial edge than the Apollo programme.
We will be sending robotic landers initially to the surface of the moon carrying scientific and commercial payloads.
Kind of a Fedex or a lunex model.
It's a transportation model.
Then we'll get into the era of exploring for resources and learning how to process those resources, and bringing them back to earth.
After that we'll have the era of settlement, where people will need to go there, and we'll have people living on the moon and people will be born on earth to look up to the moon and to see lights up there, and the children will know that mankind is not limited to one planet, but we're actually now a multi-planet species.
I think the people who are working on the Google Lunar X Prize are motivated by the dream, the idea that they're part of humanity's expansion into space.
I mean, think about this - millions of years from now, whatever humanity is, they'll look back at these next few decades as the moment in time when the human race irreversibly moved off planet Earth to the stars.
And people want to be part of that significant epic adventure.
Prizes in science have a long history, but today, they've staged something of a comeback.
They're helping to drive innovation in areas from genetics to environmental science.
Competition is really important when it comes to innovation because all inventors are people, and people like to get there first, they want to make all the money, and to do that, you need to have some drive, some reason, some deadline.
People want to be known as the innovators.
They want to be known as the Jobs or the Neil Armstrongs, and competition is a really good way of forcing people towards that.
The best inventors are people who are motivated, not by making lots of money or building a business, but by solving a problem.
And if the problem is well articulated in a prize, that can be a real rallying cry and can bring people together.
What is striking is that today's private investors have ambitions that only governments once dared to have.
But are a few tens of millions of pounds of prize money really enough to be effective? Mariana Mazzucato is an economist at the University of Sussex who studies the economic forces that drive innovation.
What's very interesting in space is that we see this role of the private sector today.
They are calling themselves the big risk-takers, the mavericks, but the question is, would they be able to do what they are doing today if they were not actually riding the wave of major state investments in the early stages when space exploration was actually much more uncertain than it is today.
So are there many other examples of industries that were initially funded by the state and the private sector moved in later? Yes.
If you take, you know, one of the sexiest products out there, the iPhone, it's really interesting that many people use the iPhone to argue that this was created by the entrepreneurial spirit of Steve Jobs but, in fact, the sort of key technologies behind it that actually make it a smartphone were almost all state-funded.
I mean, the most obvious example is the internet.
The iPhone would not be as smart if it didn't have the internet, which was funded by part of the US Department of Defense.
But even the nitty-gritty inside, and the microchips, were funded by the military and space departments of the US government.
We have GPS, which is obviously also very important in the iPhone.
That was actually created through their satellite programme.
A multi-touch display was funded by two public sector grants, and one from the CIA, so, you know, all this great stuff inside the phone which actually makes it smart, were funded by the public sector.
And without that, you would not have the iPhone today.
In a year or so, we'll know who gets to the moon and gets the cash.
The second area I want to explore is the world of materials.
After all, they define our technology.
From the mass-produced iron of the Industrial Revolution, to the complex alloys of the jet age and the silicon that underpins the information age.
Now we could be about to enter a new age, based on our ability to manipulate matter at the smallest scale, based on nanotechnology.
Not all inventions are a result of identifying a need and coming up with a solution.
Sometimes, scientific discoveries are so radical and so unexpected that it can take a while to realise their potential for practical applications.
These innovations often rely on the mavericks of invention who tend to look at the world in a very different way.
Yeah, so I guess it's liquid hydrogen 'Like physicist Andre Geim.
'He shared the Nobel Prize for discovering 'one of the strangest new materials in the world.
' All Nobel Prizes rely on luck.
With a little bit more experience, you can drink liquid hydrogen.
'The more you try, the more chance that you get lucky.
' The best way to describe my approach is hit-and-run experiments.
There's a very simple idea, we try it, it doesn't work.
We go somewhere else.
If it works, we carry on.
He's a man who's made tomatoes, strawberries and even frogs levitate.
And who has designed a sticky tape based on the feet of geckos.
But for Andre, good inventions are about more than just good ideas.
99% of good ideas lead to nothing or to mediocre results.
What follows the idea - hard work, and what follows this idea - this is important.
The journey that led Andre to the Nobel Prize began with pure scientific curiosity about the world of the very small.
As a scientist, I was always interested in what happened with materials when they become thinner and thinner.
Eventually, you reach the level of individual atoms and molecules, and this is a completely different world.
Working with materials at these scales is a huge challenge.
Conventionally, scientists use complex and expensive machines to manipulate atoms and molecules.
But Andre thought there had to be a better way.
It's very hard to move to a scale, OK, a thousand times smaller than the width of your hair, because materials oxidise, decompose, segregate, destroy themselves.
Something new had to be invented to study materials at a smaller scale.
For their experiment, they chose a widely available mineral - graphite.
It's made up of sheets of atoms like the pages in a tightly-bound book.
But up until then, there was no easy way of peeling the layers apart.
We use a completely unorthodox, DIY, if you wish, approach.
One that required no hi-tech machines.
The easiest way to chop, we found, is to use Sellotape.
You put Sellotape on top of graphite and peel it off.
Then you put it together and make a fresh cut.
Essentially, it gets twice thinner, so you make another cut and so on, and then you ask yourself a very simple question - how thin you can make graphite by repeating this twice, twice, twice, and so on.
What the thinnest material can be.
We looked at what is left on the Sellotape in a microscope, and found, to our great surprise, films of graphite which were in the range which we wanted to achieve.
It was a perfect hexagonal lattice only one atom thick, called graphene.
But this material couldn't be more different to the pencil you hold in your hand, because when you get down this small, everything changes.
We started studying properties of graphene and then the real surprise came.
The properties turned out to be unique, and it was my eureka moment.
This material has 20, 30 superlatives to its name.
It's the strongest material that has ever been measured.
It's the most conductive material for electricity, for the heat.
It's the most impermeable material.
In fact, this nanomaterial is so different to anything we know, it's hard to get your head around quite how powerful it is.
Graphene is so strong that if you take one-by-one metre of material and make a hammock out of graphene, it would sustain a cat, a one kilogram cat, lying on this hammock, despite this material being only one atom thick.
It would be like a cat hovering in midair.
The discovery of graphene may sound like the purest of pure science, but I want to find out from Andre's colleague, Sarah Haigh, how it will lead to inventions that we can use every day.
So this is it, this is how you get graphene.
Is it still the most effective way to get that one atom-thick layer? This really is still how we make the most perfect graphene sheets, which have the best electronic properties.
And let's talk about, you know, those incredible properties.
I mean, how can something so small, one atom in thickness, be so strong? it's to do with the bonds we have between the carbon atoms.
So this is a model of the structure of graphene, and each of these black dots represents the carbon atoms.
The white lines are the bonds between them.
And you can see that each carbon atom is surrounded by three other carbon atoms, and the bond between those carbon atoms is really, really strong.
And another very exciting property of course is its conductivity.
Why is graphene so conductive? So the electrons inside graphene behave in a really unusual way.
They behave like they have no mass, and that means they can travel really, really quickly.
And do we know why that occurs? It's really difficult to understand, and there are still a lot of questions around exactly how graphene has such amazing properties.
So when it comes to graphene's incredible conductivity, does it have potential to replace what was a wonder-material for conductivity, silicon? What's going on there? We know that silicon has its limits.
We're going to reach a point where silicon transistors can't get any smaller, they can't get any faster, and graphene doesn't have the same limitations, and so it could be that the next generation of electronics could be made out of graphene.
But rather like when we first had the original computer switches, like this one here, and now we're able to produce electronic chips that have thousands of these switches built into this tiny chip.
That change required a whole new way of thinking, and using graphene in electronics is going to require the same sort of revolutionary new approaches.
Are we being a little bit impatient? We are, but that's because graphene has such potential.
And there are people working on graphene all round the world, thousands of different researchers who are trying to exploit the properties, so much so that there are hundreds of papers being published every single week, and they are continuing to throw up new ideas and new suggestions for applications.
The speed at which ideas now move around the world is one of the defining characteristics of invention today, but another is the degree of specialisation it takes to make these advances in the first place.
When you think about all the science that lies behind innovation today, it's so complex and so advanced, it seems impossible to be able to stay on top of everything that's happening, and so, to keep the pace of invention up, scientists have to work in a very different way to that of lone scientists in the past.
Certainly, science has become so specialised now that it's impossible to be an expert in all areas.
Once upon a time, there was just one science journal.
Today, there are over 8,000.
I reckon no scientist knows what other scientists are doing.
They might have some basic idea of the background, but right at the cutting edge, there's no way they could keep up with each other.
When I'm researching stories, sometimes I'll just see something and think, "What is that?!" Or I'll have a scientist on the phone, be talking to him and just be frantically Googling as he's saying things to try and keep up.
Look at the Nobel Prize.
When you read the citation for what somebody's done, it very often is totally non-understandable to the average person.
Indeed, the simple categories we remember from school have now multiplied into a complex web of interconnected fields, each with their own highly specialised subject areas.
Quantum optics in photonics in nanotechnology.
Genomics, that's about genes, but I never did Biology O-level, so that's one of my weak areas! INTERVIEWER: Systems biology? Er, yeah, I think I could Systems biology No.
Quantum teleportation, quantum cryptography.
It seems to make sense but I've never actually What does it do? I think that is using electric currents to make the studies of nerves, repair nerves, look at nerves, all that stuff.
I think! Transcriptomics, never heard of it.
INTERVIEWER: Bioelectrochemistry? I think it's the study of how you can use electro OK, I have no idea.
One thing is clear - in a highly specialised world, scientists and technologists have to collaborate to create the next generation of inventions, and one field where this is already happening with enormous success is biomedical engineering.
Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This is Professor Bob Langer, one of the most inventive scientists working today.
Over a hundred million people have benefited from his innovations in cancer and heart research, so we spent a day with him at his lab at MIT to find out how he does it.
This one is a National Medal Of Science.
That's given to you by the President.
That's the highest scientific award in the United States.
And Draper Prize up there.
That's often considered the Nobel Prize of engineering.
With over 800 patents to his name, not surprisingly, Langer is a little hard to keep up with.
Well, that's not open.
So this is Dr Leon Bellan.
What is the number? Can we go? Yeah, we'll go to take a look at Leon's lab and Dr Bellan is using some rather unconventional lab equipment.
This is actually very cool stuff.
Let's plug this guy in.
What Leon's been able to do is convert a 40 cotton candy machine into something that can make all kinds of scaffolds for regenerative medicine and tissue regeneration.
This will take a while to warm up, so this is just some sample cotton candy-like material that's used to make artificial capillaries, basically the smallest blood vessels in your body.
This is extremely cheap micro-fabrication.
Yeah, and it works.
And a high throughput, yes.
And it works.
Langer's signature approach is to bring people from different scientific disciplines together.
It all started for him with a search for new materials for medicine.
Pretty much all the materials in the 20th century that have been used in medicine, when I looked at it, largely were driven by medical doctors who would go to their house and find an object that kind of resembled the tissue or organ they were trying to fix.
So if you look at this, the artificial heart, that started actually in 1967 with medical doctors saying "Well, what has a good flex life?" They actually picked a lady's girdle and used the material in that.
But those materials can sometimes cause problems.
For example, the material in the artificial heart, when blood hits that, it can form a clot, and that clot can go to the patient's brain and they could get a stroke and die.
So I started thinking, could we have materials that we could specifically design for medical purposes rather than just taking them off the shelf? When Langer started over 30 years ago, his big idea was to design new materials - polymers - that could go inside the body and carry out all sorts of medical procedures before dissolving safely, like delivering drugs or acting as scaffolds for growing new skin, bone and cartilage.
The problem was it had never been attempted before.
When we first started this, people said that we wouldn't be able to synthesise the polymer.
The chemists said it would be too difficult or couldn't work.
They said the polymers will break in the body, they're fragile, and people said it wouldn't be safe.
It involved polymer science, chemical engineering and chemistry and pharmaceutics and pharmaceutical science.
It involved also neurosurgery and pharmacology, medicine and radiology, and toxicology.
This collaboration turned out to be a success, and here's the proof.
These are polymer wafers being put into someone's brain to treat a tumour with targeted drugs.
Devices like these have now become a routine part of treating cancer.
One of Langer's key collaborators is neurosurgeon Henry Brem.
The patient goes home three days later.
They're not sick from chemotherapy, they don't lose their hair, they don't throw up, they don't have any of the typical, sad side effects of chemotherapy, and yet they have a very effective drug that's working on their behalf.
Langer's way of drawing people together is proving to be an immensely powerful way of driving innovation in 21st-century science.
The way we have developed the interdisciplinary approach, really, is the people I have in the lab.
We probably have people with about ten different disciplines.
Hey, Chris, I'll look forward to seeing you later, but also, I gave you comments.
Yes, I saw that.
Thank you.
OK, great.
'I think the big advantage of trying to do interdisciplinary research is' you can take things that are, say, in engineering and apply them to medicine and vice versa.
So, you have the possibility of going down avenues and roads that other people just wouldn't go.
In fact it's hard to find anyone in this lab who's got just one area of expertise.
Hey, I'll be right there.
And Langer is always hunting for new collaborators, like Dr Gio Traverso.
He's got incredibly neat stuff.
He's actually the perfect example of somebody who's super-interdisciplinary.
I'd say now he's got medicine, molecular biology, and engineering all in one person so he'll tell you a couple of things that he's doing.
They're actually amazing.
One of the things that we're working on, we're developing And all these are inventions.
We're developing a series of ingestible devices, which are actually coded with different needles.
Here the needles are actually fairly long so they're getting smaller and shorter as we progress with the development.
When devices like this can be sufficiently miniaturised, external injections might become a thing of the past.
So, are you working on a vaccine, or on bubbles, or which? Right now on the bubbles.
Bob's mind works very differently than the rest of us.
He sees the world as a song, as an orchestral piece and he is the ultimate conductor.
He knows what it's supposed to sound like, and at the end of the day, he can have all of us play so that what we produce is not only harmonious, but each individual player, so much better than we could ever have done alone.
You'll find something.
If it works, that's a good thing, but obviously if it works according to theory, that's a better thing.
Yeah, yeah.
After almost four decades, Langer's method now provides something of a blueprint for the rest of the scientific world.
I think the days of an individual working in a garage and coming up with major inventions that really make an impact are over.
It's teams now of people with a unified purpose that work together, and you build on everyone's expertise.
Eight hours later and Bob Langer is on his way home, but I don't think he's finished his work just yet.
It seems that collectively we can do far more than even the most brilliant individual, and now a new breed of inventors is taking this interdisciplinary approach a step further by using the internet to develop a concept on a global scale.
One of them is Cesar Harada, an inspirational young inventor who's been tapping into the true power of the internet, the power of the crowd.
His invention came as a result of one of the biggest environmental disasters of the last decade - the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion of 2010.
Millions of barrels of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico and the race was on to clear up the mess.
Cesar Harada wanted to help, but he'd just won a coveted place at MIT.
As events unfolded, he faced a difficult choice.
I was watching TV, and I was, er, terrified and sad, and my response was to leave my job, my dream job in MIT, and move to New Orleans and try to develop technology to clean up the oil spill.
Cesar believed that the fishing boats adapted with skimmers, which were being used to clear up the spill, weren't up to the job.
The tools they were using to capture it are these small fishing boats and they capture some of the oil, but imagine if you're swimming into an ocean of oil and you're just extending your arms like this, you're not going to catch very much.
It's such a big surface.
What's more, when seas were rough, no skimming could take place.
So obviously there were many problems to cope with, but how did you go about it? What were you mainly focusing on? The first was to remove human beings from thefrom the equation so how do you make a boat that is going to operate better? And I will use wind power, surface currents and the waves to actually navigate up the wind to capture the oil that is drifting down the wind.
Cesar's plan was to create a fleet of unmanned remote-controlled sailing drones that could cover the sea surface more effectively.
Each boat would tow behind it a huge absorbent sponge that would get heavier and heavier as it soaked up the oil.
So how did you go about designing a sailing vessel that is able to tow something like that upwind? So imagine this is a conventional sail boat and a conventional sail boat has a rudder at the back.
So imagine you have something very, very long behind, it's going to be really difficult and very ineffective to move that part here.
You can't manoeuvre the boat? So what we did is that we took the rudder that's normally here at the back and brought it at the front, right here, and so you can imagine, if you have something long and heavy behind, you already have a lot more influence in controlling this part.
And then we kept adding a rudder, and at some point we were like, what if we make the whole boat curve and the whole boat becomes the organ of control, so we have more control over something long and heavy, it would be a lot more.
So the whole hull is flexible, the entire thing? It resembles some kind of skeleton of a dinosaur or something.
Yeah! Cesar had a brilliant idea, but neither the technical skills nor the hard cash to bring it to life.
So he did something which I think is pretty radical for an inventor.
He shared his idea on the internet, opening it up to collaborators for free.
I started posting it on a website and some scientists and engineers just started looking at this and thinking it has a lot of potential and people were really excited about it.
Soon inventors from all around the world started to contribute their ideas to the project, and many others began to donate money.
So we had 300 people give us ten, 15 dollars, 20, 100, and we collected more than 33,000.
With this funding, Cesar was able to set up a workshop and he invited inventors from around the world to come and work with him.
I'm Tu Yang-Jo, I come from China.
I'm Logan Williams, I'm from the United States.
My name is Roberto, I am originally from El Salvador.
My name is Francois de la Taste, and I am from Paris, France.
My name is Molly Danielson, I'm from Portland, Oregon.
This free not-for-profit exchange of ideas through the internet is known as open hardware.
Open hardware means that we can innovate a lot faster because we are not limited to a small number of people but the whole internet community is giving us feedback.
The only condition for those participating is that they must credit other inventors' work and use the information to further the project.
You're almost flipping the whole system on its side.
It's not about profit first, environmental near the end.
You're making the environment a priority, which means we all have to start thinking differently? Yep.
The conventional way is that a scientist or an inventor has an idea.
He goes to the office of patents and says, "OK, the idea is mine, "and I'm going to talk to a manufacturer and together "we're going to make a deal and we'll sell this as expensive as possible to people," and the thing is that this is really good for the manufacturer and the inventor but not really good for the people.
Open hardware, open sourcing, crowd sourcing, releasing intellectual property freely on the internet - these are all part of a new culture of openness and sharing that's re-shaping how and what we invent.
I think the biggest change is the fact that things now happen worldwide.
You don't get the individual inventing things on his own.
It's a worldwide collaboration on almost everything.
The inventor today is a collaborator, a sharer.
Somebody who isn't selfish and protective about their ideas, but wants to, er, throw them out there and see how they can be nurtured and grown by others.
Today there's a really interesting tension going on between the open source movement and business, so on the one hand people having ideas and wanting them to go out into the public and flourish, and people to riff on them, I suppose, and then there's making money.
And there's a battle between these two worlds.
I love the idea of where an idea can come forward, where it can be shared, where there's no patents, where there's no copyright and where it's for the common good but underneath all that, it has to get delivered and somewhere, somebody has to earn something so it's a difficult balance but the concept is fantastic.
At the heart of the open source movement is of course our ever-increasing connectivity.
Today 2.
3 billion of us are online.
What the internet gives today is the chance for people to collaborate very quickly, to come up with the idea, the messaging to communicate the idea, and then the distribution platform to share the idea really, really quickly.
It just makes such a difference to be able to suddenly send an e-mail to somebody that you've never met, never seen before, and ask them a question.
How do you do this? And they know how, and I can get that back immediately.
I think that more than ever now, the internet has reached a kind of mainstream so that it's more possible to connect with more people in a more profound way than ever before, and to create different products and services on a global scale.
If you take a look at the patents currently being filed, you can get a very good sense of where the next generation of inventions is coming from.
What's clear is that many inventors are concentrating on the area of alternative energy, joining the race to find a replacement for fossil fuels.
Tapping the sun's energy is sometimes seen as the holy grail but it's not all about solar panels.
In the deserts of New Mexico, one company is taking a different approach.
Michael Glacken is on his way to their first ever production plant .
a showcase for a new way of harvesting energy from the sun.
Inside this plant, they've harnessed the power of one of the world's oldest organisms.
So, welcome to south-eastern New Mexico and our new plant.
You guys are pretty lucky because we've only been in operation now for less than 24 hours so you'll get to see everything as it happens.
The company's founder is Noubar Afeyan.
He's a biologist who's spent his life looking for alternatives to fossil fuels.
His inspiration comes from nature, and one of the most common micro-organisms on the planet - called cyanobacteria.
This is a piece of soil, and of course to the eye it just seems like dirt that you find in daily life in a lot of places, but in fact, if you were to take this soil and refine it and isolate from it all of the life forms, a substantial amount of the life forms in fact will be cyanobacteria.
And these organisms have the basic capability of using sunlight and carbon dioxide to live, and to exclusively live on those nutrients.
Cyanobacteria have remained almost unchanged for 3.
5 billion years.
They were the first organisms to evolve the process of photosynthesis that we see in plants today, converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into chemical energy.
But Noubar's plan was to genetically modify them to take control of this process.
The heart of the technology was to take that organism and to begin to engineer the capability of that organism to take the carbon from carbon dioxide and convert it into a fuel molecule.
The fuel molecule he sought to produce was ethanol .
a biofuel which is usually created by fermenting food crops such as corn.
But making it from corn can divert land away from food production.
At his labs in Bedford, Massachusetts, his team began to search for a way to genetically modify the cyanobacteria.
When we entered the field, the tools that are needed to manipulate the genetic make-up of these organisms did not exist at all, and so there was a lot of inventing to do to transform them.
After five years of research, the team managed to introduce the right combination of genes into the cyanobacteria so that they would produce ethanol.
It was a remarkable achievement.
But to make the process economically viable, all of the bacteria's energy would have to be channelled into producing the fuel.
To do that, the team had to switch off what is the most basic function of every living organism on the planet - reproduction.
And when you do that, you'll see a lot more carbon goes to making the product, and that allowed us to create a micro-scale, single-cell factory.
It's a factory that does a very precise chemical conversion.
Think of it as a micro-refinery that could convert carbon dioxide and solar energy into a fuel molecule.
And so today in New Mexico, this plant is about to start harvesting fuel from genetically modified cyanobacteria for the very first time.
So all these tanks, all this technology, all these valves have been designed and installed to do one thing and that is to use trillions and trillions of bacteria to make fuel from the sun.
The first stage of the process is to make enough bacteria to produce the fuel.
The green is actually the cells themselves.
And last night we introduced them to this system.
This is a large circulation unit, 4,000 litres, so what we want to see them do right now is get greener and greener, basically reproduce, make more cells, and increase in mass by about tenfold.
It'll take just a few days to reach the right amount of cyanobacteria.
The next stage is to make them stop reproducing, and shift them entirely towards producing fuel using just carbon dioxide and sunlight.
And inside this can is the product of all that research.
So this is it, 500ml of the world's very first ethanol fuel made by genetically engineered bacteria.
Now there are still many technical challenges to overcome but this is a bold attempt to make a renewable fuel that has the potential to be greener than oil.
Now, whether you like the idea or not, the technology that allows us to make another organism produce something it normally wouldn't, that can be of such value to us, is an incredible invention.
What they're doing is effectively re-engineering nature for our benefit.
It's part of a growing and important field called synthetic biology.
So what nature has is billions of years of practice to perfect amazing solutions, and what inventors are trying to do today is to compress those billions of years into a few months that can bring around something really useful.
If I had a billion pounds, I would invest it in synthetic biology companies because that area is so exciting.
They're going to programme organisms to do everything from clean up oil spills to create new fuels, new drugs.
It's going to be an entire platform of stuff.
I think we've always taken inspiration from nature for the things that we've invented, but the point is that we're understanding the natural world so much more at the moment and every new breakthrough at a fundamental level I think leads to new technologies.
Today, all over the world, we're seeing some incredibly complex and beautiful bits of science driving innovation.
But even with all this increased collaboration and globalisation spurring on invention, the most important thing of all is still a simple idea.
Michael Pritchard is a British inventor who decided to tackle a simple but devastating problem.
How do you get clean water in a disaster zone? The crisis that spurred him on was the Asian tsunami of 2004.
The initial tragedy of the wave's destruction rapidly turned into a greater human catastrophe, as drinking water supplies became polluted, spreading sickness, disease and death.
The thing that struck me most was watching the tsunami, was that there was water everywhere.
They were surrounded by water, the thing for life, and yet they couldn't drink it and all the wells had come up and they were contaminated, and I justI don't know, it just touched a nerve.
It just made me angry.
And that was sort of my cue really.
We don't need to ship water, we just need to make the water that's there safe to drink.
Michael began looking at the membranes that are used in sewage plants to filter harmful pathogens out of water.
He wondered if these nano-scale meshes could be used in a portable bottle.
Was it fairly easy to get your hands on a mesh that had pores the right size? No, I had to work with people in the membrane world to transfer their technology, if you like, into a portable device, which is the lifesaver bottle.
And if I break it down, I can show you its sort of constituent parts.
That's the first level of filtration, that's kind of a sponge, and that will stop an elephant to a twig.
But thethe real clever bit, if you like, is in this filter here.
I don't know whether you can see inside there, but there's windings.
There's actually that's a hollow fibre membrane so now, with a pump, I can build up the pressure that I need, and that will force the water through the membranes, leave the contamination on the dirty side and just let the sterile clean water come up.
I suppose what remains to be seen is if it works, which is why I presume this tank of water is here? Yeah.
That looks fairly benign.
In the middle of a flood zone, your water doesn't look like this so I've gone and got some bits and pieces to put in it to try and recreate what's going to happen in a flood zone.
Bits and pieces, you say? Bits and pieces, so let's start off with something pretty simple, some detritus, some leaves, twigs, that sort of thing.
Nice organic matter, it's all good.
Nice organic matter, that's pretty fine.
But that's not bad enough.
So, I've gone and got some water from the pond.
I'm just going to put that in as well.
What kind of pond do you have?! THEY LAUGH But what happens in a disaster is, the water surges and up come the drains, OK, so you've got all sorts of stuff going on in the drains.
So, I've gone and got some run-off from a sewage plant and I'm just going to pop that in there, as well.
So Toilet roll and everything! Yes! The whole nine yards.
But what I've also gone and got, is a little gift from my dog, Alfie.
HE LAUGHS And it's genuine.
It looks very real! OK, so just let's put that in there.
Oh, good grief.
People don't believe this stuff.
And you're going to drink it.
This is not a smile of happiness.
I smile when I'm nervous! This is not good.
So, now, when you look at that, that is more like the water that you're going to be faced with in the middle of a disaster.
So, what we're going to do is, we're going to scoop up a jug of this water.
And let's just stir that up a bit.
OK, let's get some of that Oh, look.
We know where that came from, don't we? Exactly.
Those bigger bits.
All we're going to do is pop it in here and make it safe to drink.
Mm-hm? OK? So, we chuck it in here like that.
That's it.
It just goes everywhere.
OK? Put the base on.
Give it a few pumps.
OK? And then Are you ready? Yeah.
Do you want to hold it? Sure.
Get it in.
There we go.
That's it.
And that is clean, sterile drinking water.
I am going to just check for those little bits of Have a smell.
Have a smell.
OK? It smells perfectly fine.
Have a taste.
What's it taste of? Water.
Clean water.
Because that's all it is.
OK? It's fantastic.
It's just brilliant.
And that is sterile, clinically sterile.
This filtration system is now being used by thousands of people all around the world.
It's being used in Haiti and Pakistan in the wake of devastating earthquakes.
And, to me, it shows that having a bold vision and the drive to implement it are sometimes the most important part of invention.
Small, dedicated teams of individuals can do what was once thought only possible by governments.
We've seen some inspirational inventors.
Together, they and thousands of others like them are helping to create tomorrow's world, and I've been intrigued to see what makes these men and women tick.
I think the one attribute that all scientists and engineers and innovators need is curiosity.
Being curious about the world, asking questions that no-one else has asked.
I think you'll probably find that all inventors have kind of darting and volatile minds.
Not regularly proceeding from A to B to C.
I think that, if you want to be an inventor, have good ideas, then you can't get away with not doing the hard work.
The more challenges we have in life, the more exciting life is.
That's what it's like to be a human being.
Some people like to sit on the sofa and do bugger all.
Most of us like to rise to the challenge.
Innovative people and great ideas have always been at the heart of invention.
But, what I find fascinating is how, today, these inventions become a reality in a very different way.
We've seen how scientific prizes are making a comeback.
The importance of collaboration across different fields.
But there will always be a place for blue-sky thinking.
How we're starting to re-engineer nature itself.
And how the internet is changing everything.
Pretty much anyone today, if you have an idea, you can actually make it, you can make it happen and you couldn't do that 10 years ago, let alone 100 years ago.
As human beings, we are really pushing boundaries at the moment and that's what we're here for, and that's why I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we're totally capable and have shown, historically, that we're totally capable of solving problems.
I think we're on the cusp of being able to create more things in more innovative ways than ever before in history.
The process of invention is becoming a global conversation with many minds interacting, sharing ideas, making the seemingly impossible possible.
And the speed at which this is all happening means that these inventions are changing our world more quickly than ever before.
It's an exciting time to be alive.