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A TR10 Primer

What the 10 technologies tell you about us.

April 20, 2010

Every year, the editors of Technology Review pick the 10 new technologies we think are most likely to change the world: the 10 emerging technologies, or TR10.

Other lists we create–and such lists are an unavoidable feature of modern publishing, produced in large part because you, our readers, like them–are more objective. We select the TR35, our list of the 35 young innovators under the age of 35, after considering grades that a college of distinguished judges assign to a long list of candidates (nominated by the innovators’ peers and bosses). The TR50, new this year, is our list of the 50 most innovative companies on the planet: they were chosen by filtering econometric data–such as the ratio of a public company’s investment in research and development to its generation of intellectual property, or the size and sources of a startup’s funding–through our opinions of the companies’ products and services.

But the TR10 are the 10 emerging technologies of the year because we say so. They are fruit of the previous year’s reporting by the editors, and they inevitably reflect our emphases and biases. What do they say about us?

Identifying and analyzing emerging technologies is the special mission of Technology Review. To say all 10 technologies are “emerging” means they are leaving the laboratory or development and are being commercialized but are not, in most cases, widely used in products or services. However, the novelty varies: in general, the software has been developed most recently, the materials more distantly, and biotechnology somewhere in between. For example, Google and Microsoft’s Bing have been searching social networks like Twitter and Facebook since late last year (see “Real-Time Search”), and the technology that enables them to do so is only a few years older. By contrast, while the particular approach we describe to developing concrete that absorbs more carbon dioxide than is released during its manufacture is the result of relatively recent work by Nikolaos Vlasopoulos at Imperial College, London, and at his startup Novacem (see “Green Concrete”), others have been tinkering with ways of creating cleaner cement since the 1970s.

We wanted technologies whose potential impact was very striking. Our main method for evaluating potential impact was to find a big, persistent problem. For instance, ever since the introduction of combination chemotherapy in 1965, doctors have wanted to reduce the number of drugs in therapeutic cocktails while still hitting multiple drug targets. That’s because a single drug that acted multiply would outwit the tendency of cancer cells to acquire resistance to individual chemotherapy medications. In “Dual-Action Antibodies”, we describe how last year the biotechnology company Genentech created a modified version of its blockbuster drug Herceptin, a monoclonal antibody that shuts down a growth accelerator protein in breast tumors. The new version also blocks a protein that stimulates the formation of tumor-feeding blood vessels–the mechanism of another blockbuster Genentech drug, Avastin. Dual-action antibodies could be a significant advance in treating cancer.

But more than anything we valued elegant solutions to persistent problems.

Consider: today, solar energy accounts for less than 1 percent of energy used in the United States. The main reason is cost. To convert sunlight to electricity, we can use efficient but expensive photovoltaic cells made from crystals of the same silicon used in computer chips, or we can use solar cells made from films of semiconducting materials that are cheaper but less efficient; but we don’t know how to make cells that are efficient and cheap. Now, by harnessing plasmons–a type of wave that moves through the electrons at the surface of a metal when they are excited by light–we might do both (see “Light-Trapping Photovoltaics”). Researchers at the University of New South Wales and other universities discovered that by depositing nanomaterials on the surfaces of thin-film photovoltaic cells, they could exploit plasmons so that photons “bounced back and forth within the cell, allowing longer wavelengths to be absorbed.” That’s a cool idea: it neatly transcends the limitations of current technologies.

Finally, this year’s 10 technologies, beyond displaying the editors’ tastes for novelty, difficulty, and elegance of conception, are a testament to our optimism. They expand human possibility by supplanting established ways of doing things. For decades, almost everyone who wanted to replace fuels made from hydrocarbons worried about which biomass to use, even though it wasn’t clear how we would grow the biomass or efficiently turn its sugars into fuel. They simply asked: corn, switchgrass, or algae? In “Solar Fuel”, we describe an effort to engineer photosynthetic microörganisms that use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide directly into ethanol or diesel. That is the kind of thing we like: it has the blithe confidence of magic.

But write and tell me what you think at

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