The wildest engineering innovations of 2020
These feats of engineering feel straight out of science fiction—but they came to life in 2020.
This year’s top engineering feats smack of the sort of sci-fi future-gazing you can find in retro issues of Popular Science. Ski on top of a trash incineration plant—in the middle of a city! Eat bacon made from mushrooms! Control a prosthetic arm with your mind! But our winners have more going for them than just the gee-whiz factor: each item on this list is helping to create a more just, sustainable world, whether by protecting the environment or by improving our health and safety. That’s a sci-fi future we can get behind.
Grand Award Winner: Animal-Free Whey Protein by Perfect Day
Cow milk without the cow
Butter ranks third, below beef and lamb, for carbon dioxide emissions per pound of food. Cheese comes fifth. That’s why the next generation of lab-grown animal products isn’t meat—it’s dairy. To achieve their synthesized milk, Perfect Day inserted a bit of cow DNA into Trichoderma reesei fungus. When fed sugar, the engineered microbes churn out the dairy proteins, casein and whey. Combine those with water, plant-based fats, vitamins, and minerals, and you get dairy products—without having a cow. Smitten Ice Cream and Brave Robot have turned the proteins into delicious vegan, dairy-based ice cream, but Perfect Day is hoping to expand into a whole range of creamy products. Someday in the not-too-distant future you might be able to nosh on a bagel with real schmear that doesn’t contribute to the climate crisis.
CopenHill by Bjarke Ingels Group
A power plant so clean you can ski on it
Proximity to power plants isn’t typically a selling point for urban neighborhoods, but CopenHill, a new facility in Copenhagen, is different. It incinerates trash, then uses catalytic filtration to remove pollutants from the resulting smoke, making it the cleanest waste-to-energy facility in the world. It converts 440,000 tons of garbage annually to power 150,000 homes. It also features a ski slope. And a climbing wall. And a hiking trail. Its hulking outline is a constant reminder of Copenhagen’s commitment to being carbon-neutral by 2025.
MyBacon by Atlast Food Co/MyEats
The tastiest faux bacon
Plant-based ground “beef” now successfully mimics the taste and texture of real meat. Atlast Food Co wants to go one step further: faux whole cuts. Their method uses an indoor system for growing mushroom mycelium (roots) up out of an energy-packed substrate to mimic the texture of animal muscle. Once grown and sliced, it gets marinated in flavorings like salt, sugar, beet juice, and liquid aminos to echo the umami flavors of pork. Atlast’s consumer brand, MyEats, is launching the bacon in select stores this fall, but the company says to expect wider availability—and a growing variety of ersatz meat cuts and even seafood—in the future.
PURECANE by Amyris
Pure sugary sweetness with no calories
Even natural non-sugar sweeteners, like stevia, feature a funky aftertaste, and many artificial options are mixed with sugar alcohols that can cause gastrointestinal distress. Purecane avoids all of that: it’s produced by feeding sugarcane to yeast and extracting the resulting rebaudioside M (or Reb-M), a molecule that’s more than 300 times sweeter than sucrose with no bitter aftertaste—and no calories. You can swap Purecane one-to-one anywhere you currently use sugar.
e-OPRA by Integrum
A mind-controlled prosthesis from the future
Prosthetics are often uncomfortable and clumsy, but Integrum is seeking ways to improve the user experience. Their basic OPRA system anchors directly to the bone via osseointegration, which avoids the sores and infections associated with traditional socket prosthetics and enables greater mobility. Their new e-OPRA system adds a two-way electrode system that enables patients to both control the limb with their brain and feel things their prosthesis touches. Plus, the electronics sit inside a tube within the device, avoiding the need for surface electrodes that can get messed up by sweat.
Covariant Brain by Covariant
The robot that could replace human pickers
Companies like Amazon employ immense numbers of humans to do a seemingly simple task: picking up objects of varying size and shape. Robots can handle the same box repeatedly without feeling fatigue, but fail given the slightest variation. The Covariant Brain’s algorithm uses reinforcement learning—in which it trains itself through trial-and-error—to figure out how to pick up almost anything. It’s even proven itself in a real-world warehouse, where it handled 10,000 objects with a 99-percent accuracy rate, a feat so far unreplicated in the automation world.
Android Earthquake Alerts System by Google
The world’s largest earthquake detection system
Regions with frequent earthquakes have immense networks of seismometers to pick up on the smallest shakes. Google has a new solution for areas without that infrastructure: use the accelerometers inside cell phones. Any Android user who opts in to the program can become the owner of one tiny sensor in the world’s largest earthquake detection system. Though push alerts aren’t part of the program (at least for now), the data will be used to track quakes. In the future, smart devices could potentially pick up real-time results to keep human users safe.
LUCI smart wheelchair accessory by LUCI
A safer wheelchair
Motorized wheelchairs can weigh upwards of 300 pounds, and it only takes a 2.5-inch dropoff to tip one over. That’s in part why there are roughly 30,000 annual hospitalizations from wheelchair accidents in the US alone. LUCI aims to eliminate those with an attachment that retrofits certain power chairs with a combination of ultrasonic sensors, cameras, and radar. Combined, they provide collision avoidance and drop-off protection to keep riders safe—plus, they boast an anti-tip alert system that automatically notifies loved ones in case of an accident. Its $8,500 price tag is steep, especially without the help of insurance, but the folks at LUCI are hoping to secure coverage soon.