The top tech and science breakthroughs of 2012 - Slideshow | ExtremeTech 1# Higgs boson In terms of the biggest discovery, 2012 will go down as the year that particle physicists finally found the Higgs boson particle — or at least a particle that behaves like the Higgs boson theorized by the Standard Model. The Higgs (see: What is the Higgs boson, and why is it important to science?) was discovered in July, and over the last six months the ATLAS and CMS teams at CERN have been further cementing their discovery — they’re now 99.999999999% sure that they’ve found a Higgs-like particle. 2# Electronic-photonic chips For the last 30 years or so, no list of technological breakthroughs would be complete without at least one mention of IBM — and this year is no exception. In 2012, IBM made exciting leaps in the realms of quantum computing (more on that later) — but more importantly, at least in the short term, IBM has announced the first computer chip that integrates both electronic and photonic components on the same die. The technology is called CMOS-integrated nanophotonics (CINP), and it essentially allows for electrical (transistors, resistors, capacitors) and optical (light emitters, photodetectors, waveguides) to be produced on the same piece of silicon, using a standard 90nm semiconductor process. This not only means that CINP chips can be cheaply produced in bulk, but they’re also very small and very fast. IBM says that it can fit 50 transceiver pairs (modulator/photodetector) on a 5x5mm die, for a total possible bandwidth of 1.2 terabits per second. Compare this to existing fiber-optic interconnects (found in supercomputers and data centers), which are expensive, bulky, and no where near as fast, and you can see why we’re so excited. 3# Solar power A perennial favorite, solar power has enjoyed a slew of interesting and important breakthroughs in the past year. The year began strongly with MIT’s solar cells made from glass clippings — a fairly big development, for developing nations — and ended with the first flexible, fiber-optic solar cells that can be woven into clothes. 2012 was also the year that MIT proposed sun funnels, which could boost solar power efficiency dramatically, and a stealth startup called Twin Creeks debuted an ion cannon (pictured above) that halves the cost of producing solar panels. 4# Quantum entanglement, teleportation, and computing In 2012 we saw the strongest signs yet that a global, quantum internet might actually be possible. Just two years ago, the record for quantum teleportation was 16km — and this year, a team of international researchers teleported an entangled qubit 143km (89 miles) between the Canary Islands of La Palma and Tenerife. This is significant because 143km is just far enough to reach low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, and so in theory we could now build a world-spanning quantum network. Not to be outdone, China struck back with the first teleportation between macroscopic objects, leading to the possibility of consumer-oriented quantum routers. Over in England, researchers managed to transmit qubits and binary data down the same piece of optic fiber, laying the groundwork for a conventional internet that’s secured with quantum cryptography. In related news, Stanford created a machine that excels at entangling photons, ready for fiber-optic transmission. The machine is currently very large, but as we know, miniaturization is a given in the tech world. 5# 3-d Printing Companies like MakerBot continue to press into the consumer market with new printers such as the Replicator 2. On the industrial side of things, NASA showed off some next-generation rocket engine parts that were fabricated using selective laser melting (3D printing with metal). Third-party 3D printing services, such as Shapeways, will print just about any design you can throw at them — in plastic, steel, or even silver. Moving back into the realm of the almost-invisible, 2012 even saw the 3D printing of cancer drugs. 6# Brain Thanks to the National Institutes of Health, we now have the first map of the human brain, revealing a surprisingly simple, grid-like structure (pictured above). “Map” might be overstating it a little, though: All we have is a 3D image of the connections; we don’t have any labels, and we certainly don’t know the function of each connection. For that, we still need to build a human connectome — but 2012 has seen a lot of progress in that regard, too. In related news, MIT discovered the location of memories in your brain. 2012 was also a bumper year for brain-computer interfaces: Devices that measure your brain activity, process your neuron spikes to see what you’re trying to do, and then pass those instructions along to some software. This software might steal passwords from your brain, boost your cranial capacity by offloading multitasking to a computer, or it might be used to control a robotic arm with incredible dexterity (video below). 7# Infinity capacity wireless Coming back to ExtremeTech’s core topic, technology, 2012 was the year that Bo Thide and some Italian colleagues in Venice proved that it might be possible to boost the capacity of wireless spectrum — infinitely. Conventional radio signals are transmitted on a flat plane — but Thide, by twisting the transmitting and receiving antennae, was able to turn the signal into a corkscrew. By adding another dimension to the mix, this technique adds a lot of extra bandwidth; in theory, if you can coil the corkscrews tight enough, we might never have to worry about the spectrum crunch ever again. 10# Battries. The exception, as usual, is IBM, which very rarely announces breakthroughs that aren’t already close to commercial viability. This year, IBM showed off its first lithium-air battery — a light-weight, ultra-high-density battery that should eventually find a home in electric cars, amongst other places. As the name suggests, IBM’s li-air battery actually breathes — it uses oxygen in the atmosphere to create lithium peroxide and electricity, and then when it’s recharged the oxygen is released. Because it offloads so much “work” to the atmosphere, the energy density (kilowatt-hours per kilogram) of IBM’s lithium-air battery is 15 times greater than conventional li-ion — and, more importantly, as energy-dense as gasoline.