As European governments attempt to kick-start their ailing economies, they are looking, increasingly desperately, towards the Continent's inventors – the cream of whom gathered in Copenhagen last Thursday for the annual European Inventor Awards. Established in 2006, the awards are co-hosted by the European Patent Office and the European Commission, with past winners including the brains behind satellite navigation, biodegradable plastics and new, far more effective, treatment for HIV. This year's event, held at the Royal Danish Playhouse, was abuzz with similarly exciting developments.
The world was alerted to the architectural possibilities of ETFE (ethylene and tetrafluoroethylene), the fluorine-based plastic initially used in the manufacture of yacht sails, when it featured prominently in the Eden Project (below) and, subsequently, the Beijing National Aquatics Centre.
Now, though, ETFE – the baby of yacht enthusiast Stefan Lehnert, a nominee in the small and medium enterprise (SME) category – is being used for the first time in residential projects such as the redevelopment of the Wills Imperial Tobacco factory in Bristol. The 286 eco homes created out of the old factory all have ETFE roofs, taking advantage of the material's famed insulation properties to maximise energy efficiency.
But the advantages of ETFE don't stop there. If the converted factory (since rechristened "Lakeshore") is unlucky enough to be hit by a terrorist attack or a freak storm, the roofs of the new homes will be fine, thanks to the ability of the material – which weighs much less than glass – to withstand bomb blasts and hurricanes.
The bad news, from a security perspective, is that ETFE can be cut with a knife. It also makes quite a lot of noise when it's rained upon. Architects will be monitoring the reaction of Lakeshore residents to their plastic roofs with interest.
Laser eye surgery pioneer Professor Josef Bille, who picked up the lifetime achievement gong, says that we are on the cusp of a world where everyone will have "superhuman" vision.
"After 2,000 years of no hunting and too much reading, 20/20 vision is as good as human eyes get in nature, but we now have the technology to give people 20/10 vision – in other words, sight that is twice as good as what they have at present," says the Heidelberg-based "father of the eye laser".
Bille predicts that it will soon become the norm for eye surgery to be tailored to the occupation of the patient. "Humans don't see well at night, but cats do. So we'll make truck drivers see more like cats. For office workers, however, the goals will be different," he continues.
The downside of this brave new world of bespoke eye tailoring?
It will require the penetration of not just the cornea – as far as myopia correction surgery in its current form goes – but also the lens of the eye, raising the stakes if something were to go wrong during the operation. Happily, Bille maintains that there is "zero risk" with the new procedures, which should available within the next two to five years.
"When I was a kid, I used to put batteries in bleach," says Dr Farouk Tedjar, who alongside his colleague, Jean-Claude Foudraz, has come up with a way to recycle batteries and recover the valuable metals they contain. "I liked watching the chlorine fumes. It was dangerous and funny," he adds.
Tedjar's enthusiasm for all things battery-related continued with his first job as an engineer in an Algerian factory producing cells and batteries. Then he came up with a way to recycle dead lithium-based batteries – and the concept of urban mining was born.
Tedjar, another nominee in the SME category, believes that a shortage of metals such as lithium and copper in Europe will see urban mining taken increasingly seriously.
No more heart attacks
Since Professor Hugo Katus came up with a revolutionary new diagnostic test to flag up heart defects in the 1990s, advances in the blood testing upon which the technique is based have made it sufficiently sensitive to pick up tiny changes in the functioning of the heart.
"We have arrived at the point where it is possible to identify if the heart has, in effect, a minor cold or sniffle," explains Katus, who was nominated for the "industry" award in Copenhagen.
This sensitivity is set to enable a new regime of preventative heart care, where regular check-ups will let people know which aspects of their lifestyles are causing damage to their hearts. "Already, we are able to ascertain not simply that a heart is being damaged, but find out why," adds Katus.
With a breakthough as big as wi-fi – the mathematical algorithms behind which were created by John O'Sullivan and his team at Australia's Common- wealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, winners of the non-European category at the awards – the effects tend to be felt over a long period.
"There are a series of greater efficiencies we can make to the technology behind wi-fi, which will speed it up and make it cheaper, contributing to more extensive and varied usage," says O'Sullivan, who originally happened upon the concept of wireless internet by mistake while conducting research on black holes and radio astronomy, before struggling for years to convince technology companies of its commercial viability.
According to a study by InStat, the digital market research firm, the wireless internet revolution has only just begun, with the number of wi-fi-enabled devices set to treble over the next three years and create a new "digital living room culture". Expect to see a blurring of not just TVs and laptops, says the firm, but also regular household items such as picture frames.