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November 14, 2002


From: Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong
Nov. 14, 2002

Adventures in Innovation

The 11 finalists of this year's Young Inventors Awards apply their skills in fields as diverse as conservation, medicine and communications

By Michael Somers/HONG KONG

Issue cover-dated November 21, 2002

Robert Fearn's "bionic ear with pitch" stimulates a person's cochlea, the part of the inner ear that translates sound vibrations into nerve impulses, which register as sound in the brain. But the novel part of the 31-year-old University of New South Wales student's device is that it improves pitch perception--a common failing in existing cochlear implants. The results are clear--especially for music lovers, who can once again enjoy melody and harmony, and people whose language is tonal, like Thai or Chinese.

It's colourful and it's quick. That's what sets Preejith Puthilonkunnath Vachali's protein biosensor apart from other colorimetric measures, which take an hour to produce a result. Within 15 minutes, Vachali's sensor detects and measures the concentration of protein in a liquid sample, the kind of data useful to many scientific and clinical-research applications. The 25-year-old student of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore uses an optical fibre coated with a particularly sensitive indicator that changes colour when it binds with protein.

There's nothing fuzzy about Lim Wei Keat's logic. Lim, 24, of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has designed software that lets a computer study digitized images of mammograms and classify lumps as benign or malignant. While computer-aided diagnosis of breast cancer is not new, Lim's algorithm is. It does not require updating to maintain its accuracy as more images are added to the database. The results are meant to provide doctors with more information to help them decide whether an operation is needed.

Analog is dead. Long live digital. But converting all that analog information into digital signals can put a strain on computers, especially data-greedy tasks like medical-imaging systems, which demand large images. The speed at which the conversion takes place is key. Trying to cram through too much data too fast can bring a system to a halt. Twenty-nine year old Yoo Sang Min of Sogang University in Seoul has found a way to convert data twice as fast without needing a bigger converter.

Anthony Samir, 30, has given radiologists the pinpoint accuracy they need when taking biopsies of deep-set tumours, which are incredibly difficult to find. The laser system developed by the Master of Medicine student at the University of Melbourne helps doctors carry out a nonsurgical procedure to navigate the biopsy needle right to the heart of tumours so they can take samples. It eliminates guesswork and the risk of piercing an organ, bleeding, pain--and missing the lump altogether, which would lead to the wrong diagnosis.

Cleaning up an industrial site of contaminants before it can be redeveloped is expensive. Using microbes to eat the contaminants is better for the environment but takes months. Chemicals are faster, but the effluent can be just as polluting, and the most stubborn pollutants, in particular cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAH, remain. Zheng Zhongming, of the National University of Singapore, turned to white rot fungus which strips off PAH in solution. Once the soil has been washed and put back in the ground, Zheng, 34, puts the fungus to work on the effluent in a reactor. The result: clean soil, a ready site and detoxified effluent.

Take a single-wavelength, broadband optical fibre. Now take the same fibre, but double its capacity. Now multiply it many times over. This is the idea behind Teng Jinghua's semiconductor laser. For his doctorate at the National University of Singapore, the 36-year-old showed that it is possible to have one laser emit light of two different wavelengths--and by extension many different wavelengths--without interference. Applied to optical communications, such as real-time medical-imaging simulcasts, such a dual-wavelength laser would mean the fibre could carry twice as much information.

Eng How Lung has figured out a way of searching vast compressed-video databases to extract specific footage. The 29-year-old doctoral student at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has written software that scours a database for a described motion and extracts sequences--of a moving person or vehicle, for example. It does away with the need to manually search through hours of video, such as security-camera or traffic-accident footage.

What if you could make bones to order? Nanyang Technological University of Singapore student Hengky saw how he could by using a mould-building technology usually used for industrial applications. First the 23-year-old had to develop a material that was compatible with the modelling technology as well as nontoxic, so it could be implanted in the body. His solution was a biocomposite powder modified to make it as strong as bone. Once he'd done this, he used MRI scans of the required bone, computer-aided design and a three-dimensional printing machine to make the bone.

Say goodbye to babel. Four students at the National Cheng Kung University of Taiwan--Wang Jia-ching, 29, Lin Shun-chieh, 26, Lin Po-chuan, 26, and Li Fan-min, 25--are attempting to replace interpreters with their "translation ear." They are trying to develop a microchip-sized device that will slot into your ear and simultaneously translate specific words and phrases in Chinese and English. They have developed their own speech-to-speech translation algorithm and though they have yet to put it all on a button that fits in your ear, the device has a vocabulary of several thousand words.

A few years ago, Jerome Bowen's father forgot about a windmill busily pumping water from his dam to his distribution tank. Two days later he remembered, but by then the tank had overflowed. Jerome and his University of Western Australia classmate, Jason Le Coultre, both 20, put their minds to the disaster. Their two-way Jay Jay Valve stops the pump when the tank is full, which means water won't be wasted even if farmers are forgetful.

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