Balu Balakrishnan hunts vampires—not the type skulking in the woods of Transylvania but the kind hiding in your television. He's after energy vampires in cable TV boxes, VCRs, and the like, which suck billions of watts from wall outlets even when the appliances are off. A trickle of energy keeps them ready for the moment you hit the remote.
Studies at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory indicate that 5 billion watts of energy—roughly the amount produced by five power plants—leak from appliances in U.S. homes every year. Cable TV boxes are the worst offenders, guzzling about 21 watts of electricity when on—and almost 20 when turned off. TVs consume about 60 watts when on and 5 to 10 watts when off. No-load devices, like a charger base separated from its cordless phone, also waste energy.
Balakrishnan, vice president of engineering at Power Integrations in Sunnyvale, California, and his colleagues have crafted a high-tech wooden stake, called the TinySwitch, to slay these vampires.
The power-supply chip can cut the electricity used by sleeping appliances up to 90 percent. "It's a little change, but it has a big impact on energy efficiency," Balakrishnan says.
He estimates that TinySwitch could cut an average consumer's electric bill by $45 a year and eliminate 18 tons of carbon dioxide produced by generating plants. The TinySwitch, introduced last September, costs power-supply manufacturers less than a dollar each.
FINALISTS Automobile Alchemy INNOVATOR: Nancy Ho, Purdue University
With the mind of a molecular geneticist and the heart of a moonshiner, Nancy Ho has been running stills in her Purdue lab for 15 years, trying to unlock more ethyl alcohol from cornstalks and wood chips. Finally, she hit on a genetically engineered yeast that can cheaply ferment nature's leftovers into ethanol.
Ho's modified yeasts have extra genes that enable them to break down xylose, a common plant sugar. The end product is a promising renewable, clean-burning fuel that could someday replace gasoline.
Acid vs. Asbestos INNOVATORS: David Myers, W. R. Grace & Company; Leon Petrakis, Brookhaven National Laboratory
For years the only ways to eliminate asbestos from homes and buildings have been to rip out the carcinogenic material or seal off areas where it had been installed. Chemists led by David Myers and Leon Petrakis found an easier, safer tactic: an asbestos eater that neutralizes the fibers in place.
The team sprayed a creamlike foam rich in phosphoric acid and fluoride ions directly onto asbestos fireproofing. The foam seeped into the chrysotile asbestos, breaking down the mineral fibers into harmless globs of magnesium and silica within a couple of days.