12 Technologies That Will Transform the World

Scientists' and engineers' bold ideas are creating a safer, more prosperous planet.


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Photo Credits: Peter Neuhaus, The Institute for Human & Machine Cognition

Iron Man’s power suit isn’t just for the movies. Such suits exist, but they take a long time to design and fabricate. With an eye toward optimizing the design and building phase, researchers are using mathematical models to accelerate development, reduce production costs and create suits tailored to their users’ needs. Highly customized exoskeletons improve comfort and safety through lightweight, natural motion designs. In time, the suits could offer mobility to those with disabilities affecting their lower limbs. For military personnel and construction workers, the suit could ease the burden of carrying heavy loads over long distances.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Johannes Overvelde, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)

Portable shelters, adaptive building facades and retractable roofs are just a few of the structures this morphing, 3-D, thin-walled material forms. The material’s shape, volume and stiffness can be dramatically altered and continuously controlled. As a new class of foldable materials, it offers the potential to construct objects from surgical stents that prop open arteries to portable pop-up domes for disaster relief.

The structure pictured here was inspired by an origami technique called snapology and is made from extruded cubes with 24 faces and 36 edges. Shape changes result when the cube is folded along its edges.

Photo Credits: Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley

PAM, (a protospacer adjacent motif, in yellow) is a short DNA sequence that acts as a homing device so Cas9, a bacterial enzyme, can zero in on its DNA target. Cas9 identifies and degrades foreign DNA, inducing specific genetic changes in animal and plant cells. This is especially helpful since these targets are among millions to billions of DNA strands.

Cas9 is an essential aspect of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology, which has become a vital tool for genetic engineering. In the future, genetically engineered microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi will play an increasing role in drug therapies, advanced biofuels and biodegradable plastics.

Photo Credits: Emily Edwards, The Joint Quantum Institute

A computer based on atoms and light rather than electrons and silicon sounds like the stuff of science fiction. But better understanding of how atoms operate in very small surroundings is helping researchers build quantum computing modules based on trapped ions. Systems integrating these modules would be more secure and operate far more quickly than current computers.

For nearly seven decades, NSF has provided the nation with generations of scientists and engineers whose bold ideas have created a safer, more prosperous nation. In the coming years, NSF will continue its mission ensuring a pipeline of people and ideas ready to solve the pressing challenges facing the nation and the world.

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Daniel Miller and Ethan Sokol, Gupta Lab, Whitehead Institute, MIT

Human tissue grown in the laboratory offers a critical model for understanding the disease process. This glowing green structure holds 11-day-old cells derived from human breast cells. Three-dimensional models of living tissue will advance understanding of human breast development as well as the growth of breast cancer. In the case of cancer, the 3-D model is more powerful than a Petri dish. The 3-D environment offers clues as to how tumors recruit and rely on cells, and their connections for growth. In the future, it may be possible to use such models to study breast tissue’s response to hormones released during pregnancy and lactation.

Photo Credits: Gabriel Popescu, University of Illinois

If you want to see what’s happening inside a cell find the nearest standard microscope. But here’s the catch. The microscope needs a special component that makes white-light diffraction tomography possible. A new 3-D imaging technique enables viewers to track the life of living cells--how they grow and move around--without disturbing them. The process is free of dyes, stains or other invasive chemicals and provides extremely crisp images of cells and their internal structures. The technology offers unprecedented views of cellular processes and will allow researchers to observe cells in their natural state, an important step in teasing out normal and disease processes.

Photo Credits: Chris Coleman, School of Computing, University of Utah

This glowing corridor represents some of the latest hardware for testing cloud computing, the practice of using a network of remote servers, rather than a local server or personal computer, to store, manage and process data. Flanking the aisle are the 200 or so servers that served as a testbed for Apt, the precursor to NSF’s experimental cloud computing effort CloudLab. CloudLab and its twin testbed Chameleon are part of the NSFCloud program that is now creating opportunities to experiment with novel cloud architectures, applications and security measures.

The experiments performed through CloudLab and Chameleon will lead to new capabilities for future clouds and a deeper understanding of cloud computing fundamentals.

Photo Credits: Map by Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation, adapted from maps by Chris Harrison, Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (

Texting, snapping and tweeting are all possible because of the internet. From humble beginnings as NSFNet in the academic research community to its current ubiquitous presence, the internet’s infrastructure grew in a relatively short period of time as private-sector providers scrambled to meet rising public demand for access and bandwidth. This growth will continue into the foreseeable future as the network evolves and more devices are brought online.

In this image, the nationwide rainbow represents the connections between routers in major urban areas.

Photo Credits: Etched and imaged in a FESEM by Maxime Matras; color processing by Peter J. Lee, National High Magnetic Field Laboratory Applied Superconductivity Center

Cheers to the National Science Foundation (NSF) as it celebrates 67 years of service to the nation this month. Since its launch in 1950, NSF has provided funding for basic research that has laid the foundation for many of the technologies we rely on today such as mobile communications, the internet and GPS. The following images illustrate just a few of the areas touched by NSF research.

The first six images represent past or current technologies helped by NSF funding and the second six preview opportunities where NSF support will make a difference in the decades to come. Pictured here: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a now-common medical imaging technique, advanced because of NSF funding over several decades. New MRI systems using magnets made of materials like these golden superconducting strands are increasing the power and precision of this important clinical tool.

Photo Credits: Venkatachalam Lakshmanan and Deepak Shantharaj, University of Delaware Bioimaging Center

Among the roots of a rice plant that grows in California, researchers detected a specific bacteria that attracts iron and forms a “shield” that blunts the plant’s uptake of toxic arsenic. Because rice grows underwater, it takes in 10 times more arsenic than other cereal grains such as wheat and corn. Arsenic occurs naturally but also is used in multiple industrial processes. Chronic exposure has been linked to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

This discovery could lead to a “probiotic” for rice plants in the form of either a coating on rice seeds or shots of the bacteria to immature plants. Such options may provide a natural, low-cost solution to the arsenic challenge facing rice crops around the world. Rice is a diet staple for more than half of the global population.

Photo Credits: From ATE Centers Impact 2011 (

Over the years, NSF has steadily supported basic research on critical technologies such as lasers, which are now essential to a range of fields from high-speed communications to medicine.

The laboratories that advance these tools also play a significant role in training the next generation of scientists and engineers. NSF also supports training opportunities that produce highly skilled technicians for industrial sectors driving the nation’s economy such as advanced manufacturing, biotechnology and information technologies and cybersecurity.

Photo Credits: National Center for Supercomputing Applications; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NCSA); University of Illinois. Visualization by Donna Cox, Robert Patterson, Stuart Levy, Matt Hall and Alex Betts, NCSA

When Mother Nature wields her fury through natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, weather forecasters and emergency personnel alert local communities based on input they’ve received from event modeling and simulations. With the help of NSF funding, these technologies can now provide highly localized, real-time data. In the case of a tornado, simulations like the one pictured here provide forecasters with valuable information such as wind speed, air flow and pressure. The orange and blue wisps represent the rising and falling airflow around the tornado.

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