Innovations and Opportunities

When I first saw the headline, "Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything," I thought it was a parody from The Onion. Instead, it was a news article about Garrett Lisi, a 39-year-old surfer who has developed a theory of the universe that is drawing praise from some, but not all, theoretical physicists.

How E8 -- a complex, eight-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points -- leads to a unified theory of understanding the universe is beyond my grasp, but other recent scientific and technological advances are not.

Slowing light
Researchers at the University of Surrey in England report that they have developed a technique they call trapped rainbow. They have figured out how to slow and, in fact, stop individual frequencies of light, which are the color of a rainbow, hence the name.

With this discovery it may be possible to store information with light instead of electrons. And if light can be used to store memory, computers could experience a tenfold increase in operating capacity. Companies such as Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) and IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) already are investigating how silicon photonics can speed the transmission of digital information, but this advance implies that data storage companies, including Seagate (NYSE: STX  ) and SanDisk (Nasdaq: SNDK  ) , could also be affected by scientists' ability to manipulate light.

Welcome to Westworld
In the 1973 cult movie WestWorld, an amusement park populated with gunslinging robot clones (all played by Yul Brynner) runs amok. At least one country hasn't been put off by the possibilities in such a nightmarish scenario. Recently, South Korean officials announced they will build two robot theme parks for $1.6 billion by 2013.

South Korea is also very serious about growing the robotics industry. Government officials have stated they see the field as a key growth industry and that they intend to place a special focus on "service robots."

It is too soon to determine whether this initiative will translate into a competitive advantage for South Korea-based robotic companies such as Samsung, but investors in Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) are advised to stay abreast of the project. If South Korea is successful in designing and building better, cheaper, or more functional robots, it could affect the company.

Time to revive the hydrogen hype?
With BMW already advertising its hydrogen fuel-cell research, and General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) shifting 500 of its fuel cell scientists from research to production, it is clear that some companies in the automotive industry haven't given up on hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Two new advances appear to justify this optimism.

University of Virginia researchers have discovered a new class of material that can nearly double the amount of hydrogen capable of being stored. And at Pennsylvania State University, scientists demonstrated a new microbe-powered device that extracts up to 99% of the available hydrogen from different biological compounds.

Together these two advances suggest that soon the production of hydrogen could be more affordable than it is today, and that hydrogen could be stored in larger quantities. These are the types of advances that revive the fortunes of long-suffering hydrogen players such as Ballard (Nasdaq: BLDP  ) and Plug Power (Nasdaq: PLUG  ) .

Foolish last word
The success of Garrett Lisi, the surfer dude with a "theory of everything," shows that it isn't essential to spend all one's time in the laboratory to understand how to apply scientific knowledge effectively.

The same is true in investing. But to ride the waves of today's scientific trends, it is necessary to put your toe in the water. The areas of photonics, robotics, and fuel cell technology are promising opportunities for investors looking to catch some tasty waves.

Want to read more? Check out the last few weeks in innovation:


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