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Here's the breakthrough tech to look for in 2024


Computers that can model the dynamics of our galaxy or the physics of exploding stars, solar cells that can harness even more of the sun's energy, and a home heating and cooling trend that has taken off in Europe since the Russia-Ukraine war began - those are just a few of the innovations in a list of 10 breakthrough technologies for 2024. The list is compiled by the MIT Technology Review. Amy Nordrum is the executive editor there. Amy Nordrum, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AMY NORDRUM: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: I want to start with these supercomputers. Your article says they can crunch a quintillion operations per second, which I can't begin to get my head around. But I guess beyond modeling the galaxy, just explain what you can do with these machines.

NORDRUM: Me neither, honestly. I can't wrap my head around that number either. It's known as an exaflop. So these are very powerful computers, the most powerful machines we've had yet. And what they're really good at is performing complex simulations of different phenomena, such as climate, the universe, things like turbulence that are really hard to model. Cloud formation in climate models has been a really difficult thing to model previously, and so they're able to get, like, a higher resolution of that than any other model before.

KELLY: So how many of these supercomputers are out there now? How many more are in the pipeline?

NORDRUM: Well, the U.S. got its first. It's up and running - called Frontier at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Europe is getting its first one later this year called JUPITER. And there are a few more in the works that will actually be able to do two exaflops. So that first iteration is just one exaflop, and then there's plans for even more powerful ones down the line. And China has also been working in this space as well.

KELLY: I gather there are some energy concerns. One of these supercomputers can use as much power as thousands of homes. Is there anything being done to address that?

NORDRUM: Right. I mean, they have more computational power, but they certainly have a much bigger, massive energy footprint as well. There is some progress on this front. For example, Frontier is using water that's at room temperature to cool itself rather than in the past - it's needed chilled water, which takes extra energy, to cool down. So there is some progress. Although, you know, these machines are still consuming massive amounts of energy. That's definitely true.

KELLY: This moves us right along to the next innovation - super-efficient solar cells. I imagine most of us know what a solar panel on our roof, our neighbor's roof, looks like at this point. What makes these different from traditional silicon solar panels?

NORDRUM: These panels are essentially adding a layer of material, a material known as perovskites, which are tiny crystals that can absorb different wavelengths of light than traditional silicon cells. And so if you combine these two things - silicon technology that's been used in conventional panels for a while with this new layer of perovskites - the whole panel becomes more efficient at converting energy from the sun into electricity.

KELLY: How much more efficient are they?

NORDRUM: Well, traditional silicon cells have a theoretical efficiency limit of about 29%. But the combination of these two technologies can get us to efficiencies over 30%. So - and commercial panels on the market today are more like in the mid-20s. So it could be a pretty substantial increase if you think about how many panels are out there, millions produced every year and installed.

KELLY: OK. And finally, this heating trend that has seen huge growth in Europe, in part due to the energy crisis brought on by the war in Ukraine. What is it?

NORDRUM: Yes. We're talking here about heat pumps, another technology that made our list. And if you're not familiar, heat pumps are electric devices that can be used to both heat and cool buildings, including homes. And they are less energy-intensive than, for example, gas furnaces, which a lot of homes are using today.

KELLY: Huh. So how big of a game changer could they be in terms of reducing global emissions?

NORDRUM: Well, buildings contribute a huge amount of emissions compared to other sectors, and it's been a really tough one to solve. So it all depends on how many of these we install. But it is really encouraging to see, you know, this trend across both Europe and the U.S. - more consumers especially investing in getting these for their homes, more, you know, state programs here that encourage consumers to do that and provide some funding for it. You know, hopefully this trend will continue and just make our buildings more efficient and less climate-intensive.

KELLY: A few of the 10 breakthrough technologies for 2024, as compiled by the MIT Technology Review, where Amy Nordrum is executive editor. Amy, thank you.

NORDRUM: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.