Skip to main content

A closer look at Google’s Solve For X: 5 daring moonshot projects

You might think of a "moonshot" as an actual journey to the Moon, but at Google, the term refers to the kind of projects underway at the company's not-quite-secret lab, Google X.

"Moonshots live in the grey area between audacious projects and pure science fiction; instead of mere 10 per cent gains, they aim for 10x improvements," according to Google. "The combination of a huge problem, a radical solution, and the breakthrough technology that might just make that solution possible is the essence of a Moonshot."

While Google is pursuing a number of its own moonshots, from Calico and Project Loon to Google Glass and smart contact lenses, the search giant is also encouraging innovators of all stripes to pursue their own moonshots.

Earlier this month, Google hosted 60 entrepreneurs and scientists at its Solve For X event to discuss 18 moonshot proposals.

The event was replete with TED-esque demos and discussions – including a half-hour of opening remarks by Ira "This American Life" Glass, entitled "Ira Glass tries to boss you into a Moonshot."

We perused the demo videos and selected five of our favourite moonshot projects from Solve for X – projects that are, indeed, so close to science fiction that some of them once had a home only in pulp pages or on the screen in big-budget movies.

Take a look and visit the Solve for X site to ponder your own moonshot.

Power from nuclear waste

Ira Glass compared this project to "the thing in Back to the Future where you put garbage in the flying DeLorean and turn it into energy." (Also known as Mr Fusion). The waste in this case is radioactive garbage, and Leslie Dewan proposed a reactor that runs on this waste, consuming it. Approximately 270,000 metric tons of this stuff is out there sitting around, waiting to be used – she says that could be used to make enough electricity to power the entire world for 72 years. Of course, it's more complicated than that, but worth a look? For sure.

Artificial solar retina

Eighty per cent of what we remember and perceive comes from our eyes, according to Professor Yael Hanein from Tel Aviv University. And a staggering number of older people, 5 million, will get macular degeneration – which, while not blindness, has a major impact on lives. Hanein's proposed moonshot includes artificial vision, the eye's version of the cochlear implants for the deaf. Prototypes already exist.

Efficient space access

Dmitriy Tseliakhovich helped start Escape Dynamics with a goal: To make space easier to explore on a large scale. Today it's too risky, too expensive, and too wasteful. There hasn't been an order of magnitude change in rockets, at least not compared to PCs and other areas of technology. Tseliakhovich imagines there being hundreds of Hubble-like telescopes out there, and that's just the start. The goal is a system with more airplane-like operation to get into space and go again and again, but far more efficient than the Space Shuttles ever were. Rockets aren't going to do it. He's thinking more of a microwave beam from the ground that would help a vehicle ascend into the stars.

The road not needed

Paved roads are the backbone of commerce, but not every country has them in abundance, and that makes it costly to trade. Even planes and ports need them. The one mode of transport that doesn't is the helicopter, but it's far too expensive to chopper goods about. Bob Boyd talks about the "hybrid aircraft" that's about halfway between a ship and a plane, both in terms of cost and speed. Picture an overlap of the plane, the copter, and blimp-like airship with buoyant lift. His company, Lockheed Martin, built a prototype in 2006 and is readily seeking customers for the ship, called the P-791. If it takes off (so to speak) it could change the kind of infrastructure needed for commerce, as Boyd pitched a stadium-sized craft that could carry as much as a 500 tons – more than any other plane in existence.

3D architected nano-materials

Infrastructure and vehicles are heavy and expensive to make and maintain; planes, cars, bridges, you name it. Julia Greer proposes the use of nano-materials that are lightweight but strong, by combining nanotech with materials science and architectural design. They could make a sheet of material that used to be steel with something just as strong that's 99 per cent air and weighs only grams. Her group at the California Institute of Technology has already created many nano-trusses you can only see with a microscope to create a "meta-material" that could revolutionise the future of construction, not just building planes or bridges, but also batteries, screens, and more.