Over the past eight years, the European Inventor Award (EIA) has recognised a diverse group of innovators for their contributions to making travel more energy-efficient, safe and enjoyable. Here is an overview of the inventors who are changing the way we get around.
A major step forward for energy-efficient cars came via a switch to new lightweight frames that require less fuel to drive, thanks in large part to a team of Audi engineers led by Norbert Enning and Ulrich Klages. Their patented aluminium car frame system resulted in the world's first mass-produced car made from aluminium and opened up prospects for further lightweight car designs. The team's achievements were recognised with a 2008 EIA in the Industry category.
For decades, the combustion engine has been the standard propulsion system for our cars. However, Ben Wiens and Danny Epp in Canada and German chemist Manfred Stefener are among the many innovators who are developing and improving cleaner alternatives.
Wiens and Epp turned to hydrogen for power and developed one of the first effective automotive fuel cells. Their Ballard fuel cells now power public buses and prototype cars, earning them a 2010 EIA in the Non-European Countries category.
The mobile fuel cells patented by German chemist Manfred Stefener, winner of the 2012 European Inventor Award in the SMEs category, make sustainable power more portable and flexible. Marketed by Stefener's company Smart Fuel Cell, the invention has already sold more than 20 000 units supplying electricity in boats or recreational vehicles.
A car radar system invented by a French team at Thales Systèmes Aéroportés seemed more a clever novelty than a necessity when it was first developed, but it led to one of the most successful adaptive cruise control systems produced. Not only does the technology help drivers avoid collisions, it also enables them to maintain a more constant speed and reduce fuel consumption. The radar system earned the team a nod as finalists for the 2011 EIA.
The word "pollution" usually brings to mind smog and waste, but noise pollution too can impact on human well-being and harm the environment. Airbus inventors and 2008 EIA finalists in the Industry category Alain Porte, André Robert and Hervé Batard took aim at the problem of loud, low-flying jets. Their solution was a special uniform acoustic damping shield for aircraft engines that reduced a phenomenon known as "acoustic scattering". Aircraft equipped with their sound insulation technology can now meet some of the world's strictest noise pollution regulations.
Austrian engineer Josef Theurer is well deserving of the title "father of modern rail maintenance". In a career spanning many decades, he has produced more than 500 inventions and no fewer than nine milestone innovations that have a significant impact on how modern rail lines are installed and maintained. His vast field of work not only ensured that his firm Plasser & Theurer grew into one of the most successful companies in the rail-repair business but also helped establish energy-saving train travel as a viable alternative to cars and planes. Theurer was a finalist for the 2012 EIA in the Lifetime Achievement category.
Despite advances in energy-efficient transport, using our own bodies for travel is often the most environmentally friendly means of getting from point A to point B. It’s also another area where past EIA winners and finalists have made contributions.
US inventor and 2009 EIA finalist in the Non-European Countries category Marion "Frank" Rudy ignited a footwear revolution with his invention of shock-absorbing air insoles. Now, top athletes and casual walkers have a bit more cushion underfoot. Italian entrepreneur Mario Moretti Polegato tackled the stinky issue of foot perspiration. He developed a microscopic porous membrane for shoe soles that kept water out but allowed foot sweat to escape. His company Geox grew into one of the largest shoe manufactures in the world, and his invention brought Polegato a nomination for the 2012 EIA in the Lifetime Achievement category.
The world of aquatics might never be the same after the invention of British swimmer and clothing designer Fiona Fairhurst. More than 130 swimming world records were broken by competitors wearing her Fastskin swimsuit. Modelled after the skin structure of a shark, the suit is reported to boost a swimmers velocity by up to 7% and has since been banned in major international competitions due to the speed advantage it gives swimmers. Fairhurst was a finalist for the 2009 EIA in the Industry category.