Europe’s top innovation prize winners announced


From ecology and nuclear physics to information systems and satellite-based navigation. These were the big winners when the European Commission and the European Patent Office presented the 2010 European Inventor of the Year awards. Under the presidency of their Royal Highnesses Prince Felipe and Princess Leticia of Asturias, the European Patent Office (EPO) and the European Commission today honoured the five prize-winners from Germany, Switzerland, the USA and Canada at a gala ceremony in Madrid

An international jury selected the winners in the following four categories:

1. Lifetime Achievement – Wolfgang Krätschmer (Germany)
A whole new field of research in physics has been discovered, laying the foundations for the creation of new materials

He devised a process for producing fullerenes (a new class of carbon molecules) for research purposes, laying the foundations for the creation of new materials. He did the groundwork that allowed these spherical molecules comprising 60 carbon atoms (C60 molecules, also known as “soccer ball molecules” or buckyballs) to be properly investigated. Soon hundreds of new applications for fullerenes were being patented. Thanks to their thermal stability and their semiconducting and superconducting properties, fullerenes are now used all over the world in innovative lubricants, fuels and superconductors.

2. SMEs/research category – Jürgen Pfitzer and Helmut Nägele (Germany)
Breakthrough in the sustainable use of renewable resources reached with Arboform liquid wood

The source of their material is lignin, which is generated in large quantities during paper and pulp production. In combination with other natural fibres, lignin can be made into an easily formable, biodegradable organic polymer. Demand for Arboform is especially high in the car industry, where with its wood-like appearance and high malleability it opens up new prospects in interior design. It is also used in furniture, toys and watches.

3. Industry category – Albert Markendorf (Switzerland) and Raimund Loser (Germany)
3D scanning and measuring system opened up a new level of accuracy in industrial measuring systems and revolutionised the field

Their portable laser scanner not only measures distances, it can also determine the angle at which the laser beam is reflected. The three-dimensional result offers unprecedented accuracy and efficiency in laser-based scanning systems, typically in design and development processes in the car industry. Railway companies and aircraft manufacturers too now use this scanning technique for quality control purposes.

4. Non-European countries category
Sanjai Kohli and Steven Chen (USA)
GPS systems can now also be used commercially and are a part of our everyday lives

They developed the powerful but inexpensive chips which first allowed satellite signals to be put to effective use. The technology they devised triggered off explosive growth in the market for GPS devices and laid the foundations for their commercial use in cars, planes, ships and mobile phones.

Ben Wiens and Danny Epps (Canadians)
Electrochemical fuel cells which are now a commercially successful alternative to fossil fuels

The cells they invented function at low operating temperatures and so do not need energy-intensive cooling. That was a decisive step on the road to greener energy: since 2004 buses with a hydrogen fuel cell drive have been running in 15 cities around the world, including Amsterdam, Barcelona and London, and twenty of them were in service at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The fuel cells are also indispensable as emergency power supplies in telecommunication systems in Canada, the EU and India.

This year’s award ceremony was held in Madrid. “The conference, organised by EPO and the European Commission, provides a platform for internationally renowned experts to discuss the role of the intellectual property in supporting innovation in fast developing industries”.

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