Technology & Science

B.C. knee brace, Montreal bike system among Time's top inventions

Montreal's high-tech public bike system and a Canadian-made knee brace that harnesses enough energy from a person's stride to power electronic devices are two of Time magazine's top 50 inventions of 2008.
SFU's Bionic Energy Harvester was ranked No. 33 in Time Magazine's top 50 inventions of 2008. ((CBC))

Montreal's high-tech public bike system and a Canadian-made knee brace that harnesses enough energy from a person's stride to power electronic devices are two of Time magazine's top 50 inventions of 2008.

Max Donelan, an assistant professor of kinesiology at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University who leads the knee brace research, told CBC News the recognition was a welcome surprise.

Time listed the brace as the 33rd best invention.

"I feel quite honoured to be on the list because it includes the level of ingenuity that's out there this year," he said. "It's quite an impressive list."

The gene-testing service 23andMe, which has turned the science of determining genetic traits and predisposition into a retail product, was listed as the No .1 invention, according to the U.S.-based publication.

SFU professor Max Donelan, centre, shows CBC reporter Chris Brown his knee brace that collects energy during walking. ((CBC))

Scientists at Simon Fraser and two U.S. universities unveiled the workings of the knee brace in February in the journal Science.

The brace gets its power from the energy put into slowing down the knee joint at the end of a person's step, in a manner similar to how hybrid-electric cars recycle power from braking.

Donelan said that while the brace is years away from coming to the commercial market, the Canadian military plans to test the first prototypes next spring in a trial.

Bionic Power Inc., the B.C.-based spinoff company that will continue to develop the product, has been working for a year on making it smaller and lightweight, he said.

The three pairs of knee braces the military will test next May wear 900 grams per leg, said Donelan. That's already an improvement over the 1.6 kg weight of the prototypes demonstrated earlier this year.

The power controller is worn on the waist, and energy generated from the field tests will be used to recharge another power source such as lithium ion batteries, he said.

High-tech bike sharing

Montreal's public bike system, dubbed Bixi, was No. 19 on the list.

The self-service, bike-rental system, based on programs in Barcelona and the French cities of Paris and Lyon, uses modular bike-rack stations that are solar-powered and bikes with radio-frequency ID tags so they can be easily tracked.

The bikes are designed entirely in Quebec and made of 100 per cent recyclable aluminum. The $15-million system is run by Stationnement de Montreal, the company that manages the city's on-street vehicle parking.

The first 40 bikes to use the system rolled out in September, with the city planning to have 2,400 Bixis by next spring.

A third breakthrough to make the list, the discovery of the largest known prime number, also has a Canadian connection.

Ottawa-based Carleton University student Jeff Gilchrist was one of a group of mathematicians that helped confirm a 12.9-million-digit-long number discovered by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles was indeed a prime number.

Prime numbers can only be divided evenly by the number one and itself.

Though more achievement than invention, the discovery of the number, which can be written in shorthand as two to the power of 43,112,609, minus one, was No. 29 on Time's list.

A number of other top inventions on the list are international efforts that have contributions from a host of countries including Canada, such as the Geneva-based Large Hadron Collider and Norway's Arctic Seed Bank.