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Nathan Kane (b. 1968) of Austin, Texas, currently a doctoral candidate in Mechanical Engineering at MIT, succeeded in making a major improvement to a technology that has existed since the Bronze Age: bellows.
A bellows is a flexible, pleated chamber used to conduct or contain air---the most familiar type being the pumps used since ancient times to stir up a fire in a furnace or fireplace. Kane's innovation was to apply mathematical analysis to the accordion-like fold patterns used in bellows to discover the most efficient pattern possible. Kane's mathematically optimized folds allow his bellows to extend two to three times further than a standard bellows made from the same amount of material, and yet they are shorter than the standard when compressed. Since today bellows are used throughout the world to protect moving parts in machinery, Kane's improved apparatus has the potential to save industries hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Kane's work on bellows began when he was renovating his parents' home. To counter the dust and heat, he invented a lightweight, pleated, self-retracting hose that would supply air to an air conditioned mask without restricting mobility. Kane has applied the same principles not only to bellows, but to improved collapsible containers, expandable shelters, and air pumps.
Kane has earned one patent and has five others pending. His other inventions or co-inventions include a modular hydrostatic bearing for machine tools, an opaque overhead projector for children to view artwork, and even a TV remote control embedded in a Nerf-like football. Kane is also involved in invention outreach programs: he has tutored middle school students building model solar cars, and himself has proposed a "Recycler Contest" for local high schools.
For his own inventions and for inspiring young persons to invent, Nathan Kane was recently awarded the 1997 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. He plans to invest the $30,000 of the award in further efforts to invent, patent, and market new items.