Palo Alto-PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center, celebrated its 40th birthday today and showed off what might be coming next.

PARC, formerly Xerox PARC, played a key role in the development of the computer revolution. Namely, it helped incubate things like PCs and networking that other people stole and built fabulous companies around. PARC alumni include Bob Metcalfe, the Ethernet pioneer, and Charles Simonyi, who invented Microsoft Word, went into orbit as a space tourist, and was once Martha Stewart's boyfriend.

While many of the presentations focused on how the lab managed to come up with and popularize some of its storied inventions, while also looking toward the future. PARC does not turn its inventions into products; instead, it licenses the idea to manufacturers. Earlier this year, for instance, it showed off an energy efficient air conditioner powered by acoustic waves.

One of the more interesting research ideas on display focused on how silicon nanowires -- tiny forests and arrays of silicon towers -- can be used to improve the efficiency of solar cells. The nanowires can trap light, but also prevent electrons and holes from reuniting. There's more in the video with Jurgen Daniel.

The company is also working on printable and flexible electronics. A device that looks like a piece of tape that PARC had on display, for instance, fits onto the outside of a helmet and detects when the wearer has experienced a head injury. A signal then gets sent to medical personnel. The device is powered by a piezoelectric chip, which converts kinetic energy to electricity, so it's fairly energy efficient. Another novel idea on display: a portable X-ray machine.

Finally, here's a version of a water purification system PARC has worked on for years that is nearing the early commercialization and commercial testing stage. As water swirls through the stacked rings, physical forces concentrate any particles in the water into a beam. The particle beam can then be removed via a vacuum. Water that goes in dirty comes out clean. The basic technology came out of observing how toner particles flow over charged surfaces in printers and copy machines.

In the video, carbon particles are eliminated from water. In real life, oil refiners are interested in using the device to remove sludge and recycle the water they use in their operations. Many municipalities are currently placing limits on how much water industrialists can take from local supplies.

Algae fuel makers are also studying it as a way to separate algae from water. It could also be used to prepare drinking water from seawater or waste water. Salt and/or bacteria get eliminated through the rotational forces, as well.

The water only travels through the rings once and can be powered by gravity. The device in the video can purify ten liters of water a minute. A 19-inch cube outfitted with arrays of these could purify 40,000 gallons a day. The device can also be powered by gravity. The water only needs to sit four feet above to ring to achieve the force it needs to complete a purifying pass-through. Potentially, this could eliminate much of the energy used in  desalination.

I've seen small versions of this device for a few years, but the larger version in the video is large enough for commercial applications. These rings can be stacked into arrays.

Here's another video of the device in action.

Tags: corporate research, desalination, development, ethernet, licensing, parc, r&d, research, silicon, silicon nanowires, solar, water purification