The finalists for this year's James Dyson Award have just been revealed, and they offer an exciting array of clever design solutions to some of the world's major problems. Some of the extraordinary highlights include a biodegradable plastic made from potato starch; cheap, foldable lifeboats; an earthquake pre-warning system; and prefabricated ant nests designed to help rural communities easily harvest insects for food.

The annual James Dyson Award is open to design and engineering students (or recent graduates) around the world. The award's brief is deceptively simple: "design something that solves a problem." And since its foundation in 2007 it has delivered a fascinating array of creative design solutions.

The top 20 finalists for this year's award are competing for a £30,000 prize (US$39,000), with Sir James Dyson picking the winner himself. Here are the some of the most interesting finalists in a competition packed with imaginative design creations.

O-Wind Turbine

The problem to be solved: Wind turbines are a great source of sustainable energy but they struggle to deal with chaotic winds in urban environments. A team from Lancaster University set out to design an omni-directional wind turbine that could be integrated into urban apartment settings.

The O-Wind Turbine is a spherical structure lined with vents allowing it to take wind from all horizontal and vertical directions. It will rotate on a fixed axis regardless of the direction of the wind, and ultimately the hope is to easily integrate it into city apartment balconies to offer individual dwellers an independent source of electricity in an urban environment.

Potato Plastic

Taking aim at the volume of single-use plastic forks, spoons and straws used in the fast food industry, Swedish designer Pontus Törnqvist from Lund University developed Potato Plastic, a material made from potato starch that resembles plastic but biodegrades into soil in less than two months.

"What I want to achieve with this project is to make littering to be a conscious act instead of an unconcerned behavior," says Törnqvist.

Azcatl

Insects are a great source of protein and many suggest that we need to incorporate them into our food chain to help feed the growing global population. Azcatl is a prefabricated, 3D-printed ant nest, designed to offer an easy and cheap way to harvest ants.

"The prefabricated nest can represent a sustainable opportunity for rural communities," the designers write, "because it does not have a negative impact in the ecosystem due to the fact the materials used are 100% biodegradable and the ants do not need a huge amount of water, feeding or land, furthermore these ants have been the backbone of the aqua farming in Mexico for centuries and the locals do not need special machines or technologies to develop this activity. Also this activity can be its principal source of income considering that 1 kg of escamoles is around 100 dollars."

Lighthouse

An astounding 20 percent of all clean water is reportedly lost due to leaking pipes. Tracking when a water pipe is leaking is difficult, expensive and time-consuming, with leaks often not discovered until a pipe completely breaks. Lighthouse is a cheap robot that can be dropped into existing pipe systems to track for leaks.

The little robot floats along a pipe using tactile sensors that can identify suction changes in water pressure when it passes a leak. It generates a log as it travels so when the robot is recovered it can offer a clear map of the pipe and where it may be leaking.

The winner of the competition will be revealed in November.

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