Nathan Kane received his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He 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 standard bellows when compressed. 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 also to improved collapsible containers, expandable shelters, and air pumps.
Kane has earned over five patents. 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.
For his own inventions and for inspiring young people to invent, Nathan Kane was awarded the 1997 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.