A look back at 2011's biggest technology stories, by the numbers.
The disaster at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, set off by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off Japan's east coast, scored a 7 out of 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency's International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale. The metric ranks severity based on many parameters, including an incident's effects on humans and the environment. According to the Japanese government, decommissioning the plant will take 30 to 40 years, and cost an estimated $15 billion.
Many nations reacted by scaling back their nuclear ambitions. Germany led the way, announcing that by 2022, all 17 of its nuclear reactors will be shut down. Those reactors, according to the World Nuclear Association, generated 133 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, or 28.4 percent of the country's electricity.
As of December 2011, there are still 433 operating nuclear power plants in the world. The United States has the most, with 104. Meanwhile, 499 more reactors are either planned or proposed globally—171 of those are in China, which currently has 26 operable reactors.
(See A Worldwide Nuclear Slowdown Continues and What Will A Nuclear-Free Germany Cost?, by Peter Fairley, and Small Nukes Get Boost, by Kevin Bullis.)
The solar industry in transition
The average nominal (not adjusted for inflation) price of crystalline silicon solar panels fell from $1.90/watt to $1.35/watt from January to November 2011, according to GTM Research. The solar industry is facing a large oversupply of panels, fueled largely by manufacturers in China, home to four of the top five largest solar-panel manufacturers in the world.
The world's solar capacity continues to grow quickly. GTM Research estimates that more than 20,563 megawatts of solar power were installed globally in 2011 (13,553 megawatts in Europe, 2,083 in North America, 3,938 in Asia, 710 in Australia, and 279 megawatts in the rest of the world). That is 2,960 more than were installed last year, and brings the total global solar capacity to 59,152 megawatts.
(See The Chinese Solar Machine, by Kevin Bullis, and Can We Build Tomorrow's Breakthroughs? by David Rotman.)
The amount of data we create, replicate, and store in gadgets and the cloud is growing at a staggering rate. According to IDC, the total "digital universe," or all the digital information that has been created or replicated, grew to 1.8 zettabytes in 2011 (a zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes) in 500 quadrillion files. IDC says the total size has grown by a factor of nine over the past five years. Handily enough, in August, researchers at IBM unveiled the largest hard drive ever, capable of holding 120 petabytes (a petabyte is a million gigabytes), or about 24 billion five-megabyte mp3 songs.
(See IBM Builds Biggest Data Drive Ever, by Tom Simonite, and The Cloud Imperative, by Simson Garfinkel.)
Google tries social (again)
Google took a second shot at social networking with the release of Google+, which is a lot more like Facebook than its failed first attempt, Buzz, which was more comparable to Twitter.
Sign-ups skyrocketed in the days immediately after the introduction of the new service on June 28, hitting the 10 million mark about two weeks later. By October, the last time Google released user numbers, total sign-ups stood at 40 million. Active use of Google+ has been harder to gauge, but whatever the number, it's still dwarfed by Facebook's claim of 800 million active users.
(See Tom Simonite's Q&A with Bradley Horowitz, the man building Google+, and How Google+ Will Balkanize Your Social Life, by Paul Boutin.)
General Motors and Nissan released their anticipated, and much-hyped, electric models at the very end of 2010. As of December 1, GM had sold 6,468 Volts, well short of its goal of 10,000. Nissan, meanwhile, claims it has reached its 2010 global sales goal of 20,000 Leafs.
(See Will Electric Vehicles Finally Succeed?, by Peter Fairley, and A Wish List for the Next GM Volt, by Kevin Bullis.)
Stem-cell trial halted
In November, biotechnology firm Geron halted its stem-cell research program, including the first U.S.-approved clinical trial of human embryonic stem cells. The company, which spent $45 million just to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the landmark trial, only treated four patients.