From artificial leaves that turn CO2 into fuel to harvesting water from air, a diverse range of breakthrough technologies could be the key to solving the world's most pressing challenges, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

“New technologies are redefining industries, blurring traditional boundaries and creating new opportunities on a scale never seen before. Public and private institutions must develop the correct policies, protocols and collaborations to allow such innovation to build a better future, while avoiding the risks that unchecked technological change could pose,” said Murat Sönmez, Head of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Member of the Managing Board of the World Economic Forum.

Liquid biopsies: The first on the list are liquid biopsies, which experts said is a step forward in the battle against cancer.

Aside from being an alternative to traditional tissue-based biopsies, liquid biopsies also provide a full spectrum of information compared to tissue samples, which only reflect the information available in the sample. And by homing in on circulating-tumor DNA (ctDNA)—the genetic material that routinely finds its way from cancer cells into the bloodstream—disease progression or resistance to treatment can be spotted much faster than otherwise relying on symptoms or imaging.

Water from air: Another breakthrough is the ability to extract clean water from air. Recently, researchers from MIT and University of California-Berkeley tested a process using porous crystals to convert water without using electricity. And in Arizona, a start-up managed to produce up to 5 litres of water a day based on an off-grid solar system.

Machine learning: Deep learning (machine learning) for visual tasks is also an emerging technology, especially since computers are starting to recognise images better than humans. Now, computer-vision technologies are being used in applications such as autonomous vehicles, medical diagnostics and monitoring of water levels and crop yields, among other things.

Fuel from sunshine: Meanwhile, the prospects of generating liquid fuel from sunshine are looking increasingly positive. The key, according to WEC, is using sunlight-activated catalysts to split water molecules into water and hydrogen, and then using the same hydrogen to convert CO2 into hydrocarbons.

Human Cell Atlas: A project that could pave the way for improving and personalising health care is also underway. Called the Human Cell Atlas, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative-backed project aims to identify every cell type in every tissue and learn which genes, proteins and other molecules are active in each type and the processes which control that activity; determine where the cells are located exactly; how the cells normally interact with one another, and what happens to the body’s functioning when genetic or other aspects of a cell undergo change, among other things.

Precision farming: With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolutions, farmers are now being armed with a new set of tools—sensors, robots, GPS, mapping tools and data analytics software—to boost crop yield and quality, while reducing water and chemical use. Using drones to capture plant health in real time may still be far from reality for many of farmers around the world, but low-cost monitoring techniques have started coming online to help farmers.

Green cars: In the automotive sector, progress is being made on the hydrogen-fed fuel cell, particularly on reducing reliance on catalysts that contain expensive platinum. WEF said latest developments involve catalysts that include no platinum, or in some cases no metal at all.

Genomic vaccines: In the medical field, experts have found that vaccines based on genes are superior to more conventional ones. For one, they are faster to manufacture, while also being simpler and cheaper to manufacture. A genomics-based approach to vaccines also enables more rapid adaptation in the event of a pathogen mutating. Finally, it allows scientists to identify people who are resistant to a pathogen, isolate the antibodies that provide that protection and design a gene sequence that will induce a person’s cells to produce those antibodies, according to WEF.

Sustainable construction: Green construction for multiple buildings also holds great promise in revolutionising the amount of energy and water communities consume. For instance, by sending locally-generated solar power to a smart microgrid, a community could reduce electricity consumption by half and reduce carbon emissions to zero. A University of California at Berkeley project is planning to re-design water systems so that waste water from toilets and drains is treated and re-used on site.

Quantum computing: Lastly, there's quantum computing. Quantum computers may have limitless potential, but they are also difficult and expensive to build, which is why the small ones built today have yet to exceed the power of supercomputers. However, progress is being made, with IBM providing the public access to the first quantum computer in the cloud, which, in turn, has led to more than 50 start-ups and corporations focused on making quantum computing a reality.