Fusion Power – Possible Success in Harnessing the Energy of the Sun

The ability to successfully harness fusion power, the energy source of the stars, would change the future of the entire world. Tremendous amounts of energy are formed when lighter atoms, such as hydrogen, smash together to form heavier ones. This energy release takes place at temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees, which would cause it to melt every material we currently have available to us on earth. In an effort to harness fusion power, researchers use magnetic fields to keep it away from the walls of any chamber in which it is being produced. These efforts have all resulted in more energy being expended, than being harvested, for our use.

MIT has collaborated with a new company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), in the hopes of bringing the world’s first successful fusion power plant to working order within the next 15 years. The collaboration is using a unique form of production, called SPARC, which will build smaller, more powerful field magnets using new high-temperature superconductors. The material that will be used in their creation has recently been introduced to the market, and will result in the magnets being four times stronger than any previously used in fusion experiments. Development time for these has been estimated to be within the next three years.

These superconducting electromagnets are the key component towards creating a more compact version of a fusion device, known as a tokamak. This will result in more than tenfold the amount of power the tokamak will produce. The magnets would also make it possible to build smaller plants to achieve the required amount of energy. SPARC is expected to produce, in 10 second pulses, as much power as is used by a small city. The success of the magnets would result in fusion power being used as an alternative energy source, helping to decrease climate change due to its lack of emissions.

MIT and CFS plan to carry out rapid research, which would lead to the formation of these new plants. CFS has already attracted a $50 million investment from Italian energy company, Eni, and  continues to seek further investments. The collaboration’s ultimate goal is to establish a new industry by commercializing fusion power. Eni CEO, Claudio Descalzi, pointed out that fusion is the energy source of the future as it is completely sustainable, does not release emissions or long term waste, and is potentially inexhaustible. After SPARC has proven successful, the collaboration will begin its final construction of a new power plant approximately twice the size of SPARC’s diameter. The plant would be the first true fusion power plant in the world, and would have the ability to produce a capacity of 200 MW of electricity.


The Future of the Internet – Google’s Quick-Loading AMP Pages

Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages project is designed to bring a faster web browsing experience to mobile devices. The company has been using the technology for a while, but wants to expand the number of users. The speed at which many websites load on mobiles is significantly slower than on computers, because of the design and the high number of advertisements on these pages. Google praised their solution, AMP, as an open-source website-publishing technology that will be available for all site owners to take advantage of. It will allow them to increase the speed of their pages, without losing the value of having ads on their website.

To take advantage of the product, developers would need to make an alternate version of their website using the open-source library provided by AMP. It is advertised as being compatible with most browsers, and having the ability to work across multiple platforms. In addition to being mobile friendly, some of the other advantages of AMP are: the inclusion of ads and analytics, shorter loading times, a lower bounce rate, enhanced SEO and compatibility with any browser. AMP would enable articles on all websites to load as quickly as on Facebook, which applies a similar technology.

Google is placing emphasis on the product’s benefits, in an effort to convince the company that controls the internet’s web standards to adopt this technology for the benefit of all. The tech lead for the AMP project, Malte Ubl, has written ’We now feel ready to take the next step and work to support more instant-loading content not based on AMP technology in areas of Google Search designed for this.’ The blog post in which this was addressed also noted that Google has learnt a significant amount from their research and application.

Many people question Google’s motives, however, as there is the widespread belief that the company pushes new technology for selfish reasons, rather than in an effort to make the internet better for all users. Web developers and publishers, although excited about the product, have expressed their concern about the implications of Google leading the way with AMP technology. An open letter was written in which the company was accused of planning to use this as a method of keeping users ‘within Google’s domain’ and diverting traffic away from other websites. Arguments against the product also state that even though it is open-source, doesn’t mean it is impartial.

Google is already one of the biggest controllers of the internet, and the major fear is that this will increase their dominance. The company has denied that this is the reason behind their pushing of the product. The controversy continues as they try to find ways of proving how genuine their intention is, while many experts urge companies to increase their website’s speed by simply ‘not doing things that are slow.’

Elon Musk’s Q & A – An SW Tech Conference to Remember

Worldwide interest in the achievements being made by Elon Musk’s companies is at an all-time peak. It therefore comes as no surprise that the vast majority of his followers pay close attention to his every move. The entrepreneur recently treated them to a Q & A session at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Tech Conference, held on March 11, 2018, in Austin, Texas. The announcement had been made the night before, via email, and the audience’s questions were thrown at him by Jonathan Nolan, the co-writer of Interstellar. Musk’s answers shed light on the progress already made by his companies, and showed the direction each one would be moving in.

SpaceX, one of his companies with a shaky past, has surpassed expectations with its recent achievements. In February it achieved a successful launch of Falcon Heavy, and Musk said that their new aim was to complete the BFR in the shortest amount of time possible. The goal is for this rocket to be the first to transport humanity to Mars, which Musk believes is essential to the survival of our species. He declared that test flights are expected in 2019, even though he did acknowledge that his enthusiasm does sometimes result in unrealistic deadlines. In addition to the test next year, SpaceX is expected to conduct their first cargo journey to Mars in 2022, with crewed missions following by 2024.

Musk believes that the distance between the Earth and Mars makes it the perfect place to begin setting up a self-sustaining base, as it is more likely to survive a catastrophic event than a base on the moon. The entrepreneur insisted that we needed ‘enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else to bring it back and shorten the length of the dark ages,’ in the event of a disaster wiping out our species. Musk believes that there are several scenarios that might cause this, including a third World War, and the irresponsible development of artificial intelligence. This led him to stress the importance of developing AI safely, a field in which he is ‘very close to the cutting edge.’ It was apparent in his manner, however, that this concept both fascinated and terrified him simultaneously. In Musk’s own words, ‘AI is much more dangerous than nukes,’ and requires a ‘regulatory oversight.’

On the other hand, Musk spoke about the same technology being applied to the advancement of autonomous cars. Within 18 months, Musk believes that self-driving technology will be applicable to all vehicles, increasing road safety between 100 and 200%. He spoke about Tesla’s autonomous driving system, Autopilot 2.0, being 2 – 3 times safer than the average human driver. Tesla is currently working towards achieving Level 5 (full) autonomy, in their vehicles. In addition to these projects, Musk has others that are changing the way technology is developing and followers look forward to his next (spontaneous) Q & A session.

Geoengineering – A Possible Solution to Global Warming

Global warming has been mainly a result of humans releasing various chemicals and gases into the atmosphere. Researchers have demonstrated that unless we drastically change the way we treat our planet, the temperature of our atmosphere will reach a ‘tipping point.’ This will result in extreme weather conditions, a disastrous rise in sea levels and massive droughts which will lead to widespread diseases and starvation. Geoengineering is a possible solution to global warming, and consists of altering the planet’s climate to ensure that we can continue to inhabit it safely.

Geoengineering methods are currently being researched, with the biggest obstacle being the inclusion of all nations. There are also questions about the safety of changing the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists are currently divided over whether geoengineering might be a solution to our problem, or may become a bigger one in itself. The high levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere show where the planet may continue to heat up, despite drastic changes being implemented to reduce emissions. In this event, geoengineering is currently the only proposed solution.

Different methods of accomplishing geoengineering have been proposed, which would also require reducing the amount of greenhouses gases being emitted. These include: 

Iron fertilization – A layer of iron sulphate crystals would be placed on a large part of the Earth’s oceans, to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton. These plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, which could help cool down the planet. The low cost of the materials and availability of the technology, makes this idea appealing to many researchers. On the other hand, this method has been opposed because of the bacteria that phytoplankton attract when they die. These bacteria would use up the oxygen in the surrounding area creating an oceanic ‘death zone,’ preventing any animal venturing nearby without getting sick or dying. In addition, models of iron fertilization show that the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would not decrease enough to make any difference to global warming.

Reflecting or Blocking Sunlight – In 2006, NASA funded a research effort which demonstrated that reducing the amount of sun entering the atmosphere by just 2% would cool the Earth significantly. This led to the proposition of positioning massive mirrors, or ‘parasols,’ in outer space in a ring around the planet to deflect the sun’s rays. In addition to the exorbitant costs associated with setting up these mirrors, scientists believe that side effects could include: altered weather patterns, a shift in the ice coverage at the poles and a change in the ocean currents.

Stratospheric Aerosol Injection – This theory would involve releasing particles into the upper atmosphere, which would reflect sunlight upon its entry. This effect has previously been observed after volcanic eruptions, which have resulted in the planet cooling down. Scientists have predicted that this method could cause severe climate changes, depending on where the particles are released. The particles would also have to be replenished at regular intervals.

Designer Bodies – DNA Manipulation to Recreate Ourselves

Many people often wish that it was possible to recreate themselves to be ‘perfect,’ physically, mentally or both. To fulfil this desire, scientists are exploring how DNA manipulation can be used to change plants and animals, as well as redesign our human bodies and minds. DNA is the source code of all forms of life, and changes in our genetic composition may make it possible for us to survive longer, and in more extreme situations. Founding Director of the Life Sciences project at Harvard Business School, Juan Enriquez, has spoken about using gene editing to take evolution into our hands, instead of depending on nature to choose which species survive. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is through CRISPR, a genome editing technique that can modify a specific part of a gene without harming any others.

Enriquez pointed out the evolution of science itself, which used to be about discovery but is now about creation.’ Technology has changed the pattern of our world from ‘survival of the fittest,’ to one in which humans can decide which species live and die. We can also modify the genes of plants and animals to live in conditions they would previously have been unable to survive in. Although the ability to modify the body of different species is phenomenal, an even greater achievement is the ability to recreate our minds.

DNA manipulation means humans can decide who they want to be, and which experience they want to dominate their lives at any given moment. The mind can be shaped by altering, creating and deleting memories, which are the foundation of who we are. This would allow people to change their entire identity, past experiences and personal beliefs almost instantaneously. This altering of self, with technology, raises many questions and the possibility of harmful or immoral consequences. Would justice still be served if a person had no recollection of committing a crime? Would other members of society be affected if somebody ‘created’ a relationship in their head? Would existing financial obligations be avoided by changing the circumstances in the mind?

Although the question of the morality remains, the ability to change our DNA would be frequently lifesaving. In addition to altering or removing DNA associated with genetic illnesses, the length of time taken to make vaccinations would decrease significantly. Future survival would be guaranteed, even in the event of a catastrophic planetary event, as DNA could be altered for life outside of our atmosphere. Space exploration would increase exponentially, as Enriquez believes that the human species was created for expansion. ‘As explorers at heart’ we will always be drawn to the unknown, breaking barriers, creating and recreating, with DNA manipulation being only a part of the process of expanding our beings.

Cancer Fighting Robots – Nanotechnology to Kill Tumors

The number of people that become affected with cancer has risen steadily for several decades. Throughout this time, scientists have been trying to find ways of killing tumors to prolong the lives of these individuals. Nanotechnology has already advanced the medical field significantly, as it is now used to help identify and treat disease. Researchers have been working on creating nanorobots with the ability to disintegrate cancerous tumors in the body, but many previous designs have been rejected because they harmed healthy tissues and cells surrounding the tumor. Recently, however, scientists have developed a nanorobot that can shrink cancerous cells by cutting off their blood supply, effectively ‘starving’ the tumor.

The study has been a collaboration between Arizona State University and National Centre for Nano Science and Technology of the Chinese Academy of Studies, and proves that nanorobots can effectively eliminate cancer tumors. The results were published in Nature Biotechnology, and included conclusive tests in which the blood supply to cancerous tumors in mice, had been cut off resulting in the tumors’ death. The tissue began to shrink two weeks after treatment, and the treatment effectively removed breast, ovarian, lung and other types of cancerous tumors.

The technique used to create the nanorobots is called DNA origami, derived from the Japanese art of paper folding. Scientists have found where it is possible to fold DNA to create different shapes, and modified the technique to be used on a single strand of DNA. Shorter strands of compatible DNA, called staples, and positioned along the strand causing it to fold upon itself at various intervals. The DNA cells are easily replicated in E. Coli, which makes it an accessible, cost effective and reliable source of providing the necessary raw materials. Each nanorobot is made from a flat DNA origami sheet 90 x 60 nanometers. This is 1000 times thinner than a human hair, and the system is the first capable of targeting the cancerous cells so precisely. The process’s efficiency is increased because of an enzyme that causes clots to form in the blood vessels feeding the tumor, being attached to the sheet.

Although still in its infancy stage, the results in the study with the mice have been promising and scientists are hoping to proceed to the next step. The treatment would need to be clinically tested before decisive results can be published. In addition to saving lives by destroying cancerous tumors, scientists believe that the same technique can be applied to other medical needs, such as delivering drugs to a targeted area. As testing continues, it is possible that the uses of the nanorobot will expand and it will become a widespread solution to other medical problems.