Articles from May 2023

Microsoft Is Betting On Nuclear Fusion Available in 5 Years

Scientists have been dreaming about nuclear fusion for decades. Microsoft thinks the technology is nearly ready to plug into the grid. The company just signed a jaw-dropping agreement to purchase electricity from a nuclear fusion generator. Nuclear fusion, often called the Holy Grail of energy, is a potentially limitless source of clean energy that scientists have been chasing for the better part of a century.

A company called Helion Energy thinks it can deliver that Holy Grail to Microsoft by 2028. It announced a power purchase agreement with Microsoft this morning that would see it plug in the world’s first commercial fusion generator to a power grid in Washington. The goal is to generate at least 50 megawatts of power — a small but significant amount and more than the 42MW that the US’s first two offshore wind farms have the capacity to generate today.

To say that’s a tall order would be the understatement of the year.

I would say it’s the most audacious thing I’ve ever heard,” says University of Chicago theoretical physicist Robert Rosner. “In these kinds of issues, I will never say never. But it would be astonishing if they succeed.”

Experts’ optimistic estimates for when the world might see its first nuclear fusion power plant have ranged from the end of the decade to several decades from now. Helion’s success depends on achieving remarkable breakthroughs in an incredibly short span of time and then commercializing its technology to make it cost-competitive with other energy sources. Nevertheless, Helion is unfazed.

This is a binding agreement that has financial penalties if we can’t build a fusion system,” Helion founder and CEO David Kirtley tells The Verge. “We’ve committed to be able to build a system and sell it commercially to Microsoft.” How might a fusion system work? Simply put, nuclear fusion mimics the way stars create their own light and heat. In our sun, hydrogen nuclei fuse together, creating helium and generating a tremendous amount of energy.


Why the Mediterranean Diet Is So Beneficial

People who follow the Mediterranean dietrich in fats from olive oil and nuts—tend to live longer, healthier lives than others who chow down primarily on fast food, meat and dairy. But it hasn’t been clear on a cellular level exactly why the diet is so beneficial. Now researchers led by the Stanford School of Medicine have found one of the first cellular connections between —known as monounsaturated fatty acids—and lifespan in laboratory worms. The finding hints at a complex relationship between diet, fats and longevity.

“Fats are generally thought to be detrimental to health,” said professor of genetics Anne Brunet, Ph.D. “But some studies have shown that specific types of fats, or lipids, can be beneficial.” The researchers learned that one of the fats in the Mediterranean diet, oleic acid, increases the number of two key cellular structures, or organelles, and protects cellular membranes from damage by a chemical reaction called oxidation. This protective effect has a big payoff: Worms fed food rich in oleic acid lived about 35% longer than those consigned to standard worm rations, the researchers found. Surprisingly, one of the organelles, known as lipid droplets, served as a de facto crystal ball, predicting with increasing accuracy the number of days each animal would live.

The number of lipid droplets in individual worms tells me that animal’s remaining lifespan,” said research scientist Katharina Papsdorf, Ph.D. “The worms with greater numbers of lipid droplets live longer than those with fewer droplets.” Brunet, who is the school’s Professor of Genetics, is the senior author of the study, which was published May 1 in Nature Cell Biology. Papsdorf is the lead author of the research. “For years, we’ve been very interested in learning how diet influences lifespan,” Brunet said. “It will be fascinating to see whether we see a similar association between lipid droplets and longevity in mammals and humans. These findings suggest there may be a fat-based strategy to improve human health and longevity.”

Anyone who has struggled to remember the difference between “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol” and how to cultivate one over the other will know that the language of fats can be confusing. In general, most , which are found in plant-based foods like avocados,  and nuts, are considered relatively healthy. Saturated fats and trans fats—those that are solid at room temperature—can increase the risk of heart disease and other health complications. Fats and oils are made up of fatty acids; lipids include fats, oils and cholesterol.


Pancreatic Cancer Vaccine Shows 50% Of Relapses Stopped

Using mRNA tailored to each patient’s tumor, the vaccine may have staved off the return of one of the deadliest forms of cancer in half of those who received it.

Five years ago, a small group of cancer scientists meeting at a restaurant in a deconsecrated church hospital in Mainz, Germany, drew up an audacious plan: They would test their novel cancer vaccine against one of the most virulent forms of the disease, a cancer notorious for roaring back even in patients whose tumors had been removed. The vaccine might not stop those relapses, some of the scientists figured. But patients were desperate. And the speed with which the disease, pancreatic cancer, often recurred could work to the scientists’ advantage: For better or worse, they would find out soon whether the vaccine helped.

On Wednesday, the scientists reported results that defied the long odds. The vaccine provoked an immune response in half of the patients treated, and those people showed no relapse of their cancer during the course of the study, a finding that outside experts described as extremely promising.

The study, published in Nature, was a landmark in the yearslong movement to make cancer vaccines tailored to the tumors of individual patients. Researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center  (MSK) in New York, led by Dr. Vinod Balachandran, extracted patients’ tumors and shipped samples of them to Germany. There, scientists at BioNTech, the company that made a highly successful Covid vaccine with Pfizer, analyzed the genetic makeup of certain proteins on the surface of the cancer cells. Using that genetic data, BioNTech scientists then produced personalized vaccines designed to teach each patient’s immune system to attack the tumors. Like BioNTech’s Covid shots, the cancer vaccines relied on messenger RNA. In this case, the vaccines instructed patients’ cells to make some of the same proteins found on their excised tumors, potentially provoking an immune response that would come in handy against actual cancer cells. A larger, randomized clinical trial is set to open involving patients at multiple sites in various countries. MSK expects to begin enrolling patients in the trial this summer.


100,000-Qubit Quantum Computer Within 10 Years

Late last year, IBM took the record for the largest quantum computing system with a processor that contained 433 quantum bits, or qubits, the fundamental building blocks of quantum information processing. Now, the company has set its sights on a much bigger target: a 100,000-qubit machine that it aims to build within 10 yearsIBM made the announcement on May 22 at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan. The company will partner with the University of Tokyo and the University of Chicago in a $100 million dollar initiative to push quantum computing into the realm of full-scale operation, where the technology could potentially tackle pressing problems that no standard supercomputer can solve.

Or at least it can’t solve them alone. The idea is that the 100,000 qubits will work alongside the bestclassicalsupercomputers to achieve new breakthroughs in drug discovery, fertilizer production, battery performance, and a host of other applications. “I call this quantum-centric supercomputing,” IBM’s VP of quantum, Jay Gambetta, told MIT Technology Review in an in-person interview in London last week.

Quantum computing holds and processes information in a way that exploits the unique properties of fundamental particles: electrons, atoms, and small molecules can exist in multiple energy states at once, a phenomenon known as superposition, and the states of particles can become linked, or entangled, with one another. This means that information can be encoded and manipulated in novel ways, opening the door to a swath of classically impossible computing tasks.
As yet, quantum computers have not achieved anything useful that standard supercomputers cannot do. That is largely because they haven’t had enough qubits and because the systems are easily disrupted by tiny perturbations in their environment that physicists call noiseResearchers have been exploring ways to make do with noisy systems, but many expect that quantum systems will have to scale up significantly to be truly useful, so that they can devote a large fraction of their qubits to correcting the errors induced by noise.

IBM is not the first to aim big. Google has said it is targeting a million qubits by the end of the decade, though error correction means only 10,000 will be available for computations. Maryland-based IonQ is aiming to have 1,024logical qubits,” each of which will be formed from an error-correcting circuit of 13 physical qubits, performing computations by 2028. Palo Alto–based PsiQuantum, like Google, is also aiming to build a million-qubit quantum computer, but it has not revealed its time scale or its error-correction requirements. Because of those requirements, citing the number of physical qubits is something of a red herring—the particulars of how they are built, which affect factors such as their resilience to noise and their ease of operation, are crucially important. The companies involved usually offer additional measures of performance, such as “quantum volume” and the number of “algorithmic qubits.” In the next decade advances in error correction, qubit performance, and software-led error mitigation,” as well as the major distinctions between different types of qubits, will make this race especially tricky to follow.


Here’s What a Lab-grown Burger Tastes Like

Sitting in a booth in a hotel lobby in Brooklyn, I stared down the lineup of sliders, each on a separate bamboo plate. On the far left was a plant-based burger from Impossible Foods. On the right, an old-fashioned beef burger. And in the middle, the star of the show: a burger made with lab-grown meat. I’m not a vegan or even a vegetarian. I drink whole milk in my lattes, and I can’t turn down a hot dog at a summer cookout. But as a climate reporter, I’m keenly aware of the impact that eating meat has on the planet. Animal agriculture makes up nearly 15% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, and beef is a particular offender, with more emissions per gram than basically any other meat.

We started with a plant-based burger from Impossible Foods. Founded in 2011, the company makes meat alternatives from plants. The special ingredient is heme protein, which is cranked out by genetically engineered microbes and sprinkled in for that meaty flavor. I took a small bite of the Impossible burger, and if you ask me, the taste was a pretty good approximation of the real thing, though the texture was a bit looser and softer than beef. (If you’re based in the US, you may have tried this one already yourself. In Europe, heme still hasn’t been approved by regulators, so Impossible’s products don’t include it there.)

Next on the docket was the beef burger. By the way, none of these sliders had any sort of sauces or toppings on them, and Krieger says they were seasoned identically, for a fair comparison. I truly have nothing to say about this one—it was just a plain burger. Even as I was chewing, I had my eyes on the final item on my tasting menu for the day: the lab-grown version. The burger on my plate was actually only about 20% lab-grown material, Krieger explained. The company’s plan is to blend its cells with a base of plant-based meat (she wouldn’t tell me much about this base, just that it’s not Ohayo’s recipe). Plants can help provide the structure for alternative meats, Krieger says. One other major benefit to this blending technique is financial: the lab-grown components are expensive, so mixing in plants can help keep costs down. 

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter.


Artificial Intelligence Detects Early Alzheimer’s In Voice

New technologies that can capture subtle changes in a patient’s voice may help physicians diagnose cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease before symptoms begin to show, according to a UT Southwestern Medical Center researcher who led a study published in the Alzheimer’s Association publication Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring.

Prior to the development of machine learning and NLP, the detailed study of speech patterns in patients was extremely labor intensive and often not successful, because the changes in the early stages [of Alzheimer’s] are frequently undetectable to the human ear,” said lead study author Ihab Hajjar, MD, a professor of neurology at UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, in a news release. “This novel method of testing performed well in detecting those with mild cognitive impairment and more specifically in identifying patients with evidence of Alzheimer’s disease — even when it cannot be easily detected using standard cognitive assessments.”

Dr. Hajjar and his collaborators collected data on 206 people aged 50 and older, 114 who met the criteria for mild cognitive decline and 92 who were cognitively unimpaired. Each person’s cognitive status was determined through standard testing. Study subjects were also recorded as they gave a one- to two-minute description of a colorful circus procession. Using sophisticated computer analysis of these recordings, scientists could determine and evaluate specific types of speech features, including: how fast a person talkspitchvoicing of vowel and consonant sounds, grammatical complexityspeech motor control and idea density.

The research team also examined cerebral spinal fluid samples for amyloid beta protein. One form called amyloid beta peptide 42, for example, is especially toxic, according to the National Institute on Aging, and plays a significant role in Alzheimer’s disease. A total of 40 cognitively unimpaired and 63 impaired individuals were found.


How to Equip Existing Trains With Magnetic Levitation to Travel With Speeds of 550 kph (342 mph)

The Polish company Nevomo  is a European deep-tech company and the developer of the next generation of high-speed rails. As a leading player in the area of innovation in the sustainable and intelligent mobility industry, the company has developed the globally unique MagRail technology, allowing significant improvements in the efficiency of existing rail transportation systems. Nevomo proposes a phased implementation of transportation systems, inspired by the hyperloop concept, by upgrading railway lines. By equipping existing infrastructure with magnetic levitation and linear motor, the company intends to take railway transport to a whole new dimension of travel with speeds of up to 550 kph (342 mph).

Nevomo introduces MagRail technology to existing rail infrastructure, allowing its cost-effective upgrade, thus enabling rail to become the preferred green, fast, efficient, and interoperable mode of transport of the 21st century. MagRail allows gradual improvements to existing networks and is a major technological breakthrough allowing railways to finally significantly increase their market share and reduce CO2 emissions in transport. MagRail provides the possibility to operate electric vehicles in non-electrified areas, such as terminals and ports.

Nevomo has just signed a major deal with The French giant SNCF to transform the large network of the railways operator.


Quantum Biology

Imagine using your cell phone to control the activity of your own cells to treat injuries and diseases. It sounds like something from the imagination of an overly optimistic science fiction writer. But this may one day be a possibility through the emerging field of quantum biology. Over the past few decades, scientists have made incredible progress in understanding and manipulating biological systems at increasingly small scales, from protein folding to genetic engineering. And yet, the extent to which quantum effects influence living systems remains barely understood. Quantum effects are phenomena that occur between atoms and molecules that can’t be explained by classical physics. It has been known for more than a century that the rules of classical mechanics, like Newton’s laws of motion, break down at atomic scales. Instead, tiny objects behave according to a different set of laws known as quantum mechanics.

For humans, who can only perceive the macroscopic world, or what’s visible to the naked eye, quantum mechanics can seem counterintuitive and somewhat magical. Things you might not expect happen in the quantum world, like electronstunneling” through tiny energy barriers and appearing on the other side unscathed or being in two different places at the same time in a phenomenon called superposition.

Research in quantum mechanics is usually geared toward technology. However, and somewhat surprisingly, there is increasing evidence that nature – an engineer with billions of years of practice — has learned how to use quantum mechanics to function optimally. If this is indeed true, it means that our understanding of biology is radically incomplete. It also means that we could possibly control physiological processes by using the quantum properties of biological matter.

Researchers can manipulate quantum phenomena to build better technology. In fact, you already live in a quantum-powered world: from laser pointers to GPS, magnetic resonance imaging, and the transistors in your computer – all these technologies rely on quantum effects.

In general, quantum effects only manifest at very small length and mass scales or when temperatures approach absolute zero. This is because quantum objects like atoms and molecules lose theirquantumness when they uncontrollably interact with each other and their environment. In other words, a macroscopic collection of quantum objects is better described by the laws of classical mechanics. Everything that starts quantum dies classical. For example, an electron can be manipulated to be in two places at the same time, but it will end up in only one place after a short while – exactly what would be expected classically.
In a complicated, noisy biological system, it is thus expected that most quantum effects will rapidly disappear, washed out in what the physicist Erwin Schrödinger called the “warm, wet environment of the cell.” To most physicists, the fact that the living world operates at elevated temperatures and in complex environments implies that biology can be adequately and fully described by classical physics: no funky barrier crossing, no being in multiple locations simultaneously.

Chemists, however, have for a long time begged to differ. Research on basic chemical reactions at room temperature unambiguously shows that processes occurring within biomolecules like proteins and genetic material are the result of quantum effects. Importantly, such nanoscopic, short-lived quantum effects are consistent with driving some macroscopic physiological processes that biologists have measured in living cells and organisms. Research suggests that quantum effects influence biological functions, including regulating enzyme activitysensing magnetic fieldscell metabolism, and electron transport in biomolecules.


Future space food could be made from astronaut breath

The future of space food could be as simple—and weird—as a protein shake made with astronaut breath or a burger made from fungus. For decades, astronauts have relied mostly on pre-packaged food, or the occasional grown lettuce, during their forays off our planet. With missions beyond Earth orbit in sight, a NASA-led competition is hoping to change all that and usher in a new era of sustainable space food.

Currently the pre-packaged food that we use on the International Space Station has a shelf life of a year and a half,” says Ralph Fritsche, senior project manager for space crop production at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We don’t have a food system at this point in time that can really handle a mission to Mars,” he says. Longer-duration missions to the moon would present a similar problem.

And while it may be some time before humans ever reach Mars, the moon is very much on the agenda. Next year, NASA plans to send four astronauts flying around the moon as part of its Artemis program, in the first crewed moon mission since Apollo 17 in 1972. The goal is to get humans back on the surface later this decade, at first for days at a time but eventually for weeks, months, or even longer.

To solve the problem of feeding astronauts on long-duration missions, NASA started the Deep Space Food Challenge in January 2021, asking companies to propose novel ways to develop sustainable foods for future missions. About 200 companies entered—a field that was whittled down to 11 teams in January 2023 as part of phase 2, with eight US teams each given $20,000 in funding and three additional international teams also recognized. A handful of winners to be announced in April 2024 following more detailed tests of their proposals. “Phase 2 was kind of a kitchen-level demonstration,” says Angela Herblet at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the project manager for the challenge. “Phase 3 is going to challenge the teams to scale their technologies.”

Entrants had to show systems that could operate for three years and feed a crew of four on a prospective space mission. The proposals did not need to supply a crew’s entire diet, but they did need to create a variety of nutritious foods for the astronauts. Earlier this year, judges then visited each company to “see the food and really analyze it,” says Herblet.

One company took a particularly unusual approach to the task. Air Company, based in New York and one of the eight US-based finalists, designed a system that could use the carbon dioxide expelled by astronauts in space to produce alcohol, which could then be used to grow edible food. The company already develops alcohols from CO2 for plane fuel and perfume.

It’s making food out of air,” says Stafford Sheehan, cofounder and chief technology officer of Air Company. “It sounds like magic, but when you see it actually operating, it’s much more simple. We’re taking CO2, combining it with water and electricity, and making proteins.”

The process produces alcohol that can then be fed to yeast, producing “something that’s edible,” says Sheehan. For the competition they created essentially a protein shake, described as being similar to one made from seitan, a vegan meat substitute. “It actually tastes pretty good,” says Sheehan. For astronauts in space, the system would ferment continuously to supply food. “Whenever you feel like you want a space protein shake, you make one from this yeast that’s growing,” says Sheehan.

Interstellar Lab in Florida, another of the US-based phase 2 finalists, had a different approach. Its system, called NUCLEUS, is a modular set of small toaster-size capsules. Each is self-contained, with its own humidity, temperature, and watering system. That would allow different vegetables—or even insects such as black soldier flies, often cited as a promising protein source—to be cultivated so that astronauts can easily grow their own food in space.


Electric Air Taxis Ready for Paris Olympics in 2024

Athletes are getting in shape for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024, and so is the world’s first electric air taxi network.

We are going to make it happen,” Solène Le Bris of Paris airports operator Groupe ADP told an industry audience at Amsterdam Drone Week. “We are trying to launch the first e-VTOL [vertical takeoff and landing] pre-commercial service in the world: that’s our ambition.”

In a packed talk, the first outlines were revealed of what has been dubbed the “Tesla of the skies”. Senior civil engineer Le Bris explained that there will be five vertiports where passengers can board the vehicles, the first of which at Cergy-Pontoise opened in November and is functioning as a test centre.

Using the existing helicopter route network, the vehicles – known as VoloCity air taxis – will fly with one passenger and one pilot along two routes, taking short rides from Charles de Gaulle airport to Le Bourget then to a new landing pad at Austerlitz Paris, and another route from Paris to Sans-Cyr. Thierry Allain, head of innovation at the Direction General de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC) regulator, said a safety-first approach using existing networks was key. “For the regulation issues, the challenges we have are not that big,” he said.