China’s ‘Artificial Sun’ Just Broke a Major World Record For Plasma Fusion

Just seven months after it announced a milestone record for plasma fusion, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has absolutely smashed it. Their ‘artificial Sun tokomak reactor has maintained a roiling loop of plasma superheated to 120 million degrees Celsius (216 million degrees Fahrenheit) for a gobsmacking 1,056 seconds, the Institute of Plasma Physics reports. This also beats the previous record for plasma confinement of 390 seconds, set by the Tore Supra tokamak in France in 2003.

This breakthrough by the EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, or HT-7U) reactor is a significant advance for fusion experimentation in the pursuit of fusion energy. Succeeding in the generation of usable amounts of energy via nuclear fusion would change the world, but it’s incredibly challenging to accomplish. It involves replicating the processes that take place in the heart of a star, where high pressure and temperature squeeze atomic nuclei together so tightly that they fuse to form new elements. In the case of main sequence stars, these nuclei are hydrogen, which fuse to form helium. Since one helium nucleus is less massive than the four hydrogen nuclei that fuse to make it, the excess mass is radiated as heat and light. This generates a tremendous amount of energy – enough to power a star – and scientists are striving to harness the same process here on Earth. Obviously, there’s a significant challenge in creating the heat and pressure that we find in the heart of a star, and there are different technologies to address them.
In a tokamak, plasma is superheated, and confined in the shape of a torus, or donut, by powerful magnetic fields. But maintaining that confined, superheated plasma for longer time frames in order to cultivate longer reaction times is another problem, since superheated plasmas are chaotic and turbulent, prone to instabilities, resulting in leakage. EAST previously reported a temperature record of 160 million degrees Celsius (288 million degrees Fahrenheit), sustained for 20 seconds (the Sun’s core, for context, is 15 million degrees Celsius; the extra heat in a tokamak makes up for the lower pressure).
On 30 December 2021 – just squeaking in for its goal of achieving 1,000 seconds in 2021 – EAST broke the time record, too. Make no mistake, fusion still has a very long way to go. At the moment, far more energy goes into a fusion generator than we can get out of it; but lengthening the time of plasma confinement is a really important step forward in making self-sustaining plasma fusion a reality.


Soldiers To Control Machines With Their Minds

The Department of Defense’s research and development wing, DARPA, is working on technology to read and write to the human brain. The focus isn’t on mind control but rather machine control, allowing the human brain to directly send instructions to machines. The goal of the process is to streamline thought control of machines to the point where humans could control them with a simple helmet or head-mounted device, making operating such systems easier.

The brain makes physical events happen by turning thoughts into action, sending instructions through the nervous system to organs, limbs, and other parts of the body. It effortlessly sends out a constant stream of commands to do everything from drive a car to make breakfast. To operate today’s machines, humans being need a middleman of sorts, a physical control system manipulated by hands, fingers, and feet.

What if human beings could cut out the middleman, operating a machine simply by thinking at it? So DARPA is funding the (Next Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology  (N3) initiative. N3’s goal is to create a control system for machines—including weapons—that can directly interact with the human brain. According to IEEE Spectrum, DARPA is experimenting with “magnetic fields, electric fields, acoustic fields (ultrasound) and light” as a means of controlling machines.

The implications of such a technology are huge. Instead of designing complicated controls and control systems for every machine or weapon devised, engineers could instead just create a thought-operated control system. Wearable technology becomes easier to operate as it doesn’t require a separate control system. This could also apply to notifications and data: as IEEE Spectrum points out, network administrators could feel intrusions into computer networks. DAPRA is, of course, an arm of the Pentagon, and a neurotechnological interface would almost certainly find its way into weapons.

DARPA has awarded development contracts to six groups for amounts of up to $19.48 million each. Each group has one year to prove their ability to read and write to brain tissue with an 18-month animal testing period to follow.


Artificial Skin Opens SuperHuman Perception

A new type of sensor could lead to artificial skin that someday helps burn victimsfeel’ and safeguards the rest of us, University of Connecticut (UConn)  researchers suggest in a paper in Advanced Materials.

Our skin’s ability to perceive pressure, heat, cold, and vibration is a critical safety function that most people take for granted. But burn victims, those with prosthetic limbs, and others who have lost skin sensitivity for one reason or another, can’t take it for granted, and often injure themselves unintentionally. Chemists Islam Mosa from UConn, and James Rusling from UConn and UConn Health, along with University of Toronto engineer Abdelsalam Ahmed, wanted to create a sensor that can mimic the sensing properties of skin. Such a sensor would need to be able to detect pressure, temperature, and vibration. But perhaps it could do other things too, the researchers thought.

It would be very cool if it had abilities human skin does not; for example, the ability to detect magnetic fields, sound waves, and abnormal behaviors,” said Mosa.

Mosa and his colleagues created such a sensor with a silicone tube wrapped in a copper wire and filled with a special fluid made of tiny particles of iron oxide just one billionth of a meter long, called nanoparticles. The nanoparticles rub around the inside of the silicone tube and create an electric current. The copper wire surrounding the silicone tube picks up the current as a signal. When this tube is bumped by something experiencing pressure, the nanoparticles move and the electric signal changes. Sound waves also create waves in the nanoparticle fluid, and the electric signal changes in a different way than when the tube is bumped.

The researchers found that magnetic fields alter the signal too, in a way distinct from pressure or sound waves. Even a person moving around while carrying the sensor changes the electrical current, and the team found they could distinguish between the electrical signals caused by walking, running, jumping, and swimming.

Metal skin might sound like a superhero power, but this skin wouldn’t make the wearer Colossus from the X-men. Rather, Mosa and his colleagues hope it could help burn victimsfeelagain, and perhaps act as an early warning for workers exposed to dangerously high magnetic fields. Because the rubber exterior is completely sealed and waterproof, it could also serve as a wearable monitor to alert parents if their child fell into deep water in a pool, for example.