Category Archives: energy

A kintsugi approach to fusion energy: seeing the beauty (strength) in your flaws

Kintsugi is the Japanese word for a type of repair that is also art. “Golden joinery” is the literal meaning of the word, from the Traditional Kyoto. Culture_Kintsugi webpage,

Caption: An example of kintsugi repair by David Pike. (Photo courtesy of David Pike) [downloaded from https://traditionalkyoto.com/culture/kintsugi/]

A March 5, 2024 news item on phys.org links the art of kintsugi to fusion energy, specifically, managing plasma, Note: Links have been removed,

In the Japanese art of Kintsugi, an artist takes the broken shards of a bowl and fuses them back together with gold to make a final product more beautiful than the original.

That idea is inspiring a new approach to managing plasma, the super-hot state of matter, for use as a power source. Scientists are using the imperfections in magnetic fields that confine a reaction to improve and enhance the plasma in an approach outlined in a paper in the journal Nature Communications.

A March 5, 2024 Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail, Note: Links have been removed,

“This approach allows you to maintain a high-performance plasma, controlling instabilities in the core and the edge of the plasma simultaneously. That simultaneous control is particularly important and difficult to do. That’s what makes this work special,” said Joseph Snipes of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). He is PPPL’s deputy head of the Tokamak Experimental Science Department and was a co-author of the paper.

PPPL Physicist Seong-Moo Yang led the research team, which spans various institutions in the U.S. and South Korea. Yang says this is the first time any research team has validated a systematic approach to tailoring magnetic field imperfections to make the plasma suitable for use as a power source. These magnetic field imperfections are known as error fields. 

“Our novel method identifies optimal error field corrections, enhancing plasma stability,” Yang said. “This method was proven to enhance plasma stability under different plasma conditions, for example, when the plasma was under conditions of high and low magnetic confinement.”

Errors that are hard to correct

Error fields are typically caused by minuscule defects in the magnetic coils of the device that holds the plasma, which is called a tokamak. Until now, error fields were only seen as a nuisance because even a very small error field could cause a plasma disruption that halts fusion reactions and can damage the walls of a fusion vessel. Consequently, fusion researchers have spent considerable time and effort meticulously finding ways to correct error fields.

“It’s quite difficult to eliminate existing error fields, so instead of fixing these coil irregularities, we can apply additional magnetic fields surrounding the fusion vessel in a process known as error field correction,” Yang said. 

In the past, this approach would have also hurt the plasma’s core, making the plasma unsuitable for fusion power generation. This time, the researchers were able to eliminate instabilities at the edge of the plasma and maintain the stability of the core. The research is a prime example of how PPPL researchers are bridging the gap between today’s fusion technology and what will be needed to bring fusion power to the electrical grid. 

“This is actually a very effective way of breaking the symmetry of the system, so humans can intentionally degrade the confinement. It’s like making a very tiny hole in a balloon so that it will not explode,” said SangKyeun Kim, a staff research scientist at PPPL and paper co-author. Just as air would leak out of a small hole in a balloon, a tiny quantity of plasma leaks out of the error field, which helps to maintain its overall stability.

Managing the core and the edge of the plasma simultaneously

One of the toughest parts of managing a fusion reaction is getting both the core and the edge of the plasma to behave at the same time. There are ideal zones for the temperature and density of the plasma in both regions, and hitting those targets while eliminating instabilities is tough.

This study demonstrates that adjusting the error fields can simultaneously stabilize both the core and the edge of the plasma. By carefully controlling the magnetic fields produced by the tokamak’s coils, the researchers could suppress edge instabilities, also known as edge localized modes (ELMs), without causing disruptions or a substantial loss of confinement.

“We are trying to protect the device,” said PPPL Staff Research Physicist Qiming Hu, an author of the paper. 

Extending the research beyond KSTAR

The research was conducted using the KSTAR tokamak in South Korea, which stands out for its ability to adjust its magnetic error field configuration with great flexibility. This capability is crucial for experimenting with different error field configurations to find the most effective ones for stabilizing the plasma.

The researchers say their approach has significant implications for the design of future tokamak fusion pilot plants, potentially making them more efficient and reliable. They are currently working on an artificial intelligence (AI) version of their control system to make it more efficient.

“These models are fairly complex; they take a bit of time to calculate. But when you want to do something in a real-time control system, you can only afford a few milliseconds to do a calculation,” said Snipes. “Using AI, you can basically teach the system what to expect and be able to use that artificial intelligence to predict ahead of time what will be necessary to control the plasma and how to implement it in real-time.”

While their new paper highlights work done using KSTAR’s internal magnetic coils, Hu suggests future research with magnetic coils outside of the fusion vessel would be valuable because the fusion community is moving away from the idea of housing such coils inside the vacuum-sealed vessel due to the potential destruction of such components from the extreme heat of the plasma.

Researchers from the Korea Institute of Fusion Energy (KFE), Columbia University, and Seoul National University were also integral to the project.

The research was supported by: the U.S. Department of Energy under contract number DE-AC02-09CH11466; the Ministry of Science and ICT under the KFE R&D Program “KSTAR Experimental Collaboration and Fusion Plasma Research (KFE-EN2401-15)”; the National Research Foundation (NRF) grant No. RS-2023-00281272 funded through the Korean Ministry of Science, Information and Communication Technology and the New Faculty Startup Fund from Seoul National University; the NRF under grants No. 2019R1F1A1057545 and No. 2022R1F1A1073863; the National R&D Program through the NRF funded by the Ministry of Science & ICT (NRF-2019R1A2C1010757).

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Tailoring tokamak error fields to control plasma instabilities and transport by SeongMoo Yang, Jong-Kyu Park, YoungMu Jeon, Nikolas C. Logan, Jaehyun Lee, Qiming Hu, JongHa Lee, SangKyeun Kim, Jaewook Kim, Hyungho Lee, Yong-Su Na, Taik Soo Hahm, Gyungjin Choi, Joseph A. Snipes, Gunyoung Park & Won-Ha Ko. Nature Communications volume 15, Article number: 1275 (2024) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-024-45454-1 Published: 10 February 2024

This paper is open access.

Proof-of-concept for implantable batteries that run on body’s own oxygen

Bioenergy harvesting may be here. Well maybe not yet but we are one step closer according to a March 27, 2024 news item on ScienceDaily,

From pacemakers to neurostimulators, implantable medical devices rely on batteries to keep the heart on beat and dampen pain. But batteries eventually run low and require invasive surgeries to replace. To address these challenges, researchers have devised an implantable battery that runs on oxygen in the body. The study shows in rats that the proof-of-concept design can deliver stable power and is compatible with the biological system.

This is a dynamic image illustrating the device in action,

Caption: Implantable and bio-compatible Na-O2 battery. Credit: Chem/Lv et al.

A March 27, 2024 Cell Press news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the -proof-of-concept device,

“When you think about it, oxygen is the source of our life,” says corresponding author Xizheng Liu, who specializes in energy materials and devices at Tianjin University of Technology. “If we can leverage the continuous supply of oxygen in the body, battery life won’t be limited by the finite materials within conventional batteries.”

To build a safe and efficient battery, the researchers made its electrodes out of a sodium-based alloy and nanoporous gold, a material with pores thousands of times smaller than a hair’s width. Gold has been known for its compatibility with living systems, and sodium is an essential and ubiquitous element in the human body. The electrodes undergo chemical reactions with oxygen in the body to produce electricity. To protect the battery, the researchers encased it within a porous polymer film that is soft and flexible.

The researchers then implanted the battery under the skin on the backs of rats and measured its electricity output. Two weeks later, they found that the battery can produce stable voltages between 1.3 V and 1.4 V, with a maximum power density of 2.6 µW/cm2. Although the output is insufficient to power medical devices, the design shows that harnessing oxygen in the body for energy is possible.

The team also evaluated inflammatory reactions, metabolic changes, and tissue regeneration around the battery. The rats showed no apparent inflammation. Byproducts from the battery’s chemical reactions, including sodium ions, hydroxide ions, and low levels of hydrogen peroxide, were easily metabolized by the body and did not affect the kidneys and liver. The rats healed well after implantation, with the hair on their back completely regrown after four weeks. To the researchers’ surprise, blood vessels also regenerated around the battery.

“We were puzzled by the unstable electricity output right after implantation,” says Liu. “It turned out we had to give the wound time to heal, for blood vessels to regenerate around the battery and supply oxygen, before the battery could provide stable electricity. This is a surprising and interesting finding because it means that the battery can help monitor wound healing.”

Next, the team plans to up the battery’s energy delivery by exploring more efficient materials for the electrodes and optimizing the battery structure and design. Liu also noted that the battery is easy to scale up in production and choosing cost-effective materials can further lower the price. The team’s battery may also find other purposes beyond powering medical devices.

“Because tumor cells are sensitive to oxygen levels, implanting this oxygen-consuming battery around it may help starve cancers. It’s also possible to convert the battery energy to heat to kill cancer cells,” says Liu. “From a new energy source to potential biotherapies, the prospects for this battery are exciting.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Implantable and bio-compatible Na-O2 battery by Yang Lv, Xizheng Liu, Jiucong Liu, Pingli Wu, Yonggang Wang, Yi Ding. Chem DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2024.02.012 In press, corrected proof Published online: March 27, 2024 Copyright © 2024 Elsevier Inc.

The paper appears to be open access.

Apply for 2024 summer school at Canada’s Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Nanotechnology (deadline: April 28, 2024)

This call is for Canadian undergraduate students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), from the University of Waterloo’s 2024 WIN Summer School on Sustainable Nanotechnology webpage,

WIN is pleased to host a Summer School on Sustainable Nanotechnology at UWaterloo on June 19 – 21, 2024.

This Summer School is open to Undergraduate Students in STEM across Canada .

The WIN Summer School will offer lab and facilities tours in the QNC, and in-class lectures by WIN members, senior PhD students and post-doctoral fellows.

Open to undergraduate students across Canada in STEM!

Topic areas:

* Smart & Functional Materials
* Connected Devices
* Next Generation Energy Systems
* Therapeutics & Theranostics

The WIN Summer School curriculum will be aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

To learn more about last year’s summer school: https://uwaterloo.ca/institute-nanotechnology/news/wins-inaugural-summer-school-attracted-outstanding-students

Summer School Details

DatesJune 19 – 21, 2024
Application Due DateApril 28, 2024
LocationMike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre (QNC) University of Waterloo
200 University Avenue West,
Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1
Notification of AcceptanceApril 2024
Application requirementsCanadian Ungeraduate Student in STEM Completed their first year of undergraduate studies
Application DetailsPlease fill out the Application form and include:  CV 1-page Research Statement Broad research interest in nanoscience and nanotechnology Alignment of your research interest with UN Sustainable Development Goals Your career goals to accomplish your research interests
Other DetailsSuccessful candidates will be provided: On-campus housing free of cost All meals  An honorarium of $500 to cover full/partial travel costs

Apply Now!

Check out the University of Waterloo’s 2024 WIN Summer School on Sustainable Nanotechnology webpage for a detailed daily agenda and more.

Finally, good luck!

Transformative potential of Martian nanomaterials

Yes, nanomaterials from Mars! A December 21, 2023 news item on Nanowerk makes the proposition, Note: A link has been removed,

Researchers at the University of Sussex have discovered the transformative potential of Martian nanomaterials, potentially opening the door to sustainable habitation on the red planet. They published their findings in (“Quasi–1D Anhydrite Nanobelts from the Sustainable Liquid Exfoliation of Terrestrial Gypsum for Future Martian-Based Electronics”).

Using resources and techniques currently applied on the International Space Station [ISS] and by NASA [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration], Dr Conor Boland, a Lecturer in Materials Physics at the University of Sussex, led a research group that investigated the potential of nanomaterials – incredibly tiny components thousands of times smaller than a human hair – for clean energy production and building materials on Mars.

Taking what was considered a waste product by NASA and applying only sustainable production methods, including water-based chemistry and low-energy processes, the researchers have successfully identified electrical properties within gypsum nanomaterials – opening the door to potential clean energy and sustainable technology production on Mars.

A December 21, 2023 University of Sussex press release (also on EurekAlert) by Stephanie Allen, which originated the news item, features the lead researcher’s hopes for the discovery, Note: A link has been removed,

Dr Conor Boland, said: 

“This study shows that the potential is quite literally out of this world for nanomaterials. Our study builds off recent research performed by NASA and takes what was considered waste, essentially lumps of rock, and turns it into transformative nanomaterials for a range of applications from creating clean hydrogen fuel to developing an electronic device similar to a transistor, to creating an additive to textiles to increase their robustness.

“This opens avenues for sustainable technology – and building – on Mars but also highlights the broader potential for eco-friendly breakthroughs here on Earth.”

To make the breakthrough the researchers used NASA’s innovative method for extracting water from Martian gypsum, which is dehydrated by the agency to get water for human consumption. This produces a byproduct called anhydrite—considered waste material by NASA, but now shown to be hugely valuable.

The Sussex researchers processed anhydrite into nanobelts –  essentially tagliatelle-shaped materials – demonstrating their potential to provide clean energy and sustainable electronics. Furthermore, at every step of their process, water could be continuously collected and recycled.

Dr Boland added: 

“We are optimistic of the feasibility of this process on Mars, as it requires only naturally occurring materials – everything we used could, in theory, be replicated on the red planet. Arguably this is the most important goal in making the Martian colony sustainable from the outset.”

While full-scale electronics production may be impractical on Mars due to the lack of clean rooms and sterile conditions, the anhydrite nanobelts hold promise for clean energy production on Earth, and could, later down the line, still have a profound effect on sustainable energy production on Mars.

Here’s what a Martian nanomaterial looks like,

Caption: Two raw rocks used by the researchers (left). Vials show the nanobelts in water, with a close up of the actual nanobelts (right). Credit: University of Sussex

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Quasi–1D Anhydrite Nanobelts from the Sustainable Liquid Exfoliation of Terrestrial Gypsum for Future Martian-Based Electronics by Cencen Wei, Abhijit Roy, Adel K. A. Aljarid, Yi Hu, S. Mark Roe, Dimitrios G. Papageorgiou, Raul Arenal, Conor S. Boland. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202310600 First published: 14 December 2023

This paper is open access.

March 6, 2024 Simon Fraser University (SFU) event “The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future” in Vancouver, Canada

*Unsurprisingly, this event has been cancelled. More details at the end of this posting.* This is not a free event; they’ve changed the information about fees/no fees and how the fees are being assessed enough times for me to lose track; check the eventbrite registration page for the latest. Also, there will not be a publicly available recording of the event. (For folks who can’t afford the fees, there’s a contact listed later in this posting.)

First, here’s the “The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future” event information (from a January 10, 2024 Simon Fraser University (SFU) Public Square notice received via email),

The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future

Wednesday, March 6 [2024] | 7:00pm | In-person | Free [Note: This was an error.]

Generative AI has dominated headlines in 2023, but these new technologies rely on a dramatic increase in the extraction of data, human labor, and natural resources. With increasing media manipulation, polarizing discourse, and deep fakes, regulators are struggling to manage new AI.

On March 6th [2024], join renowned author and digital scholar Kate Crawford, as she sits in conversation with SFU’s Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. Together, they will discuss the planetary politics of AI, how we got here, and where it might be going.

A January 11, 2024 SFU Public Square notice (received via email) updates the information about how this isn’t a free event and offers an option for folks who can’t afford the price of a ticket, Note Links have been removed,

The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future

Wednesday, March 6 | 7:00pm | In-person | Paid

Good morning,

We’ve been made aware that yesterday’s newsletter had a mistake, and we thank those who brought it to our attention. The March 6th [2024] event, The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future, is not a free event and has an admission fee for attendance. We apologize for the confusion.

Whenever possible, SFU Public Square’s events are free and open to all, to ensure that the event is as accessible as possible. For this event, there is a paid admission, with a General and Student/Senior Admission option. That being said, if the admission fees are a barrier to access, please email us at psqevent@sfu.ca. Exceptions can be made. [emphasis mine]

Thank you for your understanding!

“The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future” registration webpage on eventbrite offers more information about the speakers and logistics,

Date and time

Starts on Wed, Mar 6, 2024 7:00 PM PST

Location

Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema (SFU Vancouver — Woodward’s Building) 149 W Hastings Street Vancouver, BC V6B 1H7

[See registration page for link to map]

Refund Policy

Refunds up to 7 days before event

About the speakers

Kate Crawfordis a leading international scholar of the social implications of artificial intelligence. She is a Research Professor at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles, a Senior Principal Researcher at MSR in New York, an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, and the inaugural Visiting Chair for AI and Justice at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Her latest book, Atlas of AI (Yale, 2021), won the Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology, the ASSI&T Best Information Science Book Award, and was named one of the best books in 2021 by New Scientist and the Financial Times.

Over her twenty-year research career, she has also produced groundbreaking creative collaborations and visual investigations. Her project Anatomy of an AI System with Vladan Joler is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the V&A in London, and was awarded with the Design of the Year Award in 2019 and included in the Design of the Decades by the Design Museum of London. Her collaboration with the artist Trevor Paglen, Excavating AI, won the Ayrton Prize from the British Society for the History of Science. She has advised policy makers in the United Nations, the White House, and the European Parliament, and she currently leads the Knowing Machines Project, an international research collaboration that investigates the foundations of machine learning. And in 2023, Kate Crawford was named on of the TIME100 list as one of the most influential people in AI.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is Simon Fraser University’s Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media, Professor in the School of Communication, and Director of the Digital Democracies Institute. At the Institute, she leads the Mellon-funded Data Fluencies Project, which combines the interpretative traditions of the arts and humanities with critical work in the data sciences to express, imagine, and create innovative engagements with (and resistances to) our data-filled world.

She has studied both Systems Design Engineering and English Literature, which she combines and mutates in her research on digital media. She is author many books, including: Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (MIT, 2006), Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (MIT 2011), Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (MIT 2016), and Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition (2021, MIT Press). She has been Professor and Chair of the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where she worked for almost two decades and is currently a Visiting Professor. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and has also held fellowships from: the Guggenheim, ACLS, American Academy of Berlin, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

I’m wondering if the speakers will be discussing how visual and other arts impact their views on AI and vice versa. Both academics have an interest in the arts as you can see in Crawford’s event bio. As for Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, in my April 23, 2021 posting where if you scroll down to her name, (about 30% of the way down), you’ll see she was involved with “Multimedia & Electronic Music Experiments (MEME),” History of Art and Architecture,” and “Theatre Arts and Performance Studies” at Brown University.

A February 12, 2024 SFU Public Square announcement (received via email), which includes a link to this Speaker’s Spotlight webpage (scroll down), suggests my speculation is incorrect,

For over two decades, Kate Crawford’s work has focused on understanding large scale data systems, machine learning and AI in the wider contexts of history, politics, labor, and the environment.

Her latest book,  Atlas of AI (2021) explores artificial intelligence as the extractive industry of the 21st century, relying on vast amounts of data, human labour, and natural resources. …

One more biographical note about Crawford, she was mentioned here in an April 17, 2015 posting, scroll down to the National Film Board of Canada subhead, then down to Episode 5 ‘Big Data and its Algorithms’ of the Do Not Track documentary; she is one of the interviewees. I’m not sure if that documentary is still accessible online.

Back to the event, to get more details and/or buy a ticket, go to: “The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future” registration webpage.

Or, SFU is hosting its free 2023 Nobel Prize-themed lecture at Science World on March 6, 2024 (see my January 16, 2024 posting and scroll down about 30% of the way for more details).

*March 4, 2024: I found a cancellation notice on the SFU’s The Planetary Politics of AI: Past, Present, and Future event page,,

Unfortunately, this event has been cancelled due to extenuating circumstances. If you have questions or concerns, please email us at psqevent@sfu.ca. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and we thank you for your understanding.

My guess? They didn’t sell enough tickets. My assessment? Poor organization (e.g., the confusion over pricing), and poor marketing (e.g., no compelling reason to buy a ticket, (e.g.,, neither participant is currently a celebrity or a hot property, the presentation was nothing unique or special, it was just a talk; the title was mildly interesting but not exciting or provocative, etc.).

Japan inaugurates world’s biggest experimental operating nuclear fusion reactor

Andrew Paul’s December 4, 2023 article for Popular Science attempts to give readers a sense of the scale and this is one of those times when words are better than pictures, Note: Links have been removed,

Japan and the European Union have officially inaugurated testing at the world’s largest experimental nuclear fusion plant. Located roughly 85 miles north of Tokyo, the six-story, JT-60SA “tokamak” facility heats plasma to 200 million degrees Celsius (around 360 million Fahrenheit) within its circular, magnetically insulated reactor. Although JT-60SA first powered up during a test run back in October [2023], the partner governments’ December 1 announcement marks the official start of operations at the world’s biggest fusion center, reaffirming a “long-standing cooperation in the field of fusion energy.”

The tokamak—an acronym of the Russian-language designation of “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils”—has led researchers’ push towards achieving the “Holy Grail” of sustainable green energy production for decades. …

Speaking at the inauguration event, EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson referred to the JT-60SA as “the most advanced tokamak in the world,” representing “a milestone for fusion history.”

But even if such a revolutionary milestone is crossed, it likely won’t be at JT-60SA. Along with its still-in-construction sibling, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Europe, the projects are intended solely to demonstrate scalable fusion’s feasibility. Current hopes estimate ITER’s operational start for sometime in 2025, although the undertaking has been fraught with financial, logistical, and construction issues since its groundbreaking back in 2011.

See what I mean about a picture not really conveying the scale,

Until ITER turns on, Japan’s JT-60SA fusion reactor will be the largest in the world.National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology

Dennis Normile’s October 31, 2023 article for Science magazine describes the facility’s (Japan’s JT-60SA fusion reactor) test run and future implications for the EU’s ITER project,

The long trek toward practical fusion energy passed a milestone last week when the world’s newest and largest fusion reactor fired up. Japan’s JT-60SA uses magnetic fields from superconducting coils to contain a blazingly hot cloud of ionized gas, or plasma, within a doughnut-shaped vacuum vessel, in hope of coaxing hydrogen nuclei to fuse and release energy. The four-story-high machine is designed to hold a plasma heated to 200 million degrees Celsius for about 100 seconds, far longer than previous large tokamaks.

Last week’s achievement “proves to the world that the machine fulfills its basic function,” says Sam Davis, a project manager at Fusion for Energy, an EU organization working with Japan’s National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology (QST) on JT-60SA and related programs. It will take another 2 years before JT-60SA produces the long-lasting plasmas needed for meaningful physics experiments, says Hiroshi Shirai, leader of the project for QST.

JT-60SA will also help ITER, the mammoth international fusion reactor under construction in France that’s intended to demonstrate how fusion can generate more energy than goes into producing it. ITER will rely on technologies and operating know-how that JT-60SA will test.

Japan got to host JT-60SA and two other small fusion research facilities as a consolation prize for agreeing to let ITER go to France. …

As Normile notes, the ITER project has had a long and rocky road so far.

The Canadians

As it turns out, there’s a company in British Columbia, Canada that is also on the road to fusion energy. Not so imaginatively, it’s called General Fusion but it has a different approach to developing this ‘clean energy’. (See my October 28, 2022 posting, “Overview of fusion energy scene,” which includes information about the international scene and some of the approaches, including General Fusion’s, to developing the technology and my October 11, 2023 posting offers an update to the General Fusion situation.) Since my October 2023 posting, there have been a few developments at General Fusion.

This December 4, 2023 General Fusion news release celebrates a new infusion of cash from the Canadian government and take special note of the first item in the ‘Quick Facts’ of the advantage this technology offers,

Today [December 4, 2023], General Fusion announced that Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) has awarded CA$5 million to support research and development to advance the company’s Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) demonstration at its Richmond headquarters. Called LM26, this ground-breaking machine will progress major technical milestones required to commercialize zero-carbon fusion power by the early to mid-2030s. The funds are an addition to the existing contribution agreement with SIF, to support the development of General Fusion’s transformational technology.

Fusion energy is the ultimate clean energy solution. It is what powers the sun and stars. It’s the process by which two light nuclei merge to form a heavier one, emitting a massive amount of energy. By 2100, the production and export of the Canadian industry’s fusion energy technology could provide up to $1.26 trillion in economic benefits to Canada. Additionally, fusion could completely offset 600 MT CO2-e emissions, the equivalent of over 160 coal-fired power plants for a single year. When commercialized, a single General Fusion power plant will be designed to provide zero-carbon power to approximately 150,000 Canadian homes, with the ability to be placed close to energy demand at a cost competitive with other energy sources such as coal and natural gas.1

Quotes:

“For more than 20 years, General Fusion has advanced its uniquely practical Magnetized Target Fusion technology and IP at its Canadian headquarters. LM26 will significantly de-risk our commercialization program and puts us on track to bring our game-changing, zero-emissions energy solution to Canada, and the world, in the next decade,” said Greg Twinney, CEO, General Fusion.

“Fusion technology has the potential to completely revolutionize the energy sector by giving us access to an affordable unlimited renewable power source. Since General Fusion is at the forefront of this technology, our decision to keep supporting the company will give us the tools we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach our climate goals. Our government is proud to invest in this innovative project to drive the creation of hundreds of middle-class jobs and position Canada as a world leader in fusion energy technology,” said The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry.

“British Columbia has a thriving innovation economy. In August, the B.C. Government announced CA$5 million in provincial support for General Fusion’s homegrown technology, and we’re pleased to see the Federal government has now provided funds to support General Fusion. These investments will help General Fusion as they continue to develop their core technology right here in B.C.,” said Brenda Bailey, B.C. Minister of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation.

Quick Facts:

*Magnetized Target Fusion uniquely sidesteps challenges to commercialization that other technologies face. The game-changer is a proprietary liquid metal liner in the commercial fusion machine that is mechanically compressed by high-powered pistons. This enables fusion conditions to be created in short pulses rather than creating a sustained reaction. General Fusion’s design does not require large superconducting magnets or an expensive array of lasers.

*LM26 aims to achieve two of the most significant technical milestones required to commercialize fusion energy, targeting fusion conditions of over 100 million degrees Celsius by 2025, and progressing toward scientific breakeven equivalent by 2026.

*LM26’s plasmas will be approximately 50 per cent scale of a commercial fusion machine. It aims to achieve deuterium-tritium breakeven equivalent using deuterium fuel.

*The Canadian government is investing an additional CA$5 million for a total of CA$54.3 million to support the development of General Fusion’s energy technology through the Strategic Innovation Fund program.

*As a result of the government’s ongoing support, General Fusion has advanced its technology, building more than 24 plasma prototypes, filing over 170 patents, and conducting more than 200,000 experiments at its Canadian labs.

This January 11, 2024 General Fusion news release highlights some of the company’s latest research,

General Fusion has published new, peer-reviewed scientific results that validate the company has achieved the smooth, rapid, and symmetric compression of a liquid cavity that is key to the design of a commercial Magnetized Target Fusion power plant. The results, published in one of the foremost scientific journals in fusion, Fusion Engineering and Design [open access paper], validate the performance of General Fusion’s proprietary liquid compression technology for Magnetized Target Fusion and are scalable to a commercial machine.

General Fusion’s Magnetized Target Fusion technology uses mechanical compression of a plasma to achieve fusion conditions. High-speed drivers rapidly power a precisely shaped, symmetrical collapse of a liquid metal cavity that envelopes the plasma. In three years, General Fusion commissioned a prototype of its liquid compression system and completed over 1,000 shots, validating the compression technology. In addition, this scale model of General Fusion’s commercial compression system verified the company’s open-source computational fluid dynamics simulation. The paper confirms General Fusion’s concept for the compression system of a commercial machine.

“General Fusion has proven success scaling individual technologies, creating the pathway to integrate, deploy, and commercialize practical fusion energy,” said Greg Twinney, CEO, General Fusion. “The publication of these results demonstrates General Fusion has the science and engineering capabilities to progress the design of our proprietary liquid compression system to commercialization.”

General Fusion’s approach to compressing plasma to create fusion energy is unique. Its Magnetized Target Fusion technology is designed to address the barriers to commercialization that other fusion technologies still face. The game-changer is the proprietary liquid metal liner in the fusion vessel that is mechanically compressed by high-powered pistons. This allows General Fusion to create fusion conditions in short pulses, rather than creating a sustained reaction, while protecting the machine’s vessel, extracting heat, and re-breeding fuel.

Today [January 11, 2024] at its Canadian labs, General Fusion is building a ground-breaking Magnetized Target Fusion demonstration called Lawson Machine 26 (LM26). Designed to reach fusion conditions of over 100 million degrees Celsius by 2025 and progress towards scientific breakeven equivalent by 2026, LM26 fast-tracks General Fusion’s technical progress to provide commercial fusion energy to the grid by the early to mid-2030s.

Exciting times for us all and I wish good luck to all of the clean energy efforts wherever they are being pursued.

FrogHeart’s 2023 comes to an end as 2024 comes into view

My personal theme for this last year (2023) and for the coming year was and is: catching up. On the plus side, my 2023 backlog (roughly six months) to be published was whittled down considerably. On the minus side, I start 2024 with a backlog of two to three months.

2023 on this blog had a lot in common with 2022 (see my December 31, 2022 posting), which may be due to what’s going on in the world of emerging science and technology or to my personal interests or possibly a bit of both. On to 2023 and a further blurring of boundaries:

Energy, computing and the environment

The argument against paper is that it uses up resources, it’s polluting, it’s affecting the environment, etc. Somehow the part where electricity which underpins so much of our ‘smart’ society does the same thing is left out of the discussion.

Neuromorphic (brainlike) computing and lower energy

Before launching into the stories about lowering energy usage, here’s an October 16, 2023 posting “The cost of building ChatGPT” that gives you some idea of the consequences of our insatiable desire for more computing and more ‘smart’ devices,

In its latest environmental report, Microsoft disclosed that its global water consumption spiked 34% from 2021 to 2022 (to nearly 1.7 billion gallons , or more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools), a sharp increase compared to previous years that outside researchers tie to its AI research. [emphases mine]

“It’s fair to say the majority of the growth is due to AI,” including “its heavy investment in generative AI and partnership with OpenAI,” said Shaolei Ren, [emphasis mine] a researcher at the University of California, Riverside who has been trying to calculate the environmental impact of generative AI products such as ChatGPT.

Why it matters: Microsoft’s five WDM [West Des Moines in Iowa] data centers — the “epicenter for advancing AI” — represent more than $5 billion in investments in the last 15 years.

Yes, but: They consumed as much as 11.5 million gallons of water a month for cooling, or about 6% of WDM’s total usage during peak summer usage during the last two years, according to information from West Des Moines Water Works.

The focus is AI but it doesn’t take long to realize that all computing has energy and environmental costs. I have more about Ren’s work and about water shortages in the “The cost of building ChatGPT” posting.

This next posting would usually be included with my other art/sci postings but it touches on the issues. My October 13, 2023 posting about Toronto’s Art/Sci Salon events, in particular, there’s the Streaming Carbon Footprint event (just scroll down to the appropriate subhead). For the interested, I also found this 2022 paper “The Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media:; Problems, Calculations, Solutions” co-authored by one of the artist/researchers (Laura U. Marks, philosopher and scholar of new media and film at Simon Fraser University) who presented at the Toronto event.

I’m late to the party; Thomas Daigle posted a January 2, 2020 article about energy use and our appetite for computing and ‘smart’ devices for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s online news,

For those of us binge-watching TV shows, installing new smartphone apps or sharing family photos on social media over the holidays, it may seem like an abstract predicament.

The gigabytes of data we’re using — although invisible — come at a significant cost to the environment. Some experts say it rivals that of the airline industry. 

And as more smart devices rely on data to operate (think internet-connected refrigerators or self-driving cars), their electricity demands are set to skyrocket.

“We are using an immense amount of energy to drive this data revolution,” said Jane Kearns, an environment and technology expert at MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub in Toronto.

“It has real implications for our climate.”

Some good news

Researchers are working on ways to lower the energy and environmental costs, here’s a sampling of 2023 posts with an emphasis on brainlike computing that attest to it,

If there’s an industry that can make neuromorphic computing and energy savings sexy, it’s the automotive indusry,

On the energy front,

Most people are familiar with nuclear fission and some its attendant issues. There is an alternative nuclear energy, fusion, which is considered ‘green’ or greener anyway. General Fusion is a local (Vancouver area) company focused on developing fusion energy, alongside competitors from all over the planet.

Part of what makes fusion energy attractive is that salt water or sea water can be used in its production and, according to that December posting, there are other applications for salt water power,

More encouraging developments in environmental science

Again, this is a selection. You’ll find a number of nano cellulose research projects and a couple of seaweed projects (seaweed research seems to be of increasing interest).

All by myself (neuromorphic engineering)

Neuromorphic computing is a subset of neuromorphic engineering and I stumbled across an article that outlines the similarities and differences. My ‘summary’ of the main points and a link to the original article can be found here,

Oops! I did it again. More AI panic

I included an overview of the various ‘recent’ panics (in my May 25, 2023 posting below) along with a few other posts about concerning developments but it’s not all doom and gloom..

Governments have realized that regulation might be a good idea. The European Union has a n AI act, the UK held an AI Safety Summit in November 2023, the US has been discussing AI regulation with its various hearings, and there’s impending legislation in Canada (see professor and lawyer Michael Geist’s blog for more).

A long time coming, a nanomedicine comeuppance

Paolo Macchiarini is now infamous for his untested, dangerous approach to medicine. Like a lot of people, I was fooled too as you can see in my August 2, 2011 posting, “Body parts nano style,”

In early July 2011, there were reports of a new kind of transplant involving a body part made of a biocomposite. Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene underwent a trachea transplant that required an artificial windpipe crafted by UK experts then flown to Sweden where Beyene’s stem cells were used to coat the windpipe before being transplanted into his body.

It is an extraordinary story not least because Beyene, a patient in a Swedish hospital planning to return to Eritrea after his PhD studies in Iceland, illustrates the international cooperation that made the transplant possible.

The scaffolding material for the artificial windpipe was developed by Professor Alex Seifalian at the University College London in a landmark piece of nanotechnology-enabled tissue engineering. …

Five years later I stumbled across problems with Macchiarini’s work as outlined in my April 19, 2016 posting, “Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants (part 1 of 2)” and my other April 19, 2016 posting, “Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants (part 2 of 2)“.

This year, Gretchen Vogel (whose work was featured in my 2016 posts) has written a June 21, 2023 update about the Macchiarini affair for Science magazine, Note: Links have been removed,

Surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who was once hailed as a pioneer of stem cell medicine, was found guilty of gross assault against three of his patients today and sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison by an appeals court in Stockholm. The ruling comes a year after a Swedish district court found Macchiarini guilty of bodily harm in two of the cases and gave him a suspended sentence. After both the prosecution and Macchiarini appealed that ruling, the Svea Court of Appeal heard the case in April and May. Today’s ruling from the five-judge panel is largely a win for the prosecution—it had asked for a 5-year sentence whereas Macchiarini’s lawyer urged the appeals court to acquit him of all charges.

Macchiarini performed experimental surgeries on the three patients in 2011 and 2012 while working at the renowned Karolinska Institute. He implanted synthetic windpipes seeded with stem cells from the patients’ own bone marrow, with the hope the cells would multiply over time and provide an enduring replacement. All three patients died when the implants failed. One patient died suddenly when the implant caused massive bleeding just 4 months after it was implanted; the two others survived for 2.5 and nearly 5 years, respectively, but suffered painful and debilitating complications before their deaths.

In the ruling released today, the appeals judges disagreed with the district court’s decision that the first two patients were treated under “emergency” conditions. Both patients could have survived for a significant length of time without the surgeries, they said. The third case was an “emergency,” the court ruled, but the treatment was still indefensible because by then Macchiarini was well aware of the problems with the technique. (One patient had already died and the other had suffered severe complications.)

A fictionalized tv series ( part of the Dr. Death anthology series) based on Macchiarini’s deceptions and a Dr. Death documentary are being broadcast/streamed in the US during January 2024. These come on the heels of a November 2023 Macchiarini documentary also broadcast/streamed on US television.

Dr. Death (anthology), based on the previews I’ve seen, is heavily US-centric, which is to be expected since Adam Ciralsky is involved in the production. Ciralsky wrote an exposé about Macchiarini for Vanity Fair published in 2016 (also featured in my 2016 postings). From a December 20, 2023 article by Julie Miller for Vanity Fair, Note: A link has been removed,

Seven years ago [2016], world-renowned surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was the subject of an ongoing Vanity Fair investigation. He had seduced award-winning NBC producer Benita Alexander while she was making a special about him, proposed, and promised her a wedding officiated by Pope Francis and attended by political A-listers. It was only after her designer wedding gown was made that Alexander learned Macchiarini was still married to his wife, and seemingly had no association with the famous names on their guest list.

Vanity Fair contributor Adam Ciralsky was in the midst of reporting the story for this magazine in the fall of 2015 when he turned to Dr. Ronald Schouten, a Harvard psychiatry professor. Ciralsky sought expert insight into the kind of fabulist who would invent and engage in such an audacious lie.

“I laid out the story to him, and he said, ‘Anybody who does this in their private life engages in the same conduct in their professional life,” recalls Ciralsky, in a phone call with Vanity Fair. “I think you ought to take a hard look at his CVs.”

That was the turning point in the story for Ciralsky, a former CIA lawyer who soon learned that Macchiarini was more dangerous as a surgeon than a suitor. …

Here’s a link to Ciralsky’s original article, which I described this way, from my April 19, 2016 posting (part 2 of the Macchiarini controversy),

For some bizarre frosting on this disturbing cake (see part 1 of the Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants for the medical science aspects), a January 5, 2016 Vanity Fair article by Adam Ciralsky documents Macchiarini’s courtship of an NBC ([US] National Broadcasting Corporation) news producer who was preparing a documentary about him and his work.

[from Ciralsky’s article]

“Macchiarini, 57, is a magnet for superlatives. He is commonly referred to as “world-renowned” and a “super-surgeon.” He is credited with medical miracles, including the world’s first synthetic organ transplant, which involved fashioning a trachea, or windpipe, out of plastic and then coating it with a patient’s own stem cells. That feat, in 2011, appeared to solve two of medicine’s more intractable problems—organ rejection and the lack of donor organs—and brought with it major media exposure for Macchiarini and his employer, Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, home of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Macchiarini was now planning another first: a synthetic-trachea transplant on a child, a two-year-old Korean-Canadian girl named Hannah Warren, who had spent her entire life in a Seoul hospital. … “

Other players in the Macchiarini story

Pierre Delaere, a trachea expert and professor of head and neck surgery at KU Leuven (a university in Belgium) was one of the first to draw attention to Macchiarini’s dangerous and unethical practices. To give you an idea of how difficult it was to get attention for this issue, there’s a September 1, 2017 article by John Rasko and Carl Power for the Guardian illustrating the issue. Here’s what they had to say about Delaere and other early critics of the work, Note: Links have been removed,

Delaere was one of the earliest and harshest critics of Macchiarini’s engineered airways. Reports of their success always seemed like “hot air” to him. He could see no real evidence that the windpipe scaffolds were becoming living, functioning airways – in which case, they were destined to fail. The only question was how long it would take – weeks, months or a few years.

Delaere’s damning criticisms appeared in major medical journals, including the Lancet, but weren’t taken seriously by Karolinska’s leadership. Nor did they impress the institute’s ethics council when Delaere lodged a formal complaint. [emphases mine]

Support for Macchiarini remained strong, even as his patients began to die. In part, this is because the field of windpipe repair is a niche area. Few people at Karolinska, especially among those in power, knew enough about it to appreciate Delaere’s claims. Also, in such a highly competitive environment, people are keen to show allegiance to their superiors and wary of criticising them. The official report into the matter dubbed this the “bandwagon effect”.

With Macchiarini’s exploits endorsed by management and breathlessly reported in the media, it was all too easy to jump on that bandwagon.

And difficult to jump off. In early 2014, four Karolinska doctors defied the reigning culture of silence [emphasis mine] by complaining about Macchiarini. In their view, he was grossly misrepresenting his results and the health of his patients. An independent investigator agreed. But the vice-chancellor of Karolinska Institute, Anders Hamsten, wasn’t bound by this judgement. He officially cleared Macchiarini of scientific misconduct, allowing merely that he’d sometimes acted “without due care”.

For their efforts, the whistleblowers were punished. [emphasis mine] When Macchiarini accused one of them, Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, of stealing his work in a grant application, Hamsten found him guilty. As Grinnemo recalls, it nearly destroyed his career: “I didn’t receive any new grants. No one wanted to collaborate with me. We were doing good research, but it didn’t matter … I thought I was going to lose my lab, my staff – everything.”

This went on for three years until, just recently [2017], Grinnemo was cleared of all wrongdoing.

It is fitting that Macchiarini’s career unravelled at the Karolinska Institute. As the home of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, one of its ambitions is to create scientific celebrities. Every year, it gives science a show-business makeover, picking out from the mass of medical researchers those individuals deserving of superstardom. The idea is that scientific progress is driven by the genius of a few.

It’s a problematic idea with unfortunate side effects. A genius is a revolutionary by definition, a risk-taker and a law-breaker. Wasn’t something of this idea behind the special treatment Karolinska gave Macchiarini? Surely, he got away with so much because he was considered an exception to the rules with more than a whiff of the Nobel about him. At any rate, some of his most powerful friends were themselves Nobel judges until, with his fall from grace, they fell too.

The September 1, 2017 article by Rasko and Power is worth the read if you have the interest and the time. And, Delaere has written up a comprehensive analysis, which includes basic information about tracheas and more, “The Biggest Lie in Medical History” 2020, PDF, 164 pp., Creative Commons Licence).

I also want to mention Leonid Schneider, science journalist and molecular cell biologist, whose work the Macchiarini scandal on his ‘For Better Science’ website was also featured in my 2016 pieces. Schneider’s site has a page titled, ‘Macchiarini’s trachea transplant patients: the full list‘ started in 2017 and which he continues to update with new information about the patients. The latest update was made on December 20, 2023.

Promising nanomedicine research but no promises and a caveat

Most of the research mentioned here is still in the laboratory. i don’t often come across work that has made its way to clinical trials since the focus of this blog is emerging science and technology,

*If you’re interested in the business of neurotechnology, the July 17, 2023 posting highlights a very good UNESCO report on the topic.

Funky music (sound and noise)

I have couple of stories about using sound for wound healing, bioinspiration for soundproofing applications, detecting seismic activity, more data sonification, etc.

Same old, same old CRISPR

2023 was relatively quiet (no panics) where CRISPR developments are concerned but still quite active.

Art/Sci: a pretty active year

I didn’t realize how active the year was art/sciwise including events and other projects until I reviewed this year’s postings. This is a selection from 2023 but there’s a lot more on the blog, just use the search term, “art/sci,” or “art/science,” or “sciart.”

While I often feature events and projects from these groups (e.g., June 2, 2023 posting, “Metacreation Lab’s greatest hits of Summer 2023“), it’s possible for me to miss a few. So, you can check out Toronto’s Art/Sci Salon’s website (strong focus on visual art) and Simon Fraser University’s Metacreation Lab for Creative Artificial Intelligence website (strong focus on music).

My selection of this year’s postings is more heavily weighted to the ‘writing’ end of things.

Boundaries: life/nonlife

Last year I subtitled this section, ‘Aliens on earth: machinic biology and/or biological machinery?” Here’s this year’s selection,

Canada’s 2023 budget … military

2023 featured an unusual budget where military expenditures were going to be increased, something which could have implications for our science and technology research.

Then things changed as Murray Brewster’s November 21, 2023 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online website comments, Note: A link has been removed,

There was a revelatory moment on the weekend as Defence Minister Bill Blair attempted to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality in the Liberal government’s spending plans for his department and the Canadian military.

Asked about an anticipated (and long overdue) update to the country’s defence policy (supposedly made urgent two years ago by Russia’s full-on invasion of Ukraine), Blair acknowledged that the reset is now being viewed through a fiscal lens.

“We said we’re going to bring forward a new defence policy update. We’ve been working through that,” Blair told CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday.

“The current fiscal environment that the country faces itself does require (that) that defence policy update … recognize (the) fiscal challenges. And so it’ll be part of … our future budget processes.”

One policy goal of the existing defence plan, Strong, Secure and Engaged, was to require that the military be able to concurrently deliver “two sustained deployments of 500 [to] 1,500 personnel in two different theaters of operation, including one as a lead nation.”

In a footnote, the recent estimates said the Canadian military is “currently unable to conduct multiple operations concurrently per the requirements laid out in the 2017 Defence Policy. Readiness of CAF force elements has continued to decrease over the course of the last year, aggravated by decreasing number of personnel and issues with equipment and vehicles.”

Some analysts say they believe that even if the federal government hits its overall budget reduction targets, what has been taken away from defence — and what’s about to be taken away — won’t be coming back, the minister’s public assurances notwithstanding.

10 years: Graphene Flagship Project and Human Brain Project

Graphene and Human Brain Project win biggest research award in history (& this is the 2000th post)” on January 28, 2013 was how I announced the results of what had been a a European Union (EU) competition that stretched out over several years and many stages as projects were evaluated and fell to the wayside or were allowed onto the next stage. The two finalists received €1B each to be paid out over ten years.

Future or not

As you can see, there was plenty of interesting stuff going on in 2023 but no watershed moments in the areas I follow. (Please do let me know in the Comments should you disagree with this or any other part of this posting.) Nanotechnology seems less and less an emerging science/technology in itself and more like a foundational element of our science and technology sectors. On that note, you may find my upcoming (in 2024) post about a report concerning the economic impact of its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) from 2002 to 2022 of interest.

Following on the commercialization theme, I have noticed an increase of interest in commercializing brain and brainlike engineering technologies, as well as, more discussion about ethics.

Colonizing the brain?

UNESCO held events such as, this noted in my July 17, 2023 posting, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report” and this noted in my July 7, 2023 posting “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology on July 13, 2023 led by UNESCO.” An August 21, 2023 posting, “Ethical nanobiotechnology” adds to the discussion.

Meanwhile, Australia has been producing some very interesting mind/robot research, my June 13, 2023 posting, “Mind-controlled robots based on graphene: an Australian research story.” I have more of this kind of research (mind control or mind reading) from Australia to be published in early 2024. The Australians are not alone, there’s also this April 12, 2023 posting, “Mind-reading prosthetic limbs” from Germany.

My May 12, 2023 posting, “Virtual panel discussion: Canadian Strategies for Responsible Neurotechnology Innovation on May 16, 2023” shows Canada is entering the discussion. Unfortunately, the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), which held the event, has not posted a video online even though they have a youtube channel featuring other of their events.

As for neurmorphic engineering, China has produced a roadmap for its research in this area as noted in my March 20, 2023 posting, “A nontraditional artificial synaptic device and roadmap for Chinese research into neuromorphic devices.”

Quantum anybody?

I haven’t singled it out in this end-of-year posting but there is a great deal of interest in quantum computer both here in Canada and elsewhere. There is a 2023 report from the Council of Canadian Academies on the topic of quantum computing in Canada, which I hope to comment on soon.

Final words

I have a shout out for the Canadian Science Policy Centre, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2023. Congratulations!

For everyone, I wish peace on earth and all the best for you and yours in 2024!

When the rocks sing “I got rhythm”

George Gershwin, along with his brother Ira, wrote jazz standards such as “I got rhythm” in 1930 and, before that, “Fascinating rhythm” in 1924 and both seem à propos in relation to this October 9, 2023 news item on phys.org,

f you could sink through the Earth’s crust, you might hear, with a carefully tuned ear, a cacophany of booms and crackles along the way. The fissures, pores, and defects running through rocks are like strings that resonate when pressed and stressed. And as a team of MIT geologists has found, the rhythm and pace of these sounds can tell you something about the depth and strength of the rocks around you.

The fissures and pores running through rocks, from the Earth’s crust to the liquid mantle, are like channels and cavities through which sound can resonate. Credit: iStock [downloaded from https://news.mit.edu/2023/boom-crackle-pop-earth-crust-sounds-1009]

An October 9, 2023 Massachusetts Institute of Technology news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jennifer Chu, which originated the news item, (word play alert) delves down into the material, Note: A link has been removed,

“If you were listening to the rocks, they would be singing at higher and higher pitches, the deeper you go,” says MIT geologist Matěj Peč. 

Peč and his colleagues are listening to rocks, to see whether any acoustic patterns, or “fingerprints” emerge when subjected to various pressures. In lab studies, they have now shown that samples of marble, when subjected to low pressures, emit low-pitched “booms,” while at higher pressures, the rocks generate an ‘avalanche’ of higher-pitched crackles. 

Peč says these acoustic patterns in rocks can help scientists estimate the types of cracks, fissures, and other defects that the Earth’s crust experiences with depth, which they can then use to identify unstable regions below the surface, where there is potential for earthquakes or eruptions. The team’s results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could also help inform surveyors’ efforts to drill for renewable, geothermal energy. 

“If we want to tap these very hot geothermal sources, we will have to learn how to drill into rocks that are in this mixed-mode condition, where they are not purely brittle, but also flow a bit,” says Peč, who is an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “But overall, this is fundamental science that can help us understand where the lithosphere is strongest.” 

Peč’s collaborators at MIT are lead author and research scientist Hoagy O. Ghaffari, technical associate Ulrich Mok, graduate student Hilary Chang, and professor emeritus of geophysics Brian Evans. Tushar Mittal, co-author and former EAPS postdoc, is now an assistant professor at Penn State University.

Fracture and flow

The Earth’s crust is often compared to the skin of an apple. At its thickest, the crust can be 70 kilometers deep — a tiny fraction of the globe’s total, 12,700-kilometer diameter. And yet, the rocks that make up the planet’s thin peel vary greatly in their strength and stability. Geologists infer that rocks near the surface are brittle and fracture easily, compared to rocks at greater depths, where immense pressures, and heat from the core, can make rocks flow. 

The fact that rocks are brittle at the surface and more ductile at depth implies there must be an in-between — a phase in which rocks transition from one to the other, and may have properties of both, able to fracture like granite, and flow like honey. This “brittle-to-ductile transition” is not well understood, though geologists believe it may be where rocks are at their strongest within the crust. 

“This transition state of partly flowing, partly fracturing, is really important, because that’s where we think the peak of the lithosphere’s strength is and where the largest earthquakes nucleate,” Peč says. “But we don’t have a good handle on this type of mixed-mode behavior.”

He and his colleagues are studying how the strength and stability of rocks — whether brittle, ductile, or somewhere in between — varies, based on a rock’s microscopic defects. The size, density, and distribution of defects such as microscopic cracks, fissures, and pores can shape how brittle or ductile a rock can be. 

But measuring the microscopic defects in rocks, under conditions that simulate the Earth’s various pressures and depths, is no trivial task. There is, for instance, no visual-imaging technique that allows scientists to see inside rocks to map their microscopic imperfections. So the team turned to ultrasound, and the idea that, any sound wave traveling through a rock should bounce, vibrate, and reflect off any microscopic cracks and crevices, in specific ways that should reveal something about the pattern of those defects. 

All these defects will also generate their own sounds when they move under stress and therefore both actively sounding through the rock as well as listening to it should give them a great deal of information. They found that the idea should work with ultrasound waves, at megahertz frequencies.

This kind of ultrasound method is analogous to what seismologists do in nature, but at much higher frequencies,” Peč explains. “This helps us to understand the physics that occur at microscopic scales, during the deformation of these rocks.” 

A rock in a hard place

In their experiments, the team tested cylinders of Carrara marble. 

“It’s the same material as what Michaelangelo’s David is made from,” Peč notes. “It’s a very well-characterized material, and we know exactly what it should be doing.”

The team placed each marble cylinder in a a vice-like apparatus made from pistons of aluminum, zirconium, and steel, which together can generate extreme stresses. They placed the vice in a pressurized chamber, then subjected each cylinder to pressures similar to what rocks experience throughout the Earth’s crust.  

As they slowly crushed each rock, the team sent pulses of ultrasound through the top of the sample, and recorded the acoustic pattern that exited through the bottom. When the sensors were not pulsing, they were listening to any naturally occurring acoustic emissions.

They found that at the lower end of the pressure range, where rocks are brittle, the marble indeed formed sudden fractures in response, and the sound waves resembled large, low-frequency booms. At the highest pressures, where rocks are more ductile, the acoustic waves resembled a higher-pitched crackling. The team believes this crackling was produced by microscopic defects called dislocations that then spread and flow like an avalanche. 

“For the first time, we have recorded the ‘noises’ that rocks make when they are deformed across this brittle-to-ductile transition, and we link these noises to the individual microscopic defects that cause them,” Peč says. “We found that these defects massively change their size and propagation velocity as they cross this transition. It’s more complicated than people had thought.”

The team’s characterizations of rocks and their defects at various pressures can help scientists estimate how the Earth’s crust will behave at various depths, such as how rocks might fracture in an earthquake, or flow in an eruption.    

“When rocks are partly fracturing and partly flowing, how does that feed back into the earthquake cycle? And how does that affect the movement of magma through a network of rocks?” Peč says. “Those are larger scale questions that can be tackled with research like this.”

This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Microscopic defect dynamics during a brittle-to-ductile transition by Hoagy O’Ghaffari, Matěj Peč, Tushar Mittal, Ulrich Mok, Hilary Chang, and Brian Evans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 120 (42) e2305667120 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2305667120 October 9, 2023

This paper is behind a paywall.

Powered with salt water

Apparently, salt water can be used both in the production of fusion energy (a form of nuclear energy) and, according to new research from the University of Illinois into a nanofluidic device, electricity. From a September 22, 2023 University of Illinois news release (also on EurekAlert),

There is a largely untapped energy source along the world’s coastlines: the difference in salinity between seawater and freshwater. A new nanodevice can harness this difference to generate power.

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has reported a design for a nanofluidic device capable of converting ionic flow into usable electric power in the journal Nano Energy. The team believes that their device could be used to extract power from the natural ionic flows at seawater-freshwater boundaries.

“While our design is still a concept at this stage, it is quite versatile and already shows strong potential for energy applications,” said Jean-Pierre Leburton, a U. of I. professor of electrical & computer engineering and the project lead. “It began with an academic question – ‘Can a nanoscale solid-state device extract energy from ionic flow?’ – but our design exceeded our expectations and surprised us in many ways.”

When two bodies of water with different salinity meet, such as where a river empties into an ocean, salt molecules naturally flow from higher concentration to lower concentration. The energy of these flows can be harvested because they consist of electrically charged particles called ions that form from the dissolved salt.

Leburton’s group designed a nanoscale semiconductor device that takes advantage of a phenomenon called “Coulomb drag” between flowing ions and electric charges in the device. When the ions flow through a narrow channel in the device, electric forces cause the device charges to move from one side to the other creating voltage and electric current.

The researchers found two surprising behaviors when they simulated their device. First, while they expected that Coulomb drag would primarily occur through the attractive force between opposite electric charges, the simulations indicated that the device works equally well if the electric forces are repulsive. Both positively and negatively charged ions contribute to drag.

“Just as noteworthy, our study indicates that there is an amplification effect” said Mingye Xiong, a graduate student in Leburton’s group and the study’s lead author. “Since the moving ions are so massive compared to the device charges, the ions impart large amounts of momentum to the charges, amplifying the underlying current.”

The researchers also found that these effects are independent of the specific channel configuration as well as the choice of materials, provided the channel diameter is narrow enough to ensure proximity between the ions and the charges.

The researchers are in the process of patenting their findings, and they are studying how arrays of these devices could scale for practical power generation.

“We believe that the power density of a device array could meet or exceed that of solar cells,” Leburton said. “And that’s not to mention the potential applications in other fields like biomedical sensing and nanofluidics.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Ionic coulomb drag in nanofluidic semiconductor channels for energy harvest by Mingye Xiong, Kewei Song, Jean-Pierre Leburton. Nano Energy Volume 117, 1 December 2023, 108860 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nanoen.2023.108860

This paper is behind a paywall.

NorthPole: a brain-inspired chip design for saving energy

One of the main attractions of brain-inspired computing is that it requires less energy than is used in conventional computing. The latest entry into the brain-inspired computing stakes was announced in an October 19, 2023 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) news release on EurekAlert,

Researchers present NorthPole – a brain-inspired chip architecture that blends computation with memory to process data efficiently at low-energy costs. Since its inception, computing has been processor-centric, with memory separated from compute. However, shuttling large amounts of data between memory and compute comes at a high price in terms of both energy consumption and processing bandwidth and speed. This is particularly evident in the case of emerging and advanced real-time artificial intelligence (AI) applications like facial recognition, object detection, and behavior monitoring, which require fast access to vast amounts of data. As a result, most contemporary computer architectures are rapidly reaching physical and processing bottlenecks and risk becoming economically, technically, and environmentally unsustainable, given the growing energy costs involved. Inspired by the neural architecture of the organic brain, Dharmendra Modha and colleagues developed NorthPole – a neural inference architecture that intertwines compute with memory on a single chip. According to the authors, NorthPole “reimagines the interaction between compute and memory” by blending brain-inspired computing and semiconductor technology. It achieves higher performance, energy-efficiency, and area-efficiency compared to other comparable architectures, including those that use more advanced technology processes. And, because NorthPole is a digital system, it is not subject to the device noise and systemic biases and drifts that afflict analog systems. Modha et al. demonstrate NorthPole’s capabilities by testing it on the ResNet50 benchmark image classification network, where it achieved 25 times higher energy metric of frames per second (FPS) per watt, a 5 times higher space metric of FPS per transistor, and a 22 times lower time metric of latency relative to comparable technology. In a related Perspective, Subramanian Iyer and Vwani Roychowdhury discuss NorthPole’s advancements and limitations in greater detail.

By the way, the NorthPole chip is a result of IBM research as noted in Charles Q. Choi’s October 23, 2023 article for IEEE Spectrum magazine (IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), Note: Links have been removed,

A brain-inspired chip from IBM, dubbed NorthPole, is more than 20 times as fast as—and roughly 25 times as energy efficient as—any microchip currently on the market when it comes to artificial intelligence tasks. According to a study from IBM, applications for the new silicon chip may include autonomous vehicles and robotics.

Brain-inspired computer hardware aims to mimic a human brain’s exceptional ability to rapidly perform computations in an extraordinarily energy-efficient manner. These machines are often used to implement neural networks, which similarly imitate the way a brain learns and operates.

“The brain is vastly more energy-efficient than modern computers, in part because it stores memory with compute in every neuron,” says study lead author Dharmendra Modha, IBM’s chief scientist for brain-inspired computing.

“NorthPole merges the boundaries between brain-inspired computing and silicon-optimized computing, between compute and memory, between hardware and software,” Modha says.

The scientists note that IBM fabricated NorthPole with a 12-nm node process. The current state of the art for CPUs is 3 nm, and IBM has spent years researching 2-nm nodes. This suggests further gains with this brain-inspired strategy may prove readily available, the company says.

The NorthPole chip is preceded by another IBM brain-inspired chip, TrueNorth. (Use the term “TrueNorth” in the blog search engine, if you want to see more about that and other brain-inspired chips.)

Choi’s October 23, 2023 article features technical information but a surprising amount is accessible to an interested reader who’s not an engineer.

There’s a video, which seems to have been produced by IBM,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Neural inference at the frontier of energy, space, and time by Dharmendra S. Modha, Filipp Akopyan, Alexander Andreopoulos, Rathinakumar Appuswamy, John V. Arthur, Andrew S. Cassidy, Pallab Datta, Michael V. DeBole, Steven K. Esser, Carlos Ortega Otero, Jun Sawada, Brian Taba, Arnon Amir, Deepika Bablani, Peter J. Carlson, Myron D. Flickner, Rajamohan Gandhasri, Guillaume J. Garreau, Megumi Ito, Jennifer L. Klamo, Jeffrey A. Kusnitz, Nathaniel J. McClatchey, Jeffrey L. McKinstry, Yutaka Nakamura, Tapan K. Nayak, William P. Risk, Kai Schleupen, Ben Shaw, Jay Sivagnaname, Daniel F. Smith, Ignacio Terrizzano, and Takanori Ueda. Science 19 Oct 2023 Vol 382, Issue 6668 pp. 329-335 DOI: 10.1126/science.adh1174

This paper is behind a paywall.