28th March 2015
Costa Rica achieves 100 percent renewable energy for Q1 2015
The National Electric System (NES) in Costa Rica has announced that 100% of its electricity has been supplied from renewable sources during the first quarter of 2015.
Pirris Hydro Dam, Costa Rica
Thanks to a combination of heavy rain and widespread deployment of renewables, Costa Rica's electric grid has operated without any fossil fuels throughout January, February and March (so far). Favourable rainy conditions have allowed the reservoirs Arenal, Cachí, La Angostura and Pirrís to reach levels higher than were previously estimated. The hydroelectric plants in this region – both pumped storage and run-of-the-river types – are supplying the majority (68%) of the country's electricity, while the rest of the 100% renewable matrix is covered by geothermal, wind, biomass and solar.
"The year 2015 has been one of electricity totally friendly to the environment for Costa Rica," says the state-owned power supplier Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) in a press release.
According to latest figures, Costa Rica now ranks second in Latin America (behind only Uruguay), in terms of electricity service provision, with 99.4% of households able to receive power. Consumers' energy bills – already falling – are expected to drop by a further 15 percent, as the nation continues to run without burning fossil fuels into the second quarter of 2015. Costa Rica aims to be fully carbon neutral by 2021 – a goal that now appears to be a realistic possibility, following this landmark announcement.
Because of its heavy reliance on dams, however, Costa Rica is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Towards the end of this century, the region could experience up to 30 percent less precipitation, according to a 2008 study by the University of Massachusetts. Heat waves, droughts and shifting rainfall patterns could severely disrupt its hydroelectric power supply in the future. To prepare for these potential impacts, the government last year budgeted nearly $1 billion for tapping volcanoes and expanding the use of geothermal power. Dams also have negative impacts on fish populations, another factor making geothermal preferable to hydroelectric power.
Costa Rica is consistently ranked among the most eco-friendly places worldwide – putting larger and supposedly more "advanced" nations to shame. Alongside its clean energy projects, major efforts have been made in conserving natural spaces, reducing deforestation, improving air and water quality, and biodiversity protection. This includes paying landowners to plant trees and stop cutting down old-growth forests, a policy that helped to increase forest cover in the country from 24 percent in 1985 to 46 percent in 2010.
Part of the reason that Costa Rica has been able to invest so much into renewable energy and other green initiatives is because there is no need to spend anything on defence. Its military was abolished in 1948.
Ambassador for Costa Rica, Mario Fernández Silva, stated in 2010 when his country won the Future Policy Award: "We are declaring peace with nature. We feel a strong sense of responsibility about looking after our wealth of biodiversity. Our attitude is not progressive, it is conservative. Our view is that until we know what we have, it is our duty to protect it."
28th March 2015
10TB solid state drives may soon be possible
An innovative new process architecture can extend Moore's Law for flash storage – bringing significant improvements in density while lowering the cost of NAND flash.
Intel Corporation – in partnership with Micron – have announced the availability of 3D NAND, the world's highest-density flash memory. Flash is the storage technology used inside the lightest laptops, fastest data centres, and nearly every cellphone, tablet and mobile device.
3D NAND works by stacking the components in vertical layers with extraordinary precision to create devices with three times higher data capacity than competing NAND technologies. This enables more storage in a smaller space, bringing significant cost savings, low power usage and higher performance to a range of mobile consumer devices, as well as the most demanding enterprise deployments.
As data cells begin to approach the size of individual atoms, traditional "planar" NAND is nearing its practical scaling limits. This poses a major challenge for the memory industry. 3D NAND is poised to make a dramatic impact by keeping flash storage aligned with Moore's Law, the exponential trend of performance gains and cost savings, driving more widespread use of flash storage in the future.
"3D NAND technology has the potential to create fundamental market shifts," said Brian Shirley, vice president of Memory Technology and Solutions at Micron Technology. "The depth of the impact that flash has had to date – from smartphones to flash-optimised supercomputing – is really just scratching the surface of what's possible."
One of the most significant aspects of this breakthrough is in the foundational memory cell itself. Intel and Micron used a floating gate cell, a universally utilised design refined through years of high-volume planar flash manufacturing. This is the first use of a floating gate cell in 3D NAND, which was a key design choice to enable greater performance, quality and reliability.
The data cells are stacked vertically in 32 layers to achieve 256Gb multilevel cell (MLC) and 384Gb triple-level cell (TLC) dies within a standard package. This can enable gum stick-sized SSDs with 3.5TB of storage and standard 2.5-inch SSDs with greater than 10TB. Because capacity is achieved by stacking cells vertically, individual cell dimensions can be considerably larger. This is expected to increase both performance and endurance and make even the TLC designs well-suited for data centre storage.
Key product features of this 3D NAND design include:
• Large Capacities – Triple the capacity of existing technology, up to 48GB of NAND per die, enabling 750GB to fit in a single fingertip-sized package.
• Reduced Cost per GB – First-generation 3D NAND is architected to achieve better cost efficiencies than planar NAND.
• Fast – High read/write bandwidth, I/O speeds and random read performance.
• Green – New sleep modes enable low-power use by cutting power to inactive NAND die (even when other dies in the same package are active), dropping power consumption significantly in standby mode.
• Smart – Innovative new features improve latency and increase endurance over previous generations, and also make system integration easier.
The 256Gb MLC version of 3D NAND is sampling with select partners today, and the 384Gb TLC design will be sampling later this spring. The fab production line has already begun initial runs, and both devices will be in full production by the fourth quarter of this year. Both companies are also developing individual lines of SSD solutions based on 3D NAND technology and expect those products to be available within the next year.
24th March 2015
Huge lava tubes could house cities on Moon
Old lava tubes big enough to house entire cities could be structurally stable on the moon, according to a theoretical study presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
Lava tubes big enough to house cities could be structurally stable on the moon, according to a theoretical study presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. These volcanic features could be an important target for human space exploration in the future, because they could provide shelter from cosmic radiation, meteorite impacts and temperature extremes.
Lava tubes are tunnels formed from the lava flow of volcanic eruptions. The edges of the lava cool as it flows to form a pipe-like crust around the flowing river of lava. When the eruption ends and the lava flow stops, the pipe drains leave behind a hollow tunnel, said Jay Melosh, a Purdue University distinguished professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences who is involved in the research.
"There has been some discussion of whether lava tubes might exist on the moon," he said. "Some evidence, like the sinuous rilles observed on the surface, suggest that if lunar lava tubes exist they might be really big."
Sinuous rilles are large channels visible on the lunar surface thought to be formed by lava flows. The sinuous rilles range in size up to 10 km wide, and the Purdue team explored whether lava tubes of the same scale could exist.
David Blair, a graduate student in Purdue's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, led the study that examined whether empty lava tubes more than 1 km wide could remain structurally stable on the moon.
"We found that if lunar lava tubes existed with a strong arched shape like those on Earth, they would be stable at sizes up to 5,000 metres, or several miles wide, on the moon," Blair said. "This wouldn't be possible on Earth, but gravity is much lower on the moon and lunar rock doesn't have to withstand the same weathering and erosion. In theory, huge lava tubes – big enough to easily house a city – could be structurally sound on the moon."
Blair worked with Antonio Bobet, a Purdue professor of civil engineering, and applied known information about lunar rock and the moon's environment to civil engineering technology used to design tunnels on Earth. The team found that a lava tube's stability depended on the width, roof thickness and the stress state of the cooled lava, and the team modelled a range of these variables. The researchers also modelled lava tubes with walls created by lava placed in one thick layer and with lava placed in many thin layers, Blair said.
Only one other study, published in 1969, has attempted to model lunar lava tubes, he said.
21st March 2015
Consumer virtual reality will grow exponentially between 2015 and 2020
Several years ago, in the early days of this website, we predicted that virtual reality (VR) would see a major comeback during the second half of the 2010s. This prediction appears to be right on track.
BI Intelligence, a cutting-edge research service from Business Insider, this week announced its latest report on the global market for head-mounted VR. While the current level of adoption remains low, it is likely to explode from this year onwards, achieving a compound annual growth rate of nearly 100% – in other words, sales will roughly double each year, reaching 26.5 million by 2020.
Thanks to falling costs, exponential technology improvements, and a variety of well-known brands competing for market share, the industry will soon be a mainstream form of entertainment.
Just some of the companies involved now include Facebook (Oculus Rift), Google (Google Cardboard), Samsung (Gear VR), Sony (Project Morpheus) and HTC (Vive). Based on its recent patent activity and job postings, Apple is rumoured to be working on VR too. For those who enjoy being immersed in highly realistic virtual environments (and we strongly recommend Elite), the next several years look to be very exciting indeed.
21st March 2015
Google files patent for wearable medical device
Google has filed a patent application for a wearable medical device, able to use nanoparticles to detect and treat illnesses such as cancer.
For those wishing to protect their health and extend their lifespan, a futuristic medical device may become available in the next several years. Details of this wearable technology – known as a Nanoparticle Phoresis – have been published online by Google, via the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
The patent application describes a strap, or band, mounted on the lower arm. Similar in appearance to a wristwatch, it would "automatically modify or destroy one or more targets in the blood that have an adverse health effect." This would be achieved by beaming energy into blood vessels to stimulate cells and molecules, increasing their effectiveness at fighting diseases. It could even be used on synthetic nanoparticles. Millions of these tiny objects would be introduced into the wearer's bloodstream, then activated by magnets in the wristband and directed to specific locations.
In addition to its physical treatment abilities, the Nanoparticle Phoresis could generate vast amounts of data – not only helpful to the user, but also to researchers and doctors. It could accept inputs from the wearer regarding his or her health state, such as "feeling cold," "feeling tired," "pollen allergy symptoms today," "stressed," "feeling energetic," etc. According to the patent, these user inputs "may be used to complement any other physiological parameter data that the wearable device may collect and establish effective signal levels for and timing of modification of the target."
Analysts forecast that wearable technology will see huge growth in the coming years, with unit sales potentially reaching into the hundreds of millions. This new device from Google – if successfully developed – could become part of that rapidly evolving ecosystem. Initially aimed at patients who are seriously ill, this product (or its derivatives) could also be offered to mainstream consumers who aren't necessarily in bad health, but wish to monitor and improve their well-being.
For those with a needle phobia, injections might be possible using high-pressure jets. Although the patent itself makes no mention of this, we can speculate that such a procedure would eventually be incorporated into a wristwatch form factor. Similar to the "hypospray" on Star Trek, these jets would ensure that the skin is not punctured. High-pressure jet injection was covered on our blog in May 2012.
Looking further ahead, the prospects become even more exciting. Bill Maris – who helped form Google Calico – this month stated his belief that humans will live to be many centuries old in the future, while today's cancer treatments will seem "primitive" within just 20 years. His comments echo those of futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, also employed at Google and currently involved in AI research for the company. Kurzweil predicts that nanoparticles will be superseded by nanobots – small and compact enough to feature motors, sensors and other tools, allowing them to be controlled with extreme precision directly inside cells. If this idea sounds like science fiction, then consider this: a handheld smartphone today contains more processing power than a room-sized supercomputer of the 1980s. With ongoing advances in miniaturisation, together with new materials such as graphene, the future trend seems inevitable.
As humans become ever more dependent on technology, our bodies will gradually begin to incorporate these and similar devices on a permanent basis. Later in the 21st century, the line between man and machine could become blurred.
18th March 2015
Revolutionary 3-D printing method is 100 times faster
A new 3-D printer uses light and oxygen to synthesise materials from a pool of liquid, up to 100 times faster and with far more accuracy than previous methods.
A new 3-D printing technology has been developed by Silicon Valley startup, Carbon3D Inc., enabling objects to rise from a liquid media continuously – rather than being built layer-upon-layer as they have been for the past 25 years. This method represents a fundamentally new approach to 3-D printing. Due to appear as the cover article in the 20th March print issue of Science, it allows ready-to-use products to be made up to 100 times faster than previous methods and creates previously unachievable geometries. This opens opportunities for innovation across a range of major industries.
The method – known as Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) – manipulates light and oxygen to fuse objects in liquid media, creating the first 3D printing process that uses "tunable photochemistry", instead of the traditional layer-by-layer approach that has defined the technology for decades. This works by projecting beams of light through an oxygen-permeable window into a liquid resin. Working in tandem, light and oxygen control the solidification of the resin, creating objects with feature sizes below 20 microns, about the width of a skin cell.
"By rethinking the whole approach to 3-D printing – and the chemistry and physics behind the process – we have developed a new technology that can create parts radically faster than traditional technologies by essentially 'growing' them in a pool of liquid," said Joseph DeSimone, the CEO of Carbon3D, who revealed the technology at a TED talk on 16th March.
CLIP enables a very wide range of materials to be used to make 3D parts with novel properties – including elastomers, silicones, nylon-like materials, ceramics and biodegradable materials. In the future, it might even be possible to create living matter, such as artificial meat, or replacement organs for transplantation into human bodies.
Conventionally made 3-D printed parts are notorious for having mechanical properties that vary depending on the direction the parts were printed because of the layer-by-layer approach. Much more like injection-moulded parts, CLIP produces consistent and predictable mechanical properties – smooth on the outside and solid on the inside.
“In addition to using new materials, CLIP can allow us to make stronger objects with unique geometries that other techniques cannot achieve, such as cardiac stents personally tailored to meet the needs of a specific patient,” said DeSimone. “Since CLIP facilitates 3-D polymeric object fabrication in a matter of minutes instead of hours or days, it would not be impossible within coming years to enable personalised coronary stents, dental implants or prosthetics to be 3-D printed on-demand in a medical setting.”
Through a sponsored research agreement between Carbon3D and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the team is currently pursuing further advances to the technology, including new materials that are compatible with it. Carbon3D has partnered with Sequoia Capital and several other firms to raise $40 million for commercialising the process.
“If 3D printing hopes to break out of the prototyping niche it has been trapped in for decades, we need to find a disruptive technology that attacks the problem from a fresh perspective and addresses 3D printing’s fundamental weaknesses,” said Jim Goetz, Carbon3D board member and Sequoia partner. “When we met Joe and saw what his team had invented, it was immediately clear to us that 3D printing would never be the same.”
“We had studied the additive manufacturing ecosystem comprehensively and had concluded that the promise far exceeded the current reality in the marketplace,” said Adam Grosser, Carbon3D board member and Managing Director at Silver Lake Kraftwerk. “When we witnessed the CLIP process, we believed we had found a company that had invented a solution to speed, quality, and material selection. We are proud to work alongside Carbon3D to create a new category of 3D manufacturing.”
16th March 2015
California marine sanctuaries to more than double in size
The U.S. government has announced plans to expand two major marine sanctuaries off the coast of Northern California – home to a vast array of sea life.
Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones national marine sanctuaries off northern California will both increase dramatically in size after a final ruling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The expansion will help to protect the region's marine and coastal habitats, biological resources and rare ecological features.
Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, located 42 miles north of San Francisco, will expand from 529 square miles to 1,286 square miles. Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary will expand from 1,282 square miles to 3,295 square miles of ocean and coastal waters.
"We are thrilled to announce the expansion of two of our sanctuaries in California," said Holly Bamford, NOAA's deputy administrator. "It's important to conserve these special places that encourage partnerships in science, education, technology, management and community."
The expansion is based on years of public comment and research by NOAA and its scientific partners that identified the nutrient-rich upwelling zone originating off Point Arena and flowing south into the original sanctuaries as one of the most productive in North America.
Cordell Bank and Gulf of Farallones national marine sanctuaries represent globally significant, extraordinarily diverse, and productive marine ecosystems that encompass areas as varied as estuarine wetlands, rocky intertidal habitat, open ocean and shallow marine banks. They include areas of major upwelling where nutrients come to the surface and support a vast array of sea life – including 25 endangered or threatened species, 36 marine mammals such as blue, gray and humpback whales, harbour seals, elephant seals, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and one of the southernmost U.S. populations of Steller sea lions; over a quarter of a million breeding seabirds; and one of the most significant white shark populations on the planet.
"I'm glad the administration stepped up and used its authority as prior administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have done," said Jared Huffman, U.S. Representative for California's 2nd congressional district, in a San Francisco Chronicle interview. "The whole California coast has been in the crosshairs of oil and gas development for a long time."
"This expansion is the outcome of a tremendous collaborative effort by government, local communities, academia and elected officials to provide additional protection for critical marine resources," said Daniel J. Basta, director of the NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "It presents a bold vision for protecting the waters off the northern California coast for current and future generations."
15th March 2015
New class of drugs could slow the aging process in multiple ways
A new class of drugs known as "senolytics" has been shown to increase the healthy lifespan of mice. Not only that, but multiple different aspects of the aging process can be improved simultaneously.
In multicellular organisms, including humans, cell division is essential for growth, development and repair. The average person will experience approximately 10,000 trillion cell divisions in their lifetime. As we age, our cells become less capable of dividing. Like a VHS tape being copied over and over again, the process of bodily growth and renewal is less and less accurate. The resulting errors contribute to disease and ultimately death.
Cells that have stopped dividing are known as "senescent" cells. Over time, they accumulate inside us and cause aging. They are similar to cancer cells – in that they can resist apoptosis (programmed cell death). Normally, between 50 and 70 billion cells die each day in an adult. This form of cell suicide helps to maintain a healthy equilibrium, or homoeostasis, ensuring an appropriate number of cells in the body is maintained. With senescent cells, however, this balance is disrupted. The build-up of senescent cells results in side effects, including the production of harmful chemicals. The situation can worsen dramatically if a cell's DNA has been seriously damaged – leading to out-of-control cell growth and cancer, or neurodegenerative disorders.
This week, a study was published in the journal Aging Cell, by researchers from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and Mayo Clinic. They describe a new class of drugs known as "senolytics", which can selectively kill senescent cells – potentially restoring the balance of cell numbers. Two compounds were identified as candidates for testing, both found in existing medications. In Petri dish cultures, they produced the following results:
||Target location and result
||Cancer drug, used mainly for leukaemia, and marketed under the name Sprycel.
||Senescent human fat cell progenitors were eliminated.
||A natural compound found in various fruits, vegetables, leaves and grains. Sold as a supplement that acts as an antihistamine and anti-inflammatory.
||Senescent human endothelial cells (found on interior surface of blood vessels) were eliminated.
Individually, each compound was effective at removing the senescent cells in these locations, without damaging other cells. When combined together, however, the researchers observed even greater effects. Following the Petri dish experiments, a cocktail of both compounds was administered to mice in old age. The results were remarkable.
“In animal models, the compounds improved cardiovascular function and exercise endurance, reduced osteoporosis and frailty, and extended healthspan,” comments Laura Niedernhofer, PhD, in a press release from TSRI. “Remarkably, in some cases, these drugs did so with only a single course of treatment.”
FutureTimeline.net contacted the study authors to request more specific details. We received the following information regarding the mouse tests:
||One leg of each mouse was irradiated with ionising radiation to lower their exercise endurance by 30-50%.
||• Animals given a single dose of the senolytics recovered full exercise endurance within five days.
• Four months later, unmedicated mice were still 15% below normal endurance levels, while mice treated with senolytics retained their full exercise endurance.
||This test looked at the heart function of normal aged mice equivalent to 65-year-old humans. For context, left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF) is typically reduced when valves stiffen with age or the heart muscle is damaged.
||• A single dose of senolytics increased LVEF by ~10%.
• A single dose of senolytics also improved how blood vessels in the old mice responded to vasodilators (drugs used for the treatment of hypertension) by 10-15%.
||Mouse model of a human disease of accelerated aging
||• Periodic treatment of the mice with senolytics led to a delay in the onset of age-related symptoms including unstable gait, hunched posture and trembling, for in some cases up to several weeks. Each week in the life of the progeroid mice is equivalent to 3-4 years in human life.
• Healthspan, the period of "healthy living", was extended by roughly 10%.
• Bone mineral density (a measure of osteoporosis) was improved by more than 15%.
• An index of vertebral health for avoiding lower back pain was improved by 20%.
• Brain and neurological dysfunction were also alleviated.
“We view this study as a big, first step toward developing treatments that can be given safely to patients to extend healthspan or to treat age-related diseases and disorders,” says Professor Paul Robbins, PhD, also from the Scripps Institute. “When senolytic agents, like the combination we identified, are used clinically, the results could be transformative.”
“The prototypes of these senolytic agents have more than proven their ability to alleviate multiple characteristics associated with aging,” said Mayo Clinic Professor James Kirkland, MD, PhD, senior author of the new study. “It may eventually become feasible to delay, prevent, alleviate or even reverse multiple chronic diseases and disabilities as a group – instead of just one at a time.”
"Senescence is involved in a number of diseases and pathologies, so there could be any number of applications for these and similar compounds," concludes Professor Robbins. "Also, we anticipate that treatment with senolytic drugs to clear damaged cells would be infrequent, reducing the chance of side effects."
14th March 2015
Alzheimer's breakthrough using ultrasound
A new way of treating Alzheimer's disease with ultrasound has been demonstrated in mice, clearing the amyloid plaques in 75% of the animals.
Untreated Alzheimer's mouse (left) and treated with ultrasound (right)
Researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), part of Australia's University of Queensland, have shown that non-invasive ultrasound technology can be used to treat Alzheimer's disease and restore memory in mice. This innovative, drug-free method breaks apart the neurotoxic amyloid plaques that result in memory loss and cognitive decline.
“The Government’s $9 million investment into this technology was to drive discoveries into clinics, and today’s announcement indicates that together with the Queensland Brain Institute, it was a worthwhile investment,” said Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk. “I want my Government to encourage more of this type of innovative research. Our Advance Queensland initiative aims to increase research and discoveries like this and to put this state’s research at the forefront internationally by supporting local researchers and helping to keep them in Queensland. These exciting findings will hopefully be of benefit to all Australians in the future.”
Professor Jürgen Götz, study co-author, believes the new method could revolutionise Alzheimer’s treatment: “We’re extremely excited by this innovation of treating Alzheimer’s without using drug therapeutics. The ultrasound waves oscillate tremendously quickly, activating microglial cells that digest and remove the amyloid plaques that destroy brain synapses. The word ‘breakthrough’ is often mis-used, but in this case I think this really does fundamentally change our understanding of how to treat this disease, and I foresee a great future for this approach.”
There are now 343,000 people living with dementia in Australia, a number forecast to reach 900,000 by 2050. Worldwide, the figure today is 50 million, which is projected to hit 135 million by 2050, with Alzheimer’s among the leading causes. Over 7.7 million new cases are reported globally each year (equivalent to about one new case every four seconds) and the rate is accelerating as people live longer and their brains become more susceptible to this terrible condition. It will place enormous financial and other burdens on society in the future, unless new treatments can be developed.
Handheld brain scanning device of the 2050s. Credit: Štěpán Kápl / Dreamstime
“With an aging population placing an increasing burden on health systems, an important factor is cost. Other potential drug treatments using antibodies will be expensive,” explained Götz. “In contrast, this method uses relatively inexpensive ultrasound and microbubble technology, which is non-invasive and appears highly effective.”
The new treatment developed by QBI is able to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier – a layer that normally protects our brains from bacteria and other potential threats, but also blocks drugs from entering and therefore prohibits traditional medicine. By using ultrasound, microglial cells (which are basically a type of support cell for removing waste) were stimulated to engulf and clear toxic protein clumps, fully restoring memory functions in 75% of the mice. This was achieved without damaging brain tissue.
“With our approach, the blood-brain barrier’s opening is only temporary for a few hours, so it quickly restores its protective role,” Professor Götz added.
The next step will be to scale the treatment to higher animal models (sheep), followed by human clinical trials beginning in 2017.
The findings were published this week in Science Translational Medicine.
14th March 2015
Panda population increases by 17%
The number of wild giant pandas has increased nearly 17% over the last decade, according to a new survey by the Chinese government.
New figures released by the Chinese government show that the global population of wild giant pandas has reached 1,864 – up from 1,596 when their numbers were last surveyed in 2003. A symbol of wildlife conservation, giant pandas are only found in China's Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.
“The rise in the population of wild giant pandas is a victory for conservation and definitely one to celebrate,” said Ginette Hemley, Senior Vice President of Wildlife Conservation, World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“This increase in the population of wild giant pandas is a testament to the commitment made by the Chinese government for the last 30-plus years to wild panda conservation,” Hemley said. “WWF is grateful to have had the opportunity to partner with the Chinese government to contribute to panda conservation efforts.”
According to the Fourth National Giant Panda Survey, 1246 wild giant pandas live within nature reserves, accounting for 66.8% of the total wild population size and 53.8% of the total habitat area. There are currently 67 panda nature reserves in China – an increase of 27 since the last survey.
The report found the total area inhabited by wild giant pandas in China now equals 6,370,000 acres, an expansion of 11.8% since 2003.
Map data: IUCN
Despite a positive trend in the number of wild giant pandas, the species still faces challenges. 46% of panda habitat and 33.2% of the population live outside of protected nature reserves. Habitat fragmentation – the separation of wildlife populations by physical barriers – is increasingly noticeable with about 12% of individuals facing higher risks to their survival.
Though there appears to be a decline in traditional threats to pandas such as poaching, large-scale infrastructure projects like mining, hydro-power, and supporting roads and railroads are becoming more severe and were referenced in the survey for the first time.
WWF supports the government of China’s work by establishing panda nature reserves and a conservation network that integrates those reserves with forests farms and corridors of forest that allow pandas to find food and meet mates. The organisation’s work ensures the legal protection of a large percentage of panda habitat and an improvement in how conservation efforts are carried out. WWF was also involved with the survey produced.
Xiaohai Liu, Executive Program Director, WWF-China said, “The survey result demonstrates the effectiveness of nature reserves in boosting wild giant panda numbers.”
WWF's 2015-2025 giant panda conservation strategy sets the course for panda protection efforts over the next decade, and will focus on improving panda habitat in a manner that balances conservation with local sustainable development.
12th March 2015
NASA tests Mars rocket engine
The engine of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) – the most powerful solid rocket booster ever built – had its first ground test yesterday with officials claiming a "perfect" result.
The largest, most powerful rocket booster ever built was fired up on Wednesday for the first time in a major-milestone ground test. This was in preparation for future missions to help propel NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft to deep space destinations, including an asteroid and Mars.
The booster successfully fired for two minutes, the same amount of time it will fire when it lifts the SLS off the launch pad, and produced 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The test was conducted at the Promontory, Utah test facility of commercial partner Orbital ATK, and is one of two tests planned to qualify the booster for flight. Once qualified, the flight booster hardware will be ready for shipment to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida for the first SLS launch into space.
"The work being done around the country today to build SLS is laying a solid foundation for future exploration missions, and these missions will enable us to pioneer far into the solar system," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. "The teams are doing tremendous work to develop what will be a national asset for human exploration and potential science missions."
It took months to heat the 1.6 million pound booster to 32ºC (90ºF) to verify its performance at the highest end of the booster’s accepted propellant temperature range. A cold-temperature test at 4ºC (40ºF), the low end of the propellant temperature range, is planned for early 2016. These two tests will provide a full range of data for analytical models that inform how the booster performs. During yesterday's test, temperatures inside the booster reached more than 5,600 degrees.
"Great test, just a fantastic result," said Alex Priskos, who manages the Boosters Office for the SLS program at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama. "This thing was about as perfect as it could be."
"This test is a significant milestone for SLS and follows years of development," said Todd May, SLS program manager. "Our partnership with Orbital ATK and more than 500 suppliers across the country is keeping us on the path to building the most powerful rocket in the world."
During the test, more than 531 instrumentation channels on the booster were measured to help assess some 102 design objectives. The test also demonstrated the booster meets applicable ballistic performance requirements, such as thrust and pressure. Other objectives included data gathering on vital motor upgrades, such as the new internal motor insulation and liner and an improved nozzle design.
When completed, two five-segment boosters and four RS-25 main engines will power the SLS on deep space missions. The 177-feet-long solid rocket boosters operate in parallel with the main engines for the first two minutes of flight. They provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed for the rocket to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth.
The first flight test of SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit to test the performance of the integrated system. This has been expected for 2017, although the schedule may now be changed to 2018. The SLS will later be configured to provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) enabling manned missions to asteroids in the 2020s and ultimately Mars in the 2030s.
11th March 2015
Genital herpes vaccine shows promise in mouse study
Scientists have designed a radical new type of vaccine that could be the first ever for preventing genital herpes.
One of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, herpes affects some 500 million people worldwide. By using a counterintuitive approach, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City were able to prevent both active and latent infections caused by herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), which causes genital herpes. Findings from the research, conducted in mice, were published yesterday in the journal eLife.
"Developing a herpes vaccine is one of the holy grails of infectious disease research," said co-study leader William Jacobs Jr., Ph.D. "We decided to take an approach that runs counter to most of the tactics used by other scientists – and we seem to have cracked the code."
It was generally assumed that an effective HSV-2 vaccine must stimulate the body to produce neutralising antibodies – particularly against a viral surface protein called glycoprotein D (gD-2) that HSV-2 uses to enter human cells. A protein that triggers antibody production is called an antigen. For decades, researchers have focused on “subunit” herpes vaccines that rely primarily on gD-2 as the antigen to stimulate the body’s antibody response – but none has prevented HSV-2 infection in humans.
"This suggests we've been stimulating production of the wrong type of antibodies," said co-study leader Betsy Herold, M.D.
The researchers took a completely different approach in designing their “live” HSV-2 vaccine. Instead of using gD-2 to stimulate antibodies, they deleted the gene for gD-2 from the virus (and, consequently, the protein’s expression on the viral surface) – a manipulation that weakens the virus, rendering it unable to infect cells or cause disease. They hypothesise that this altered virus stimulates the body to produce different and more effective antibodies.
“We had a hunch that gD-2 might be masking other viral antigens, and that by removing this dominant protein we would expose those previously masked antigens to the immune system,” said Dr. Jacobs.
When the vaccine, dubbed “delta-gD-2” (“delta” is shorthand for a gene deletion) was given to mice, it provided complete protection against subsequent infection with normal (wildtype) HSV-2, whether animals were challenged intravaginally or through the skin. No virus was detected in vaginal or skin tissue of vaccinated mice or in neural tissue, where HSV-2 often hides in a latent form only to emerge later to cause disease. When unvaccinated mice were challenged with wildtype HSV-2, all showed evidence of the virus in the three tissue sites, and all succumbed to the disease.
The vaccinated mice showed low levels of neutralising antibodies, but high levels of antibodies associated with a different immune response called antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC). This and other experiments described in the paper – such as finding that blood serum from vaccinated mice was able to passively protect unvaccinated mice – conclusively demonstrated that ADCC antibodies were responsible for protecting against HSV-2.
“Our findings challenge the existing dogma that says an effective herpes vaccine must stimulate neutralising antibodies against gD-2,” said Dr. Jacobs. “It’s almost as if the virus evolved gD-2 specifically to hide the other antigens. gD-2 turns out to be a Trojan horse that misleads the immune system.”
The new vaccine also appears to be safe. The researchers calculated the number of wildtype viruses needed to kill mice – then administered 1,000 times that number of delta-g D-2 viruses to mice that lacked immune systems and so couldn’t ward off infections. The result: the mice survived and did not develop herpes. The Einstein team hopes to begin clinical trials on humans within a few years.
Initial tests suggest that the vaccine is also effective against HSV-1, oral herpes, although this needs to be further evaluated. In addition, the vaccine’s novel design may help in creating vaccines against other disease-causing microbes that invade the body through mucosal tissues, including HIV and the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.
“Genital herpes infections can not only be serious in and of themselves, but they also play a major role in fuelling the HIV epidemic,” said Dr. Herold. “People infected with HSV-2 are more likely to acquire and to transmit HIV – which further underscores the need to develop a safe and effective herpes vaccine.”
Albert Einstein College of Medicine has filed patent applications related to this research and is seeking licensing partners able to further develop and commercialise this technology.
9th March 2015
Solar-powered plane attempts to fly around the world
The Solar Impulse team have begun their epic journey around the world.
Solar Impulse – a long-range, solar-powered aircraft project – took off this morning from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. It aims to become the first plane to fly around the world using only energy from the Sun.
On the plane's 35,000 km (21,747 miles) route, pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg will take turns in the cockpit as the aircraft makes it way eastwards from Abu Dhabi – stopping in cities including Muscat, Oman; Ahmedabad and Varanasi in India; Mandalay in Myanmar; Chongqing and Nanjing in China; and Hawaii, Phoenix and New York in the United States – before crossing the Atlantic on its way back to Abu Dhabi, where it is expected to arrive in mid-2015.
The most challenging leg of the journey will be a non-stop flight of five days and nights across the Pacific Ocean, from China to Hawaii. The plane, powered by 17,248 solar cells, will ascend to altitudes approaching 10,000 metres during the day, while fully charging its batteries to stay aloft throughout the night.
"When we speak of clean technologies for the world, it is not a dream, it is real," said Piccard, the Swiss aviation pioneer who was part of the first team to circle the earth in a balloon in 1999. His partner Borschberg sees "technology changing much faster than we could ever have imagined."
A webcam, map and other real-time data can be seen on the official website.
8th March 2015
Futuristic tires could boost electric vehicles
Two futuristic concept tires unveiled by Goodyear at this week’s Geneva International Motor Show could radically change the role of car tires in the future.
“BHO3” (left) and “Triple Tube” (right). Credit: Goodyear
Although the tires pictured here are only concept products at this stage, the technologies in their designs offer a glimpse of what practical innovations may be on the horizon.
The first concept – named “BHO3” – offers the possibility of charging the batteries of electric cars by transforming the heat generated by the rolling tire into useful electrical energy. The second concept – named “Triple Tube” – contains three tubes that adjust tire inflation pressure in response to changing road conditions, delivering new levels of performance and versatility.
“These concept tires reimagine the role that tires may play in the future,” said Joe Zekoski, Goodyear’s senior vice president and chief technical officer. “We envision a future in which our products become more integrated with the vehicle and the consumer, more environmentally friendly and more versatile.”
Additional details on the two concept tires:
This tire generates electricity through the action of thermoelectric and piezoelectric materials in the tire that capture and transform the energy created by heat when it flexes as it rolls during normal driving conditions. The materials used would optimise the tire’s electricity generation capabilities as well as its rolling resistance.
As demand for electric cars grows, this technology has the potential to significantly contribute to the solution of future mobility challenges. This visionary tire technology could help to alleviate the vehicle-range anxiety motorists may have with electric cars.
This tire features three internal tubes within the tire. Tubes are located beneath the tread and near the inboard and outboard shoulders of the tire, as well as the centre. The tire relies on an internal pump that moves air from the main air chamber to the three individual air chambers, or tubes. The tire automatically adjusts – on its own – to three different positions based on road conditions.
• The Eco/Safety position – with maximum inflation in all three tubes – offers reduced rolling resistance.
• The Sporty position – with reduced inflation within the inboard shoulder tube – gives drivers dry handling through an optimised contact patch.
• The Wet Traction position – with maximised inflation in the centre tube – provides high aquaplaning resistance through a raised tread in the centre of the tire.
Although these tires are future concepts, Zekoski says they represent an essential aspect of Goodyear’s innovation strategy, instilling a forward-looking, market-back mindset in the company’s research and development teams.
“It is more important than ever for us to stay firmly rooted in our market-back innovation process, which calls on us to focus on, and anticipate, the rapidly evolving needs of our customers,” said Zekoski.
7th March 2015
Stem cell therapy for lung cancer to begin human trials
A pioneering therapy using bone marrow stem cells to treat lung cancer patients has been announced in the UK.
A new combined cell-gene therapy for lung cancer will be tested on National Health Service (NHS) patients this year, after receiving £2m (US$3m) of funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC). Scientists at University College London (UCL) will conduct the world's first human clinical trials of a combined stem cell and gene therapy for the disease, which is notorious for its high incidence and low survival rates. In the UK, lung cancer is the second most common form of cancer, responsible for 34,000 deaths each year – while in the USA, it is the third most common form of cancer, killing 158,000. Globally, lung cancer is the single most common cause of cancer-related death in men and women, responsible for 1.6 million deaths in 2012. Five year survival rates are among the poorest of the 200 cancer types: only 9.5% in the UK and 17.5% in the USA. There has been slow progress in terms of improving these mortality figures, with only small incremental increases since the 1970s.
UCL's new experimental treatment could change that. Early tests have shown it can significantly reduce and in some cases eliminate tumours in mice. Researchers will now test the treatment in human volunteers – firstly to check that the treatment is safe, then in 56 lung cancer patients to see how effective the gene/cell therapy plus chemotherapy is compared with standard care.
Sam Janes, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at UCL and the study's leader: “Lung cancer is very difficult to treat, because the vast majority of patients are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. One therapy option for these patients is chemotherapy, but even if successful this treatment can normally only extend lives by a handful of months. Chemotherapy can also cause widespread toxic side-effects. We aim to improve prospects for lung cancer patients by using a highly targeted therapy using stem cells, which have an innate tendency to home in on tumours when they’re injected into the body. Once there, they switch on a ‘kill’ pathway in the cancer cells, leaving healthy surrounding cells untouched. If clinical trials are successful, our treatment could be transformative for the treatment of lung cancer, and possibly other types of tumour in future.”
In vitro tumour (red), seeded with stem cells (green), which burrow down through gel and into the tumour. The process shown here is 12 hours long.
Left video shows just the tumour; middle video shows just the stem cells; right video shows the green cells rushing into the tumour.
The new treatment works by genetically modifying bone marrow stem cells to express an anti-cancer gene called TRAIL. Being encased within a cell protects the genetic material from being degraded by the body, so that when it reaches the tumour it is able to trigger a signalling pathway that kills the cancer cells.
Each patient will receive almost a billion cells over three infusions, three weeks apart (injected one day after receiving chemotherapy). Over the next three years, 100 billion cells will be created at the Royal Free Hospital’s £2.1 million, state-of-the-art cell manufacturing lab. A key advantage of the treatment is that the cells can be used ‘off the shelf’ and do not need to be from a close relative or tissue match. This is because they have relatively few proteins on the surface and do not induce an immune response in the recipient.
“This will be the first cell therapy for lung cancer and the biggest manufacturing of cells of its kind,” said Professor Janes.
6th March 2015
NASA's Dawn probe arrives at Ceres
NASA's Dawn probe has begun to orbit Ceres, becoming the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet.
Another entry on our timeline became a reality today, as the Dawn probe successfully entered orbit around Ceres – the largest and most massive object in the asteroid belt. Launched in September 2007, Dawn has travelled 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion km) through the Solar System and is the first NASA exploratory mission to use ion propulsion to enter orbits. Today at 5:36 a.m. PST (8:36 a.m. EST / 13:36 p.m. GMT), mission controllers received a signal from the craft, indicating that Dawn was fully functional and had reached its destination as planned.
Dawn is currently 38,000 miles (61,000 km) from Ceres, equivalent to about 10% of the distance between the Earth and Moon. In the coming months, however, it will perform a series of manoeuvres taking it much closer. After circling in a polar orbit of 8,400 miles (13,500 km), it will gradually spiral down to lower and lower altitudes, reaching 233 miles (375 km) in November 2015. This will enable very high resolution photos of the surface to be obtained, while vast amounts of data from a gamma-ray and neutron detector (GRaND) will reveal the internal structure and composition. These measurements could provide new clues about the origin and formation of the Solar System, complementing the information gained from an earlier encounter with Vesta (the second largest asteroid) in 2011-12.
"Both Ceres and Vesta, we believe, are proto-planets," said Dr Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator, in a BBC interview. "They were on their way to forming larger planetary embryos and they were the type of object that merged to form the terrestrial planets. But these two stopped before they reached that evolutionary stage, and so they are essentially these intact 'time capsules' from the very beginning of our Solar System; and that's really the motivation for why Dawn is going there to explore them in detail."
Last year, plumes of water vapour were detected from Ceres using the Herschel Space Observatory, and scientists now believe this dwarf planet may contain a thick mantle of ice. This may explain the two bright "spots" which can be seen inside a crater in the northern hemisphere. There is speculation that a recent impact may have exposed this buried layer, vaporising the ice and leaving behind very reflective salts.
"We feel exhilarated," said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). "We have much to do over the next year and a half, but we are now on station with ample reserves, and a robust plan to obtain our science objectives."
You can follow the latest updates on Twitter and the mission page of the NASA website.
3rd March 2015
200GB microSD card announced by SanDisk
SanDisk has announced the first 200GB capacity microSD card, a 56% increase on its previous record of 128GB just a year earlier.
SanDisk Corporation has introduced the 200GB SanDisk Ultra® microSDXC™ UHS-I card, Premium Edition – the world's highest capacity microSD card for use in mobile devices. Just one year after its record-breaking 128GB microSD card, the company has increased storage capacity by 56% within the same fingernail-sized form factor. Blazingly fast transfer speeds of 90MB/s enable consumers to move up to 1,200 photos per minute.
“Mobile devices are completely changing the game,” said Christopher Chute, Vice President, Worldwide Digital Imaging Practice, IDC. “Seven out of 10 images captured by consumers are now from smartphones and tablets. Consumers view mobile-first devices as their primary means for image capture and sharing – and by 2019, smartphones and tablets will account for nine out of 10 images captured. As the needs of mobile users continue to change, SanDisk is on the forefront of delivering solutions for these demands as is clearly illustrated through their growing portfolio of innovative products, including the new 200GB SanDisk Ultra microSDXC card.”
SanDisk achieved this capacity breakthrough by leveraging the proprietary technology developed last year for the 128GB version and creating a new design and production process that allows for more bits per die. Digital storage is a very good example of an exponential technology. On current trends, microSD cards with terabyte (1000GB) capacities are likely to be achieved within the next several years.
The 200GB SanDisk Ultra microSDXC UHS-I card, Premium Edition, features a ten-year limited warranty and will be available worldwide in Q2 2015 at a suggested retail price of $399.99.
2nd March 2015
"The Vive" – new VR headset being developed by HTC and Valve
Smartphone giant HTC, in partnership with gaming company Valve, has announced plans to bring mass-market virtual reality a step closer.
Through a strategic partnership with Valve, HTC hopes to transform the way in which consumers interact with technology and the world around them with the debut of HTC Vive. The Developer Edition will be launched this Spring, with a consumer edition available by the end of 2015. The Vive will combine Valve’s Steam VR tracking and input technologies with HTC’s design and engineering talent. If successful, it could set a new gold standard for an industry that has, until now, struggled to move beyond the concept stage.
Cher Wang, Chairwoman of HTC: "It’s rare that a company has an opportunity to forever transform the ways in which people interact with the world and communicate with each other, but that is exactly what we plan to do with Valve."
"We achieved this once before with our development of smartphone technology," says Peter Chou, CEO of HTC. "And through our partnership with Valve, we’ll now be doing this for a second time with VR technology of which consumers could only previously dream."
There are several competing VR headsets now being developed including the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR and Sony's Project Morpheus. HTC claims its Vive product will offer "the most immersive experience of any VR package" – a Full Room Scale 360° Solution with tracked controllers, letting you get up, walk around and explore your virtual space, inspect objects from every angle and truly interact with your surroundings. Setting a new benchmark for performance and speed, Vive will feature 1200 x 1080 pixel resolution displays refreshing at 90 frames per second, "eliminating jitter" and achieving "photorealistic imagery." More than 70 sensors are built into the device including a gyrosensor, accelerometer, and laser position sensor that will track users' head movements as precisely as one-tenth of a degree.
"We believe that virtual reality will totally transform the way that we interact with the world," said Chou at a press event in Barcelona. "Virtual reality will become a mainstream technology for the rest of the world."
While gaming has been a major focus of virtual reality, there are many other applications for the Vive, according to HTC. Just some of the potential experiences include travel, attending real-time concerts, meeting friends, shopping, learning history, exploring the universe, or even reliving memories.
"Vive creates an exciting opportunity for all developers and content creators, to help us bring virtual reality into the mainstream with an end-to-end solution that completely redefines how we entertain ourselves, communicate with each other, learn and, eventually, how we become more productive," Cher Wang concluded. "HTC Vive is real, it’s here and it’ll be ready to go before the start of 2016."