For years, scientists have been studying how the buildup of toxic molecules in the brain might cause or contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. But much more difficult has been figuring out what sets off the process that makes those molecules begin to accumulate in the first place.
Now, a team of researchers from Curtin University say that “leakage” of a toxic compound called beta-amyloid from the bloodstream might be the root problem, according to a mouse study published last week in the journal PLOS Biology. While it’s not yet clear whether the same process happens in humans, the discovery could give scientists a new way to track or monitor the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and, perhaps, help them develop new treatments to prevent it.
“While we previously knew that the hallmark feature of people living with Alzheimer’s disease was the progressive accumulation of toxic protein deposits within the brain called beta-amyloid, researchers did not know where the amyloid originated from, or why it deposited in the brain,” lead study author and Curtin researcher John Mamo said in a press release.
More specifically, the team found that beta-amyloid, a compound that builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s that’s been long associated with the onset of dementia, is formed outside of the brain, then gets shuttled throughout the bloodstream by lipoproteins.
In the new study, the scientists discovered that those lipoproteins tend to leak, allowing the toxic compounds to reach the brain and start to accumulate. The mice that had higher levels of amyloid production also showed a greater degree of inflammation in the brain, hinting at a link between the compound and the onset of neurodegenerative disease.
“This ‘blood-to-brain pathway’ is significant because if we can manage the levels in blood of lipoprotein-amyloid and prevent their leakage into the brain, this opens up potential new treatments to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and slow memory loss,” Mamo added.
It would take confirming that the same link exists in humans before anyone can talk about new Alzheimer’s treatments.
But Mamo suggests in the press release that specific drugs or even changes to one’s diet could reduce the amount of amyloid in the bloodstream, potentially helping to prevent or at least delay Alzheimer’s — and that’s big news in the fight against a particularly horrible disease.
Waterloo companies power past Stanford, MIT and Harvard in key metric
Ahhh …. Those wily Canadians! Surpassing MIT, Stanford and Silicon Valley
Investors looking for higher returns might be wiser to look to Waterloo companies than ventures started by alumni at Stanford, MIT and Harvard.
A new report from a U.S. platform for investors and startups has found that ventures founded by Waterloo alumni produce a higher-than-expected return on investment than their counterparts at the three American institutions.
The data from AngelList Venture show Waterloo startups generate outsized ROI for their investors, with an average excess markup rate 13 per cent higher than the baseline at 12 and 36 months.
Only the University of Washington ranked higher with a rate of 21 per cent, while Brown University came in third with an 11.5 per cent excess markup rate. Two other Canadian universities made the ranking, with University of Toronto coming in at 16th and McGill University at 19th.
The platform considers an investment on its list to be marked up if it does an equity round at a higher price per share in a future fundraise. The rate is a strong indication of how an investment is performing, the company says.
“This speaks highly of Waterloo founders’ ability to thrive here in southwestern Ontario, well outside of Silicon Valley, New-York or Boston,” said Vivek Goel, president and vice-chancellor of the University. “Waterloo companies like ApplyBoard, Vidyard and Clearco are paving the way for future founders who want to grow within Canada, helping to increase the prominence of the Toronto-Waterloo tech ecosystem on the global stage.”
The findings indicate that Waterloo founders are being underestimated or undervalued by investors, said Alex Norman, a partner at N49P and co-founder of TechTO. “As investors see more and more University of Waterloo founders succeed, this may lead to more teams being funded or higher valuations for early-stage companies.”
While Canadian founders might be initially passed over by U.S. investors, great results for Waterloo founders over time are allowing early supporters to reap outsized rewards.
“It is no longer a secret that the University of Waterloo is a top school for innovative talent in North America,” said John Dick, director of Concept, the University’s experiential entrepreneurship program.
Young companies will continue to flourish in Waterloo Region through the University’s Campus Innovation Ecosystem and Velocity Incubator, which offer many problem-solving and venture-building opportunities, he said.
While founders with Waterloo pedigrees might not see the same level of investor demand as those at larger institutions in the U.S. AngelList says that can make them undervalued, “meaning that investors willing to back the founders from these institutions may have an opportunity to capture some excess returns.”
The findings come at an eventful time for Velocity, the University’s flagship entrepreneurial incubator, which announced recently that the total amount of funding raised by Velocity companies surpassed $2.4 billion. The incubator took almost a decade to reach the $1-billion mark but less than two years to reach $2 billion, showing an acceleration in both deal numbers and sizes. Velocity is expecting an alumni company to go through IPO for the first time later this year.
Velocity started its own pre-seed venture fund in 2019, and 18 out of 19 companies they have invested in so far received meaningful follow-on investments, highlighting the program’s ability to support early-stage founders and help them turn ideas and prototypes into marketable, scalable companies.
“As we move to more and more renewable penetration, this intermittency will make a greater impact on the electric power system,” says Emre Gençer, a research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). That’s because grid operators will increasingly resort to fossil-fuel-based “peaker” plants that compensate for the intermittency of the variable renewable energy (VRE) sources of sun and wind. “If we’re to achieve zero-carbon electricity, we must replace all greenhouse gas-emitting sources,” Gençer says.
Low- and zero-carbon alternatives to greenhouse-gas emitting peaker plants are in development, such as arrays of lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen power generation. But each of these evolving technologies comes with its own set of advantages and constraints, and it has proven difficult to frame the debate about these options in a way that’s useful for policymakers, investors, and utilities engaged in the clean energy transition.
Now, Gençer and Drake D. Hernandez SM ’21 have come up with a model that makes it possible to pin down the pros and cons of these peaker-plant alternatives with greater precision. Their hybrid technological and economic analysis, based on a detailed inventory of California’s power system, was published online last month in Applied Energy. While their work focuses on the most cost-effective solutions for replacing peaker power plants, it also contains insights intended to contribute to the larger conversation about transforming energy systems.
“Our study’s essential takeaway is that hydrogen-fired power generation can be the more economical option when compared to lithium-ion batteries—even today, when the costs of hydrogen production, transmission, and storage are very high,” says Hernandez, who worked on the study while a graduate research assistant for MITEI. Adds Gençer, “If there is a place for hydrogen in the cases we analyzed, that suggests there is a promising role for hydrogen to play in the energy transition.”
Adding up the costs
California serves as a stellar paradigm for a swiftly shifting power system. The state draws more than 20 percent of its electricity from solar and approximately 7 percent from wind, with more VRE coming online rapidly. This means its peaker plants already play a pivotal role, coming online each evening when the sun goes down or when events such as heat waves drive up electricity use for days at a time.
“We looked at all the peaker plants in California,” recounts Gençer. “We wanted to know the cost of electricity if we replaced them with hydrogen-fired turbines or with lithium-ion batteries.” The researchers used a core metric called the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) as a way of comparing the costs of different technologies to each other. LCOE measures the average total cost of building and operating a particular energy-generating asset per unit of total electricity generated over the hypothetical lifetime of that asset.
Selecting 2019 as their base study year, the team looked at the costs of running natural gas-fired peaker plants, which they defined as plants operating 15 percent of the year in response to gaps in intermittent renewable electricity. In addition, they determined the amount of carbon dioxide released by these plants and the expense of abating these emissions. Much of this information was publicly available.
Coming up with prices for replacing peaker plants with massive arrays of lithium-ion batteries was also relatively straightforward: “There are no technical limitations to lithium-ion, so you can build as many as you want; but they are super expensive in terms of their footprint for energy storage and the mining required to manufacture them,” says Gençer.
But then came the hard part: nailing down the costs of hydrogen-fired electricity generation. “The most difficult thing is finding cost assumptions for new technologies,” says Hernandez. “You can’t do this through a literature review, so we had many conversations with equipment manufacturers and plant operators.”
The team considered two different forms of hydrogen fuel to replace natural gas, one produced through electrolyzer facilities that convert water and electricity into hydrogen, and another that reforms natural gas, yielding hydrogen and carbon waste that can be captured to reduce emissions. They also ran the numbers on retrofitting natural gas plants to burn hydrogen as opposed to building entirely new facilities. Their model includes identification of likely locations throughout the state and expenses involved in constructing these facilities.
The researchers spent months compiling a giant dataset before setting out on the task of analysis. The results from their modeling were clear: “Hydrogen can be a more cost-effective alternative to lithium-ion batteries for peaking operations on a power grid,” says Hernandez. In addition, notes Gençer, “While certain technologies worked better in particular locations, we found that on average, reforming hydrogen rather than electrolytic hydrogen turned out to be the cheapest option for replacing peaker plants.”
Credit: DOI: 10.1016/j.apenergy.2021.117314
A tool for energy investors
When he began this project, Gençer admits he “wasn’t hopeful” about hydrogen replacing natural gas in peaker plants. “It was kind of shocking to see in our different scenarios that there was a place for hydrogen.” That’s because the overall price tag for converting a fossil-fuel based plant to one based on hydrogen is very high, and such conversions likely won’t take place until more sectors of the economy embrace hydrogen, whether as a fuel for transportation or for varied manufacturing and industrial purposes.
A nascent hydrogen production infrastructure does exist, mainly in the production of ammonia for fertilizer. But enormous investments will be necessary to expand this framework to meet grid-scale needs, driven by purposeful incentives. “With any of the climate solutions proposed today, we will need a carbon tax or carbon pricing; otherwise nobody will switch to new technologies,” says Gençer.
The researchers believe studies like theirs could help key energy stakeholders make better-informed decisions. To that end, they have integrated their analysis into SESAME, a life cycle and techno-economic assessment tool for a range of energy systems that was developed by MIT researchers. Users can leverage this sophisticated modeling environment to compare costs of energy storage and emissions from different technologies, for instance, or to determine whether it is cost-efficient to replace a natural gas-powered plant with one powered by hydrogen.
“As utilities, industry, and investors look to decarbonize and achieve zero-emissions targets, they have to weigh the costs of investing in low-carbon technologies today against the potential impacts of climate change moving forward,” says Hernandez, who is currently a senior associate in the energy practice at Charles River Associates. Hydrogen, he believes, will become increasingly cost-competitive as its production costs decline and markets expand.
A study group member of MITEI’s soon-to-be published Future of Storage study, Gençer knows that hydrogen alone will not usher in a zero-carbon future. But, he says, “Our research shows we need to seriously consider hydrogen in the energy transition, start thinking about key areas where hydrogen should be used, and start making the massive investments necessary.”
Hyundai’s luxury brand pledges to stop releasing new ICE-powered models in 2025.
Genesis will lead Hyundai’s electrification efforts, Takata airbag recalls are still a thing and, surprise, the Tesla Roadster has slipped back another year. All this and more in this Thursday edition of The Morning Shift for September 2, 2021.
1st Gear: Genesis Isn’t Waiting Around
Automakers are busy making projections that they’ll stop selling gas-powered vehicles by maybe 2030 or 2035. Genesis in now among them. As a very young brand with just five models on sale in the United States, it doesn’t have a lot of history or buyers entrenched in the brand to please. It’s pretty much free to go in any direction it chooses, when it chooses. Starting in 2025, it’ll stop bringing new ICE cars to market, it announced Wednesday. From Automotive News:
Hyundai Motor Group’s top-shelf brand said that all new vehicles will be electric from 2025 under a dual-pronged approach that focuses on full-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells.
The company will drop internal combustion technology from new models beginning that year, meaning Genesis will also bypass hybrids and plug-in hybrids, spokesman Jee Hyun Kim said.
By 2030, the global lineup will consist of eight EV and fuel cell models, he said. Around that time, Genesis plans to achieve worldwide sales of 400,000 vehicles a year. As recently as late 2019, Genesis was expecting annual sales to crest at 100,000 for the first time.
The report notes that Genesis shifted 128,365 cars in 2020. Last year was Genesis’ first in which it offered an SUV — the GV80 — and this year, the company added the GV70. The weird-looking GV60 is next, and will represent the brand’s first EV. Now that it finally has a couple SUVs and crossovers under its belt, I imagine Genesis is well on its way toward that 400,000-car goal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the way I feel about the GV60, which is that it looks like the automotive equivalent of a naked mole rat.
2nd Gear: NHTSA Is Probing Tesla Over That Autopilot Crash With a Police Car In Florida
Last Saturday morning, a Tesla Model 3 in Orlando collided with a parked police car while Autopilot was enabled. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a probe into crashes between Autopilot-enabled Teslas and emergency vehicles last month. The department added this one to the list on Tuesday, making for the 12th incident on the books. From Reuters:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Aug. 16 said it had opened a formal safety probe into Tesla driver assistance system Autopilot after 11 crashes. The probe covers 765,000 U.S. Tesla vehicles built between 2014 and 2021.
The 12th occurred in Orlando on Saturday, NHTSA said. The agency sent Tesla a detailed 11-page letter on Tuesday with numerous questions it must answer, as part of its investigation.
Like with the latest crash, most of them have happened in dark conditions according to the NHTSA. As part of the probe, Tesla is asked to explain how its software is designed to respond to emergency vehicles and hazard alerts like cones, lights and flares.
Tesla is required to disclose any adjustments it plans to make to Autopilot over the next 120 days, Reuters reports. The company must also answer the NHTSA’s questions by October 22, or risk fines up to $115 million if it doesn’t respond.
3rd Gear: Volkswagen’s Latest Takata Settlement Is Worth $42 Million
Supposedly, every vehicle with a Takata airbag inflator has been recalled. But millions of those cars are still driving around with potentially faulty inflators and automakers have struggled to get them into service — Volkswagen included. From Reuters:
Volkswagen’s U.S. unit has agreed to a $42 million settlement covering 1.35 million vehicles that were equipped with potentially dangerous Takata air bag inflators, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Miami.
The settlement is the latest by major automakers and much of the funding goes to boosting recall completion rates. To date, seven other major automakers have agreed to settlements worth about $1.5 billion covering tens of millions of vehicles.
According to court documents, it’s estimated that 35 percent of the inflators in question in Volkswagen and Audi cars have not been replaced. The main purpose of this settlement is to cover out-of-pocket expenses like rental fees, or cover for wages lost while owners are without their cars.
4th Gear: 2021 Imprezas Recalled For Welding Issue
Speaking of recalls, Subaru will soon reach out to some owners of 2021 Imprezas due to an “improper weld” on the car’s front driver’s side lower control arm. Some 802 vehicles are reportedly affected. If the weld breaks, it could cause the tire to partially detach and strike the inside of the wheel well. From Automotive News:
Subaru on Wednesday said the improper weld is near a connection joint between the lower control arm and the crossmember, and could lead to a partial separation of the two components.
Subaru says it has received no reports of crashes or injuries related to the defect, but is warning owners to have their vehicles checked by Subaru dealers to see if the lot number stamped into the control arm is part of the recall. If it is, consumers are being told not to drive the vehicle until it is repaired.
Subaru will notify owners by mail, but if you’re wondering if your Impreza might be affected and would rather not wait to know for sure, you could visit the NHTSA’s recall tracker or Subaru’s website, enter your car’s VIN number, and find out.
5th Gear: Tesla Roadster Delayed
The Tesla Roadster was announced in 2017. Lots of people made deposits. Then thrusters were added as an optional extra for some reason. Then Elon Musk said around the middle of last year that Roadster production would begin basically now, during mid-to-late 2021. On Wednesday, Musk tweeted that the production target’s been pushed back to next year, and the cars will reach buyers in 2023. The reason? The chip shortage!
I know automotive manufacturing is wholeheartedly broken right now, but considering the Roadster was announced four whole years ago, the “oh, us too” excuse doesn’t quite sound so convincing. I do believe the Roadster will eventually be a real thing that really exists. Because Tesla felt it necessary to announce the car extremely early for some reason, now it feels like vaporware. It’ll continue to feel like vaporware until it’s proven to be otherwise.
Reverse: Let’s Go See The ‘Vettes
The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky opened its doors on September 2, 1994. 120,000 visitors reportedly attended its grand opening during its first weekend. I learned about the existence of this museum the same way I figure a great many people did: when a sinkhole opened up underneath it in 2014 and swallowed up a bunch of cars. Thankfully the Corvette Museum bounced back, and here’s something else: you can actually tour the sinkhole itself from your web browser, right now, in 3D. I’m not kidding.
Anyone using a cellphone, laptop or electric vehicle depends on lithium. The element is in tremendous demand. And although the supply of lithium around the world is plentiful, getting access to it and extracting it remains a challenging and inefficient process.
An interdisciplinary team of engineers and scientists is developing a way to extract lithium from contaminated water. New research, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, could simplify the process of extracting lithium from aqueous brines, potentially create a much larger supply and reduce costs of the element for batteries to power electric vehicles, electronics and a wide range of other devices. Currently, lithium is most commonly sourced from salt brines in South America using solar evaporation, a costly process that can take years and loses much of the lithium along the way.
The research team from The University of Texas at Austin and University of California, Santa Barbara designed membranes for precise separation of lithium over other ions, such as sodium, significantly improving the efficiency of gathering the coveted element.
“The study’s findings have significant implications for addressing major resource constraints for lithium, with the potential to also extract it from water generated in oil and gas production for batteries,” said Benny Freeman, a professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin and a co-author on the paper.
Beyond salt brines, wastewater generated in oil and gas production also contains lithium but remains untapped today. Just a single week’s worth of water from hydraulic fracturing in Texas’s Eagle Ford Shale has the potential to produce enough lithium for 300 electric vehicle batteries or 1.7 million smartphones, the researchers said. This example shows the scale of opportunities for this new technique to vastly increase lithium supply and lower costs for devices that rely on it.
At the heart of the discovery is a novel polymer membrane the researchers created using crown ethers, which are ligands with specific chemical functionality to bind certain ions. Crown ethers had not previously been applied or studied as integral parts of water treatment membranes, but they can target specific molecules in water—a key ingredient for lithium extraction.
In most polymers, sodium travels through membranes faster than lithium. However, in these new materials, lithium travels faster than sodium, which is a common contaminant in lithium-containing brines. Through computer modeling, the team discovered why this was happening. Sodium ions bind with the crown ethers, slowing them down, while lithium ions remain unbound, enabling them to move more quickly through the polymer.
The findings represent a new frontier in membrane science that required above-and-beyond collaboration between the universities in such areas as polymer synthesis, membrane characterization and modeling simulation. The research was supported as part of the Center for Materials for Water and Energy Systems, an Energy Frontier Research Center at UT Austin funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The lead authors of the paper are Samuel J. Warnock of UCSB’s Materials Department and Rahul Sujanani and Everett S. Zofchak from the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. Other contributors are, from UT Austin, professors Venkat Ganesan and Freeman and researchers Theodore J. Dilenschneider; and from UCSB, Chemical Engineering assistant professor Chris Bates, Chemistry professor Mahdi Abu-Omar, and researchers Kalin G. Hanson, Shou Zhao and Sanjoy Mukherjee.
The term ‘DNA’ immediately calls to mind the double-stranded helix that contains all our genetic information. But the individual units of its two strands are pairs of molecules bonded with each other in a selective, complementary fashion. Turns out, one can take advantage of this pairing property to perform complex mathematical calculations, and this forms the basis of DNA nanotechnology and DNA computing.
Since DNA has only two strands, performing even a simple calculation requires multiple chemical reactions using different sets of DNA. In most existing research, the DNA for each reaction are added manually, one by one, into a single reaction tube, which makes the process very cumbersome.
Microfluidic chips, which consist of narrow channels etched onto a material like plastic, offer a way to automate the process. But despite their promise, the use of microfluidic chips for DNA computing remains underexplored.
“Our hope is that DNA-based CPUs will replace electronic CPUs in the future because they consume less power, which will help with global warming. DNA-based CPUs also provide a platform for complex calculations like deep learning solutions and mathematical modelling,” says Dr. Youngjun Song from INU, who led the study.
Dr. Song and team used 3D printing to fabricate their microfluidic chip, which can execute Boolean logic, one of the fundamental logics of computer programming. Boolean logic is a type of true-or-false logic that compares inputs and returns a value of ‘true’ or ‘false’ depending on the type of operation, or ‘logic gate,’ used. The logic gate in this experiment consisted of a single-stranded DNA template.
Different single-stranded DNA were then used as inputs. If part of an input DNA had a complementary Watson-Crick sequence to the template DNA, it paired to form double-stranded DNA. The output was considered true or false based on the size of the final DNA.
What makes the designed chip extraordinary is a motor-operated valve system that can be operated using a PC or smartphone. The chip and software set-up together form a microfluidic processing unit (MPU). Thanks to the valve system, the MPU could perform a series of reactions to execute a combination of logic operations in a rapid and convenient manner.
This unique valve system of the programmable DNA-based MPU paves the way for more complex cascades of reactions that can code for extended functions. “Future research will focus on a total DNA computing solution with DNA algorithms and DNA storage systems,” says Dr. Song.