A new type of low-cost battery could help solve the renewable energy storage problem, giving us a better way to bank solar and wind energy for when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
The challenge: A whopping 30% of global CO2 emissions are produced by coal-fired power plants, and decarbonizing the electric grid is a vital part of combating climate change.
We can speed the transition to a clean electric grid by storing excess energy in batteries, but lithium-ion ones are expensive.
Solar and wind power have become dramatically cheaper over the past couple of decades. However, these sources still depend on environmental conditions — without wind, turbines can’t spin, and if the sun isn’t shining, solar panels (usually) can’t harvest energy.null
That makes these sources less consistent than fossil fuels, which can be dispatched on demand, and so even while solar and wind continue to grow, utilities continue to rely on gas to fill gaps and keep the electric grid stable.
Energy storage: We can speed the transition to renewable power by storing excess energy in batteries and then deploying it when the sun and wind aren’t cooperating with demand. Many newer renewable energy plants are being paired with big banks of lithium-ion batteries, but lithium is expensive, and mining it is bad for the environment in other ways.
“Storage solutions that are manufactured using plentiful resources like sodium … have the potential to guarantee greater energy security.”SHENLONG ZHAO
Room-temperature sodium-sulfur (RT Na-S) batteries are a promising alternative for renewable energy storage. They rely on chemical reactions between a sulfur cathode and a sodium anode to store and deploy electrical energy, and they use low-cost materials, which can even be easily extracted from saltwater.null
“Storage solutions that are manufactured using plentiful resources like sodium … have the potential to guarantee greater energy security more broadly and allow more countries to join the shift towards decarbonisation,” said Shenlong Zhao, an energy storage researcher at the University of Sydney.
What’s new? Existing RT Na-S batteries have had limited storage capacity and a short life cycle, which has held back their commercialization, but there’s now a new kind of RT Na-S battery, developed by Zhao’s team.
According to their paper, the device has four times the storage capacity of a lithium-ion battery and an ultra-long life — after 1,000 cycles, it still retained about half of its capacity, which the researchers claim is “unprecedented.”
“This is a significant breakthrough for renewable energy development.”SHENLONG ZHAO
This leap was possible thanks to the incorporation of carbon-based electrodes and the use of a process called “pyrolysis” to improve the reactivity of the sulfur and the reactions between the sulfur and sodium.null
“This is a significant breakthrough for renewable energy development which, although reduces costs in the long term, has had several financial barriers to entry,” said Zhao.
The big picture: So far, the Sydney researchers have only created and tested lab-scale versions of their RT Na-S battery. They now plan to focus on scaling up and commercializing the tech, which will likely take several years.
There are many other alternatives to lithium-ion batteries that can be used for renewable energy storage today, though, including long-living flow batteries, massive water batteries, and batteries that store electricity as heat in bricks, sand, and other solid materials.
The sooner we scale up our use of renewables and deploy more of these batteries — and innovative newcomers, like the University of Sydney’s creation — the better our chances of avoiding the worst possible effects of climate change.
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Charging in five minutes? Almost the same as filling up your gas tank! Image Credit: Blue Planet
Scientists claim to have created a new type of battery that does not lose capacity after charging cycles, according to new research. The positive electrode material could pave the way for new electric car batteries that don’t suffer one of the greatest problems such cars currently face, which is a constantly diminishing lifespan and subsequently, expensive and ecologically-damaging replacements.
If the world is going to be free of the crude oil chains that currently prevent us from becoming net zero, we must move away from the use of petrol and diesel cars. Generally considered our best bet in doing so is electric cars, which have come a long way in just a few years, but continue to be limited by battery technology. Lithium-ion batteries are heavy, expensive, relatively short-lived, and don’t offer the range needed to persuade many petrol-heads away from their beloved pistons. Not to mention some of the horrifying Safety Headlines in the news lately! If the world is to adopt electric cars, battery lifespans and much improved safety need to go up and costs need to go down.
Enter solid-state batteries (SSBs), a promising new tech that may do just that. Lithium-ion batteries rely on a liquid electrolyte to facilitate the flow of charged ions during charging and discharging, while solid-state batteries are made of entirely solid materials. These batteries can:
Don’t pose a safety risk if the contents spill out, and
Can store more energy than their liquid counterparts
So … too good to be true, right? What’s the catch? Well … SSB’s are currently limited by the damage that occurs to the electrodes when lithium ions move through them. This is because the electrodes expand and shrink with ion movement as their structure changes, and if SSBs are to become viable, they need a way to stop this movement and the resulting damage.
To combat this, a team of researchers at Yokohama National University looked at a new type of SSB material that has incredible stability, preventing electrode damage. This material is useful for one main reason: it has the same volume when ions move out of or into it. Therefore, the battery can be used over and over without regular degradation of the material – technically, it could be charged and discharged indefinitely.
The team tested it and found no degradation across 400 charge/discharge cycles, which you certainly wouldn’t get with lithium-ion batteries. It isn’t quite perfect yet, but lead author Professor Naoaki Yabuuchi believes they are on track to make it so. (Yokohama National University)
“The absence of capacity fading over 400 cycles clearly indicates the superior performance of this material compared with those reported for conventional all-solid-state cells with layered materials,” co-author Associate Professor Neeraj Sharma said in a statement.
“This finding could drastically reduce battery costs. The development of practical high-performance solid-state batteries can also lead to the development of advanced electric vehicles.”
According to the team, this battery could mean an electric vehicle that charges in just five minutes, with higher capacity than current batteries – all at a much cheaper cost.
A recent cyber analytical report has warned that artificial intelligence (AI) enabled cyberattacks which are quite limited until now, may get more aggressive in the coming years.
The Helsinki-based cybersecurity and privacy firm WithSecure, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency, and the Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency collaborated on the report, according to an article by Cybernews on Thursday.
AI-powered assaults will definitely excel at impersonation, a tactic utilized frequently in phishing, as per the study.
“Although AI-generated content has been used for social engineering purposes, AI techniques designed to direct campaigns, perform attack steps, or control malware logic have still not been observed in the wild, said Andy Patel WithSecure intelligence researcher.
Such “techniques will be first developed by well-resourced, highly-skilled adversaries, such as nation-state groups.”
The paper examined current trends and advancements in AI, cyberattacks, and areas where the two intersect, suggesting early adoption and evolution of preventative measures were key to overcoming the threats.
“After new AI techniques are developed by sophisticated adversaries, some will likely trickle down to less-skilled adversaries and become more prevalent in the threat landscape,” stated Patel.
The threat in the next five years
The authors claim that it is safe to assert that AI-based hacks are now extremely uncommon and mostly used for social engineering purposes. However, they are also employed in ways that analysts and researchers cannot directly observe.
The majority of current AI disciplines do not come near to human intellect and cannot autonomously plan or carry out cyberattacks.
However, attackers will likely create AI in the next five years that can autonomously identify vulnerabilities, plan and carry out attack campaigns, use stealth to avoid defenses, and gather or mine data from infected systems or open-source intelligence.
“AI-enabled attacks can be run faster, target more victims and find more attack vectors than conventional attacks because of the nature of intelligent automation and the fact that they replace typically manual tasks,” said the report.
New methods are required to combat AI-based hacking that makes use of synthetic information, spoofs biometric authentication systems, and other upcoming capabilities, according to the paper.
AI-powered assaults will definitely excel at impersonation, a tactic utilized frequently in phishing and vishing (voice phishing) cyberattacks, noted the report.
“Deepfake-based impersonation is an example of new capability brought by AI for social engineering attacks,” claimed the report’s authors, who forecast that impersonations made possible by AI will advance further.
“No prior technology enabled to convincingly mimic the voice, gestures, and image of a target human in a manner that would deceive victims.”
Many tech experts believe that deepfakes are the biggest cybersecurity concern.
They have a strong shot at it because phone locks to bank accounts and passports, as well as all recent technical developments, have migrated toward biometric technologies.
Given how quickly deepfakes are developing, security systems that primarily rely on such technology appear to be at higher risk.
There were 1,291 data breaches until September 2021, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center’s (ITRC) study of data breaches.
In comparison to data breaches in 2020, which totaled 1,108, this figure shows a 17 percent increase.
281 million victims of data compromise were discovered during the first nine months of 2021, according to ITRC research, a sharp increase.
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) recently announced that plants could be used to produce nanobodies that quickly block emerging pathogens in human medicine and agriculture. These nanobodies represent a promising new way to treat viral diseases, including SARS-CoV-2.
Nanobodies are small antibody proteins naturally produced in specific animals like camels, alpacas, and llamas.
ARS researchers turned to evaluating nanobodies to prevent and treat citrus greening disease in citrus trees. These scientists are now using their newly developed and patented SymbiontTM technology to show that nanobodies can be easily produced in a plant system with broad agricultural and public health applications.
As a proof-of-concept, researches showed that nanobodies targeting the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be made in plant cells and remain functional in blocking the binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to its receptor protein: the process responsible for initiating viral infection in human cells.
“We initially wanted to develop sustainable solutions to pathogens in crop production,” said ARS researcher Robert Shatters, Jr. “The results of that research are indeed successful and beneficial for the nation’s agricultural system. But now we are aware of an even greater result—the benefits of producing therapeutics in plants now justify the consideration of using plants to mass produce COVID-19 protein-based therapies.”
AgroSource, Inc. collaborated with USDA-ARS to develop the plant-based production system. They are currently taking the necessary steps to see how they can move this advancement into the commercial sector.
Smile and Learnfor Kids (Older Folks Too)
“This is a huge breakthrough for science and innovative solutions to agricultural and public health challenges,” said ARS researcher Michelle Heck. “This cost-efficient, plant-based system proves that there are alternative ways to confront and prevent the spread of emerging pathogens. The approach has the potential to massively expand livelihood development opportunities in rural agricultural areas of the nation and in other countries.”
The findings are published on the bioRxiv preprint server.
Parathyroid hormone can stimulate bone formation, and analogs of the hormone are often prescribed to patients with osteoporosis; however, these medications are only effective when administered by daily injection.
A team led by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) recently identified a promising compound that influences components of the parathyroid hormone signaling pathway and that, when given orally to mice, increases bone mass. The group’s discovery, which is published in PNAS, might lead to a new, more convenient drug for preventing and treating osteoporosis.
“Currently there are no orally available medications for osteoporosis that stimulate bone formation. We sought to develop such medications based upon our detailed understanding of the pathways that normally govern bone production,” says senior author Marc Wein, MD, Ph.D., an endocrinologist at MGH and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The pathway that involves parathyroid hormone inhibits salt-inducible kinase isoforms 2 and 3 (SIK2 and SIK3), which are enzymes with roles in the regulation of bone growth and remodeling.
Wein and his colleagues generated a novel structural model of these enzymes and then used advanced methods including structure-based drug design and iterative medicinal chemistry to identify a compound that potently inhibits SIK2 and SIK3. This compound, termed SK-124, had parathyroid hormone–like effects when given to cells and, most importantly, when fed to mice. In mice, oral treatment once a day for three weeks increased blood levels of calcium and vitamin D and also boosted bone formation and bone mass without evidence of short-term toxicity.
“Based on these findings, we propose that small molecules like SK-124 might represent ‘next generation’ oral bonebuilding therapies for osteoporosis,” says Wein. “We are currently collaborating with a pharmaceutical company—Radius Health, Inc.—to further optimize and develop this compound into a treatment for patients.”
Additional MGH co-authors include Tadatoshi Sato, Christian D. Castro Andrade, Sung-Hee Yoon, Yingshe Zhao, Daniel J. Brooks, Marie B. Demay, and Mary L. Bouxsein.
More information: Tadatoshi Sato et al, Structure-based design of selective, orally available salt-inducible kinase inhibitors that stimulate bone formation in mice, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2214396119
The explosion in AI models like OpenAI’s DALL-E 2—programs trained to generate pictures of almost anything you ask for—has sent ripples through the creative industries, from fashion to filmmaking, by providing weird and wonderful images on demand.
The same technology behind these programs is also making a splash in biotech labs, which have started using this type of generative AI, known as a diffusion model, to conjure up designs for new types of protein never seen in nature.
AlphaFold can predict the shape of proteins to within the width of an atom. The breakthrough will help scientists design drugs and understand disease.
Today, two labs separately announced programs that use diffusion models to generate designs for novel proteins with more precision than ever before. Generate Biomedicines, a Boston-based startup, revealed a program called Chroma, which the company describes as the “DALL-E 2 of biology.”
At the same time, a team at the University of Washington led by biologist David Baker has built a similar program called RoseTTAFold Diffusion. In a preprint paper posted online today, Baker and his colleagues show that their model can generate precise designs for novel proteins that can then be brought to life in the lab. “We’re generating proteins with really no similarity to existing ones,” says Brian Trippe, one of the co-developers of RoseTTAFold.
These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. “We can discover in minutes what took evolution millions of years,” says Gevorg Grigoryan, CTO of Generate Biomedicines.
“What is notable about this work is the generation of proteins according to desired constraints,” says Ava Amini, a biophysicist at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. In animals, they digest food, contract muscles, detect light, drive the immune system, and so much more. When people get sick, proteins play a part.
Proteins are thus prime targets for drugs. And many of today’s newest drugs are protein based themselves. “Nature uses proteins for essentially everything,” says Grigoryan. “The promise that offers for therapeutic interventions is really immense.”
But drug designers currently have to draw on an ingredient list made up of natural proteins. The goal of protein generation is to extend that list with a nearly infinite pool of computer-designed ones.
Computational techniques for designing proteins are not new. But previous approaches have been slow and not great at designing large proteins or protein complexes—molecular machines made up of multiple proteins coupled together. And such proteins are often crucial for treating diseases.
The two programs announced today are also not the first use of diffusion models for protein generation. A handful of studies in the last few months from Amini and others have shown that diffusion models are a promising technique, but these were proof-of-concept prototypes. Chroma and RoseTTAFold Diffusion build on this work and are the first full-fledged programs that can produce precise designs for a wide variety of proteins.
Namrata Anand, who co-developed one of the first diffusion models for protein generation in May 2022, thinks the big significance of Chroma and RoseTTAFold Diffusion is that they have taken the technique and supersized it, training on more data and more computers. “It may be fair to say that this is more like DALL-E because of how they’ve scaled things up,” she says.
Diffusion models are neural networks trained to remove “noise”—random perturbations added to data—from their input. Given a random mess of pixels, a diffusion model will try to turn it into a recognizable image.
In Chroma, noise is added by unraveling the amino acid chains that a protein is made from. Given a random clump of these chains, Chroma tries to put them together to form a protein. Guided by specified constraints on what the result should look like, Chroma can generate novel proteins with specific properties.
Baker’s team takes a different approach, though the end results are similar. Its diffusion model starts with an even more scrambled structure. Another key difference is that RoseTTAFold Diffusion uses information about how the pieces of a protein fit together provided by a separate neural network trained to predict protein structure (as DeepMind’s AlphaFold does). This guides the overall generative process.
Generate Biomedicines and Baker’s team both show off an impressive array of results. They are able to generate proteins with multiple degrees of symmetry, including proteins that are circular, triangular, or hexagonal. To illustrate the versatility of their program, Generate Biomedicines generated proteins shaped like the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet and the numerals 0 to 10. Both teams can also generate pieces of proteins, matching new parts to existing structures.
Most of these demonstrated structures would serve no purpose in practice. But because a protein’s function is determined by its shape, being able to generate different structures on demand is crucial.
Generating strange designs on a computer is one thing. But the goal is to turn these designs into real proteins. To test whether Chroma produced designs that could be made, Generate Biomedicines took the sequences for some of its designs—the amino acid strings that make up the protein—and ran them through another AI program. They found that 55% of them would be predicted to fold into the structure generated by Chroma, which suggests that these are designs for viable protein.
Baker’s team ran a similar test. But Baker and his colleagues have gone a lot further than Generate Biomedicines in evaluating their model. They have created some of RoseTTAFold Diffusion’s designs in their lab. (Generate Biomedicines says that it is also doing lab tests but is not yet ready to share results.) “This is more than just proof of concept,” says Trippe. “We’re actually using this to make really great proteins.”
IAN C HAYDON / UW INSTITUTE FOR PROTEIN DESIGN
For Baker, the headline result is the generation of a new protein that attaches to the parathyroid hormone, which controls calcium levels in the blood. “We basically gave the model the hormone and nothing else and told it to make a protein that binds to it,” he says. When they tested the novel protein in the lab, they found that it attached to the hormone more tightly than anything that could have been generated using other computational methods—and more tightly than existing drugs. “It came up with this protein design out of thin air,” says Baker.
Grigoryan acknowledges that inventing new proteins is just the first step of many. We’re a drug company, he says. “At the end of the day what matters is whether we can make medicines that work or not.” Protein based drugs need to be manufactured in large numbers, then tested in the lab and finally in humans. This can take years. But he thinks that his company and others will find ways to speed up those steps up as well.
“The rate of scientific progress comes in fits and starts,” says Baker. “But right now we’re in the middle of what can only be called a technological revolution.”
Seeding the oceans with nano-scale fertilizers could create a much-needed, substantial carbon sink. Credit: Stephanie King | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
The urgent need to remove excess carbon dioxide from Earth’s environment could include enlisting some of our planet’s smallest inhabitants, according to an international research team led by Michael Hochella of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Hochella and his colleagues examined the scientific evidence for seeding the oceans with iron-rich engineered fertilizer particles near ocean plankton. The goal would be to feed phytoplankton, microscopic plants that are a key part of the ocean ecosystem, to encourage growth and carbon dioxide (CO2) uptake. The analysis article appears in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
“The idea is to augment existing processes,” said Hochella, a Laboratory fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Humans have fertilized the land to grow crops for centuries. We can learn to fertilize the oceans responsibly.”
In nature, nutrients from the land reach oceans through rivers and blowing dust to fertilize plankton. The research team proposes moving this natural process one step further to help remove excess CO2 through the ocean. They studied evidence that suggests adding specific combinations of carefully engineered materials could effectively fertilize the oceans, encouraging phytoplankton to act as a carbon sink.
The organisms would take up carbon in large quantities. Then, as they die, they would sink deep into the ocean, taking the excess carbon with them. Scientists say this proposed fertilization would simply speed up a natural process that already safely sequesters carbon in a form that could remove it from the atmosphere for thousands of years.
“At this point, time is of the essence,” said Hochella. “To combat rising temperatures, we must decrease CO2 levels on a global scale. Examining all our options, including using the oceans as a CO2 sink, gives us the best chance of cooling the planet.”
Pulling insights from the literature
In their analysis, the researchers argue that engineered nanoparticles offer several attractive attributes. They could be highly controlled and specifically tuned for different ocean environments. Surface coatings could help the particles attach to plankton. Some particles also have light-absorbing properties, allowing plankton to consume and use more CO2.
The general approach could also be tuned to meet the needs of specific ocean environments. For example, one region might benefit most from iron-based particles, while silicon-based particles may be most effective elsewhere, they say.
The researchers’ analysis of 123 published studies showed that numerous non-toxic metal-oxygen materials could safely enhance plankton growth. The stability, Earth abundance, and ease of creation of these materials make them viable options as plankton fertilizers, they argue.
The team also analyzed the cost of creating and distributing different particles. While the process would be substantially more expensive than adding non-engineered materials, it would also be significantly more effective.
More information: Peyman Babakhani et al, Potential use of engineered nanoparticles in ocean fertilization for large-scale atmospheric carbon dioxide removal, Nature Nanotechnology (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41565-022-01226-w