Whenever anyone mentions the word “antibodies” these days, it’s sure to grab your attention. Thoughts generally flow to the human immune system and the role it plays in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and to how our bodies fight off disease in general. The immune system is complex in the extreme, but pretty much everyone knows that antibodies are part of it and that they’re vital to the ability of the body to recognize and neutralize invaders like bacteria and viruses.
But as important as antibodies are to long-term immunity and the avoidance of disease, that’s far from all they’re good for. The incredible specificity of antibodies to their target antigens makes them powerful tools for biological research and clinical diagnostics, like rapid COVID-19 testing. The specificity of antibodies has also opened up therapeutic modalities that were once the stuff of science-fiction, where custom-built antibodies act like a guided missile to directly attack not only a specific protein in the body, but sometimes even a specific part of a protein.
Making these therapies work, though, requires special antibodies: monoclonal antibodies. These are very much in the news recently, not only as a possible treatment for COVID-19 but also to treat everything from rheumatoid arthritis to the very worst forms of cancer. But what exactly are monoclonal antibodies, how are they made, and how do they work?
We’ve had nuclear fission reactors in operation all over the world for ages, but nuclear fusion always seems to be a decade or two away. While one cannot predict when we’ll reach the goal of sustained nuclear fusion, the cutting edge in test hardware is advancing at a rapid pace that makes us optimistic. Beginning as soon as this month and extending over a few years, we’re living through a very exciting time for nuclear fusion and plasma physics.
The Mega Ampere Spherical Tokamak (MAST) got a big upgrade to test a new cooled divertor design. JET (Joint European Torus) will be testing the deuterium-tritium fuel mixture that will be powering the ITER (the research project whose name began as an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor but has since been changed to just ITER). And the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator is coming back online with upgraded cooled divertors by next year.
Here the MAST Upgrade’s Super-X divertors have so far shown a ten-fold decrease in the temperature which the divertor is exposed to while carrying thermal energy out of the tokamak reactor. This means a divertor design and ultimately a fusion reactor that will last longer between maintenance sessions. On the stellarator side of things, Wendelstein 7-X’s new divertors may allow it to demonstrate the first continuous operation of a stellarator fusion reactor. Meanwhile, JET’s fuel experiments should allow us to test the deuterium-tritium fuel while ITER is working towards first plasma by 2025.
Do you remember in 1989 when two chemists announced they’d created a setup that created nuclear fusion at room temperature? Everyone was excited, but it eventually turned out to be very suspect. It wasn’t clear how they detected that fusion occurred and only a few of the many people who tried to replicate the experiment claimed success and they later retracted their reports. Since then, mentioning cold fusion is right up there with perpetual motion. Work does continue though, and NASA recently published several papers on lattice confinement fusion which is definitely not called cold fusion, although it sounds like it to us.
The idea of trapping atoms inside a metallic crystal lattice isn’t new, dating back to the 1920s. It sounds as though the NASA method uses erbium packed with deuterium. Photons cause some of the deuterium to fuse. Unlike earlier attempts, this method produces detectable neutron emissions characteristic of fusion.
The fusor consists of a cross-shaped chamber, which is pumped down to a high vacuum to enable the fusion reaction to occur. Deuterium is then pumped into the chamber, and confined by an applied electric field from a power supply in the vicinity of 50 kV. With the right combination of geometry, vacuum and other factors, it’s possible to fuse atoms and observe the characteristic glow of the reaction taking place.
In order to be recognised as having achieved fusion by the Open Source Fusor Research Consortium, one must typically have proof of the release of neutrons from the fusion reaction. [Jackson] showed this with a neutron detector setup, by inserting and removing it during a run to demonstrate the fusor was the source of the signal. Photos of the glowing fusor don’t go astray, either, and [Jackson] was more than happy to deliver.
Many of us have held a circuit board up to a strong light to get a sense for how many layers of circuitry it might contain. [alongruss] did this as well, but, unlike us, he saw art.
We’ve covered some art PCBs before. These, for the most part, were about embellishing the traces in some way. They also resulted in working circuits. [alongruss]’s work focuses more on the way light passes through the FR4: the way the silkscreen adds an interesting dimension to the painting, and how the tin coating reflects light.
To prove out and play with his algorithm he started with GIMP. He ran the Mona Lisa through a set of filters until he had layers of black and white images that could be applied to the layers of the circuit board. He ordered a set of boards from Seeed Studio and waited.
They came back a success! So he codified his method into Processing code. If you want to play with it, take a look at his GitHub.
An experimental fusion reactor built by the Chinese Academy of Science has hit a major milestone. The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has maintained a plasma pulse for a record 102 seconds at a temperature of 50 million degrees – three times hotter than the core of the sun.
The EAST is a tokamak, or a torus that uses superconducting magnets to compress plasma into a thin ribbon where atoms will fuse and energy will be created. For the last fifty years, most research has been dedicated to the study of tokamaks in producing fusion power, but recently several projects have challenged this idea. The Wendelstein 7-X stellarator at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics recently saw first plasma and if results go as expected, the stellarator will be the design used in fusion power plants. Tokamaks have shortcomings; they can only be ‘pulsed’, not used continuously, and we haven’t been building tokamaks large enough to produce a net gain in power, anyway.
Other tokamaks currently in development include ITER in France. Theoretically, ITER is large enough to attain a net gain in power at 12.4 meters in diameter. EAST is much smaller, with a diameter of just 3.7 meters. It is impossible for EAST to ever produce a net gain in power, but innovations in the design that include superconducting toroidal and poloidal magnets will surely provide insight into unsolved questions in fusion reactor design.
If you’re looking for the future of humanity, look no further than the first plasma generated in the Wendelstein 7-X Stellerator at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics. It turned on for the first time yesterday, and while this isn’t the first fusion power plant, nor will it ever be, it is a preview of what may become the invention that will save humanity.
For a very long time, it was believed the only way to turn isotopes of hydrogen into helium for the efficient recovery of power was the Tokamak. This device, basically a hollow torus lined with coils of wire, compresses plasma into a thin circular string. With the right pressures and temperatures, this plasma will transmute the elements and produce power.
Tokamaks have not seen much success, though, and this is a consequence of two key problems with the Tokamak design. First, we’ve been building them too small, although the ITER reactor currently being built in southern France may be an exception. ITER should be able to produce more energy than is used to initiate fusion after it comes online in the 2020s. Tokamaks also have another problem: they cannot operate continuously without a lot of extraneous equipment. While the Wendelstein 7-X Stellerator is too small to produce a net excess of power, it will demonstrate continuous operation of a fusion device. [Elliot Williams] wrote a great explanation of this Stellerator last month which is well worth a look.
While this Stellerator is just a testbed and will never be used to generate power, it is by no means the only other possible means of creating a sun on Earth. The Polywell – a device that fuses hydrogen inside a containment vessel made of electromagnets arranged like the faces of a cube – is getting funding from the US Navy. Additionally, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works claims they can put a 100 Megawatt fusion reactor on the back of a truck within a few years.
The creation of a fusion power plant will be the most important invention of all time, and will earn the researchers behind it the Nobel prize in physics and peace. While the Wendelstein 7-X Stellarator is not the first fusion power plant, it might be a step in the right direction.