All posts by Amy Nordrum

Lasers Write Data Into Glass

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Magnetic tape and hard disk drives hold much of the world’s archival data. Compared with other memory and storage technologies, tape and disk drives cost less and are more reliable. They’re also nonvolatile, meaning they don’t require a constant power supply to preserve data. Cultural institutions, financial firms, government agencies, and film companies have relied on these technologies for decades, and will continue to do so far into the future.

But archivists may soon have another option—using an extremely fast laser to write data into a 2-millimeter-thick piece of glass, roughly the size of a Post-it note, where that information can remain essentially forever.

This experimental form of optical data storage was demonstrated in 2013 by researchers at the University of Southampton in England. Soon after, that group began working with engineers at Microsoft Research in an effort called Project Silica. Last November, Microsoft completed its first proof of concept by writing the 1978 film Superman on a single small piece of glass and retrieving it.

With this method, researchers could theoretically store up to 360 terabytes of data on a disc the size of a DVD. For comparison, Panasonic aims to someday fit 1 TB on conventional optical discs, while Seagate and Western Digital are shooting for 50- to 60-TB hard disk drives by 2026.

International Data Corp. expects the world to produce 175 zettabytes of data by 2025—up from 33 ZB in 2018. Though only a fraction of that data will be stored, today’s methods may no longer suffice. “We believe people’s appetite for storage will force scientists to look into other kinds of materials,” says Waguih Ishak, chief technologist at Corning Research and Development Corp.

Microsoft’s work is part of a broader company initiative to improve cloud storage through optics. “I think they see it as potentially a distinguishing technology from something like [Amazon Web Services] and other cloud providers,” says James Byron, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies storage methods.

Microsoft isn’t alone—John Morris, chief technology officer at Seagate, says researchers there are also focused on understanding the potential of optical data storage in glass. “The challenge is to develop systems that can read and write with reasonable throughput,” he says.

Writing data to glass involves focusing a femtosecond laser, which pulses very quickly, on a point within the glass. The glass itself is a sort known as fused silica. It’s the same type of extremely pure glass used for the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror as well as the windows on the International Space Station.

The laser’s pulse deforms the glass at its focal point, forming a tiny 3D structure called a voxel. Two properties that measure how the voxel interacts with polarized light—retardance and change in the light’s polarization angle—can together represent several bits of data per voxel.

Microsoft can currently write hundreds of layers of voxels into each piece of glass. The glass can be written to once and read back many times. “This is data in glass, not on glass,” says Ant Rowstron, a principal researcher and deputy lab director at Microsoft Research Lab in Cambridge, England.

Reading data from the glass requires an entirely different setup, which is one potential drawback of this method. Researchers shine different kinds of polarized light—in which light waves all oscillate in the same direction, rather than every which way—onto specific voxels. They capture the results with a camera. Then, machine-learning algorithms analyze those images and translate their measurements into data.

Ishak, who is also an adjunct professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, is optimistic about the approach. “I’m sure that in the matter of a decade, we’ll see a whole new kind of storage that eclipses and dwarfs everything that we have today,” he says. “And I firmly believe that those pure materials like fused silica will definitely play a major role there.”

But many scientific and engineering challenges remain. “The writing process is hard to make reliable and repeatable, and [it’s hard] to minimize the time it takes to create a voxel,” says Rowstron. “The read process has been a challenge in figuring out how to read the data from the glass using the minimum signal possible from the glass.”

The Microsoft group has added error-correcting codes to improve the system’s accuracy and continues to refine its machine-learning algorithms to automate the read-back process. Already, the team has improved writing speeds by several orders of magnitude from when they began, though Rowstron declined to share absolute speeds.

The team is also considering what it means to store data for such a long time. “We are working on thinking what a Rosetta Stone for glass could look like to help people decode it in the future,” Rowstron says.

This article appears in the June 2020 print issue as “Storing Data in Glass.”

Are Antiferromagnets the Next Step for MRAM?

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Quasi-magnetic materials known as antiferromagnets are attracting research interest for their potential to hold far more data in a computer’s memory than traditional magnets allow. 

Though the early work required to prove the concept has only just begun, a series of new studies shows progress in being able to electrically manipulate bits stored in antiferromagnets and to do so with components compatible with standard CMOS manufacturing techniques. 

Antiferromagnets exhibit different properties than traditional ferromagnets, which are used in a variety of modern memory technologies including magnetoresistive random-access memory (MRAM). 

MRAM has clear advantages over other memory technologies. Reading and writing data using MRAM can be done at speeds similar to volatile technologies such as DRAM and SRAM. But MRAM consumes less power and, like flash, is non-volatile, meaning it doesn’t need a steady power supply to retain data.  

Despite its advantages, MRAM could still be considered a boutique memory technology. And in theory, at least, antiferromagnets could fix a problem that has prevented MRAM from achieving broader adoption. 

MRAM stores information as the spins of electrons—a property related to an electron’s intrinsic angular momentum. Ferromagnets have unpaired electrons that spin, or point, in one of two directions. Most electrons in a ferromagnet point in the same direction. When a current runs nearby, its magnetic field can cause most of those electrons to change their spins. The magnet records a “1” or a “0” depending on which direction they point.

A drawback of ferromagnets is that they can be influenced by external magnetic fields, which can cause bits to flip unintentionally. And the spins of adjacent ferromagnets can influence one another unless there’s enough space between them—which limits MRAM’s ability to scale to higher densities for lower costs.  

Antiferromagnets—which include compounds of common metals such as manganese, platinum, and tin—don’t have that problem. Unlike ferromagnets, the spins of electrons within the same antiferromagnet don’t all point in the same direction. Electrons on neighboring atoms point opposite to each other, effectively canceling one another out. 

The collective orientation of all spins in an antiferromagnet can still record bits, but the magnet as a whole has no magnetic field. As a result, antiferromagnets can’t influence each other, and they aren’t bothered by external fields. Which means you can pack them in tight.

And because the dynamics of the spin in antiferromagnets are much faster, bits can be switched in picoseconds with terahertz frequencies—much faster than the nanoseconds required at gigahertz frequencies used in today’s ferromagnetic MRAM. Theoretically, antiferromagnets could increase the writing speed of MRAM by three orders of magnitude. 

Only in the past five years have antiferromagnets been seriously investigated for their potential in memory, since researchers in Europe demonstrated it was possible to use an electric current to control the spins of electrons within an antiferromagnet. That work has led to a flurry of research investigating different types of antiferromagnets and switching techniques. 

“There are a very wide range of antiferromagnetic materials one could choose,” says Pedram Khalili-Amiri, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University. “There’s more of them than there are ferromagnets. This is a blessing and a curse.” 

Researchers have reported several advances using antiferromagnets since the start of this year. Khalili-Amiri led a team that showed switching in tiny pillars of platinum manganese, an antiferromagnet used in hard drives and magnetic field sensors today. The team described its work in February in Nature Electronics. “We wanted to build a device that was CMOS-compatible,” he says. 

In March, a group involving Markus Meinert of the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany wrote in Physical Review Research of an experiment showing a novel MRAM technique for switching bits, known as spin-orbit torque, could also work for switching bits stored in one type of antiferromagnet. 

And in April, Satoru Nakatsuji at the University of Tokyo and his collaborators described in Nature an experiment that successfully switched bits in an antiferromagnet (Mn3Sn) that has a particular type of electrons known as Weyl fermions. The spin states of these fermions are relatively easy to measure and allow for a device to be much simpler than other antiferromagnetic devices.

Despite this progress, Barry Zink from the University of Denver says it’s too early to bet on any one type of antiferromagnet. “It’s a really exciting field. I think it’s not clear yet just exactly which material, or if just one of them by itself, is going to be the winner in all this,” he says.  

A number of technical challenges would have to be resolved before antiferromagnets could ever be used in commercial devices. One issue that Zink has written about is that heat from a current appears to cause a voltage pattern in some antiferromagnetic devices that looks similar to what a switch in electron spin may cause. To read data back, it will be important to distinguish between the two. 

And reading data from an antiferromagnet is still much slower and more difficult than reading data stored in ferromagnets. “We need to find ways of reading more efficiently,” says Meinert. 

Already, companies are beginning to take note. Though he declined to share names, Nakatsuji says he’s been contacted by large technology companies for his lab’s work on antiferromagnets. “I think in the near future, a lot will become possible,” he says.

Engineering During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

A respiratory virus named SARS-CoV-2 spread from a market in Wuhan, China, to more than 200 countries in just four months. It has infected more than 2.1 million people, causing a disease known as COVID-19 that has already killed 146,000.

The virus’s spread was unprecedented in the lives of most scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs working today—and so was their response. Computer scientists rushed to model the coronavirus’s next move, biotech entrepreneurs pivoted to develop diagnostic tests, and engineers openly shared designs for building inexpensive medical equipment. Auto factories, autonomous shuttles, and supercomputers were repurposed to aid the global coronavirus response.

With new urgency and many people confined at home by government orders, the nature of scientific and engineering work changed in fundamental ways during the pandemic. IEEE Spectrum asked people involved in response efforts to describe that shift in their own words.

Nevan Krogan, principal investigator at the Quantitative Biosciences Institute at University of California, San Francisco:

“Twenty-two of us were of the same mindset to drop everything and focus on finding answers to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been forced to close down our labs and make rapid decisions. This has meant limiting the research to very key personnel, in shifts. We are trying what would be the best possible scenario first: find an already [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]-approved drug that would work against the virus. We are putting so much pressure on some of our equipment to get rapid results that we are running into issues. That said, our scientists are talented at troubleshooting. When it matters most, at a time of global crisis, you see who steps up to the plate.”

Maxeme Tuchman, founder and CEO of Miami-based Caribu, a platform for family video calls:

“As the CEO, my travel and speaking schedule was significantly impacted. But with the exponential increase in demand and the explosive daily use of the Caribu app, I’m glad that I’m more available to the team and my customers. The biggest technical challenge has been managing the growing user base, both in terms of system capacity scaling as well as customer support. Our company is built on very scalable technology, but this exponential growth we’ve seen has tested all of the scaling systems we had in place.”

Zhanfeng Cui, a chemical engineer at the University of Oxford, England, and codeveloper of a rapid test for the coronavirus:

“I dropped almost all other research and focused on the rapid detection of COVID-19. I felt that I must contribute something. As an engineer, solving problems is my duty! Our work started in January 2020 by a group of OSCAR (Oxford Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research) collaborators. They got stuck and could not return to China. We had an interdisciplinary team and research funds readily accessible, so we could respond quickly. Our main challenge has been [getting] access to clinical samples for testing our ideas and devices.”

Ellen Cathrine Andersen, CEO of EpiGuard, based in Oslo, maker of the EpiShuttle patient-isolation system:

“Demand for the EpiShuttle increased 18-fold [in early March]. We have ramped up our production to the maximum. We conduct most of our training over conference calls. The uncertainty regarding lockdown, business, and trade has been challenging. Our EpiShuttle consists of parts originating from all over Europe. We see there is enormous need for better transportation services for contagious patients. We hope and believe that the coronavirus crisis will result in better preparedness at all levels.”

Robert Fischetti, group leader in the X-ray Science Division at the Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source (APS), in Lemont, Ill.:

“The national laboratories were created to tackle problems such as the current pandemic that are too large for any one institution. Since the outbreak, almost all of my time has gone toward helping coordinate activities at the APS related to research on proteins from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Researchers ship their samples to us in cryogenic [vacuum flasks], and we put the samples in an automounter; the researchers remotely control the sample automounter and beamline to collect their data. Researchers using beamlines in this mode have determined structures of 6 of 28 SARS-CoV-2 proteins. The urgent need to help find a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 has brought out the best in everyone.”

Eric Hobbs, CEO of cell-biology company Berkeley Lights, in Emeryville, Calif.:

“Since early February, when COVID-19 became more prevalent, we prioritized helping our customers. Among them are GenScript Biotech Corp. China and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who are actively screening patient blood samples on our Beacon system to find an antibody-based therapeutic treatment, and the University of Queensland, which is using the system to develop a vaccine component protein. One big lesson we’ve learned is that the technology we have today can really make an enormous difference in responding to pandemics like this one faster and more effectively.”

Jonathan Rothberg, founder of the biotech startup accelerator 4Catalyzer, in Guilford, Conn.:

“At the outbreak of this virus, the 4Catalyzer companies pivoted their resources to support the ‘war effort.’ I assembled a team at [the company] Homodeus and volunteers who are the best molecular biologists, data scientists, programmers, and supply-chain experts. I told them that the Chinese built a hospital in Wuhan in 10 days, so we should be able to develop and deploy a true home test for COVID-19 in that time. The team is working around the clock to accomplish that goal. Everyone is just grabbing an oar and rowing in the same direction.”

This article appears in the May 2020 print issue as “Engineering During a Pandemic.”

Quantum Computing Milestone: Researchers Compute With ‘Hot’ Silicon Qubits

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Two research groups say they’ve independently built quantum devices that can operate at temperatures above 1 Kelvin—15 times hotter than rival technologies can withstand. 

The ability to work at higher temperatures is key to scaling up to the many qubits thought to be required for future commercial-grade quantum computers. 

A team led by Andrew Dzurak and Henry Yang from the University of New South Wales in Australia performed a single-qubit operation on a quantum processor at 1.5 Kelvin. Separately, a team led by Menno Veldhorst of Delft University of Technology performed a two-qubit operation at 1.1 Kelvin. Jim Clarke, director of quantum hardware at Intel, is a co-author on the Delft paper. Both groups published descriptions of their devices today in Nature

HongWen Jiang, a physicist at UCLA and a peer reviewer for both papers, described the research as “a technological breakthrough for semiconductor based quantum computing.” 

AT&T Feud With Heats Up

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Dave Erickson is finding it difficult to make it to meetings on time. When he dials into the conference call service that his company uses, he often gets a busy signal on his first try. He may have to dial 10 times before he gets through. It’s frustrating, he says—especially since he’s the founder and CEO of the company that operates the service, known as

Erickson blames AT&T, his wireless provider and a company that has been in a months-long dispute with over the conferencing service’s controversial business practices. The result is that some AT&T customers in the United States, including Erickson, can no longer easily access it.

As more people work from home during the coronavirus pandemic, demand has surged for conferencing services including Zoom, WebEx, and Google Hangouts. bills itself as a free option that provides the same features as many paid services, including audio and video conferencing, screen sharing, and call recording. The service hosts more than 20 million participants on calls each month and can support calls with up to 1,000 participants at a time.

Lately,’s operations have come under scrutiny. Last September, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a new order to eliminate a practice known as access stimulation, or traffic pumping—calling it a “wasteful scheme” in a press release. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai targeted services such as in a statement [PDF] issued with the order, saying:

“You’ve probably heard the expression ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ As it turns out, there’s also no such thing as a free conference call. Instead, we all end up footing the bill for these purportedly ‘free’ calls.”

The crux of the issue has to do with how calls were being routed across the public switched telephone network, says Mike Saperstein, vice president for law and policy at the industry organization U.S. Telcom. Historically, long-distance carriers such as AT&T would pay access fees for local carriers to complete calls to people in that carrier’s service area. The FCC eliminated most such fees in a series of orders beginning in 2007, preferring to instead support local carriers through programs such as the Universal Service Fund.

With the latest order, the FCC also eliminated fees that companies such as AT&T paid to tandem switch providers that connect large telcos with many smaller local carriers. Those fees were originally meant to cover the costs of transporting calls from a tandem switch in a town or city to each local carrier in an area.

According to the FCC, businesses that offer “free” conferencing took advantage of this arrangement by directing large numbers of calls to tandem providers that they either owned or agreed to share revenue with. The FCC describes one such scheme in which twice as many call minutes per month were routed to Redfield, South Dakota (population: 2,300) as were routed to all Verizon facilities in New York City (population: 8.5 million). 

Those fees were in turn passed on to customers of companies like AT&T, even if only a very small portion actually used the “free” conferencing service. The FCC estimated [PDF] that before its order, such schemes indirectly cost U.S. consumers $60 to $80 million per year.

With the FCC’s order, local carriers are now required to pay fees if they have a high ratio of incoming to outgoing calls. This upends the model for so-called “free” conferencing, because local carriers no longer have an incentive to welcome such companies.

Erickson says will comply with the FCC’s order but must find new providers and locations for its service, since some companies it worked with in the past no longer want the large volumes of incoming traffic that his business generates. “The order put traffic on the move,” he says.  

In January, his firm filed for a waiver [PDF] from the FCC, stating: “Without the requested waiver, Free Conferencing will suffer immediate and irreparable harm.” The company warned “millions of calls will fail” if it is not granted a waiver.   

And, the company claims, carriers such as AT&T are “ignoring additional routes and switches” that could be used to complete calls to its service, thereby causing those calls to drop. In its waiver request, accuses such carriers of “intentionally refusing to function by the rules and routing guides governing the public switched telephone network.”

Also in January, AT&T sent a letter to a firm called Wide Voice, which works closely with (which provided the letter to IEEE Spectrum). In the letter, AT&T said it will not route traffic to new tandem switches that Wide Voice is setting up in Rudd, Iowa or South Dakota and blamed any call completion issues on Wide Voice.

“What’s happening is that AT&T doesn’t want to give us enough capacity for the amount of callers they have calling us,” Erickson says. “AT&T is clearly playing a game and they’ve stated it in writing that they’re shutting down routes. How could that be good?”

The FCC said on 27 March that it would not issue a waiver for, but did grant one [PDF] to Inteliquent, a tandem switch provider used by Zoom and Cisco’s WebEx. Without it, the FCC said, the high volume of incoming calls that these services were receiving during the coronavirus pandemic would have surely exceeded the agency’s ratio and triggered additional fees.

Erickson says his service is also experiencing high call volumes as a result of the pandemic. But the FCC explicitly denied [PDF] a request by to extend that waiver to all conferencing services and said the agency would “remain vigilant to ensure that unscrupulous providers do not attempt to take advantage of this national emergency to avoid obligations the Commission’s rules place on their business practices.”

Margaret Boles, an AT&T spokeswoman, told IEEE Spectrum: “We have offered and continue to make available solutions, consistent with FCC rules, to address this traffic congestion, but Free Conferencing/Wide Voice has declined those offers because they limit its ability to earn unwarranted windfalls at consumer expense in violation of FCC rules. We are especially disappointed that Free Conferencing is seeking to exploit the nation’s health crisis at the expense of its own customers and legitimate conference calling companies in its effort to seek support for its unlawful actions.”

Saperstein says U.S. Telecom is supportive of the FCC’s efforts to eliminate access stimulation. “I’m aware of a number of entities that have taken advantage of these arrangements have been moving their traffic around to try to continue to receive payments, and that has caused disputes.”

Jon Peha, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and former chief technologist of the FCC, adds: “It makes sense that the FCC continues to close certain loopholes. I think the FCC may need to reconsider whether one wants to do that in the middle of a pandemic that’s forcing people to work from home.”

Scientists Use Stem Cells to Treat COVID-19 Patients in China

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

More than 100 COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Beijing are receiving injections of mesenchymal stem cells to help them fend off the disease. The experimental treatment is part of an ongoing clinical trial, which coordinators say has shown early promise in alleviating COVID-19 symptoms.

However, other experts criticize the trial’s design and caution that there’s not sufficient evidence to show that the treatment works for COVID-19. They say other treatments have far greater potential than stem cells in aiding patients during the pandemic.  

Researchers have so far reported results from only seven patients treated with stem cells at Beijing You’an Hospital. Each patient suffered from COVID-19 symptoms including fevers and difficulty breathing. They each received a single infusion of mesenchymal stem cells sometime between 23 January and 16 February. A few days later, investigators say, all symptoms disappeared in all seven patients. They reported no side effects.

The team published those results in the journal Aging & Disease on 13 March. In an accompanying editorial, Ashok Shetty of Texas A&M University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine wrote “the overall improvement was quite extraordinary” but stated that larger clinical trials were needed to validate the findings.

Jahar Bhattacharya, a professor of physiology and cellular biophysics and medicine at Columbia University, who was not involved in the work, says injecting mesenchymal stem cells into a patient’s bloodstream remains an unproven treatment for COVID-19 patients and could cause harmful side effects.

“You are injecting large numbers of cells in a patient’s veins,” Bhattacharya says. “If those cells go and clog the lungs, and cause damage because of the clogging—well, that’s not good at all.”

He adds that the study’s sample size is much too small to draw any meaningful conclusions about the treatment’s efficacy at this stage. “Folks do all kinds of things and they’ll say—we got a result,” Bhattacharya says. “It’s very risky to go by any of those.”

Kunlin Jin, a lead author in the trial and professor of pharmacology and neuroscience at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, says his group now has unpublished data from 31 additional COVID-19 patients who received the treatment. In every case, he claims, their symptoms improved after treatment. “I think the results are very promising,” he says.

According to Jin, 120 COVID-19 patients are now receiving mesenchymal stem cell injections in Beijing for the trial.

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the new coronavirus. There is currently no treatment and researchers around the world are scrambling to identify existing drugs or compounds that could be effective against it.

Jin’s team isn’t alone in considering the use of stem cells to treat COVID-19 patients. Another mesenchymal stem cell trial registered to aims to enroll 20 COVID-19 patients across four hospitals in China. The Australia-based firm Mesoblast says it’s evaluating its stem cell therapy for use against COVID-19. And in the United States, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority recently contacted the company Athersys to request information about its stem cell treatment called MultiStem for its potential as a COVID-19 therapy.   

Mesenchymal stem cells (a term some experts criticize as too broad) can be isolated from different kinds of tissues and, once injected into a patient, grow into a wide variety of cells. They have not been approved for COVID-19 therapeutic use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The new coronavirus invades the body through a spike protein that lives on the surface of virus cells. The S protein, as it’s called, binds to a receptor called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) on a healthy cell’s surface. Once attached, the cells fuse and the virus is able to infect the healthy cell.

ACE2 receptors are present on cells in many places throughout the body, and especially in the lungs. Cells in the lungs are also some of the first to encounter the virus, since the primary form of transmission is thought to be breathing in droplets after an infected person has coughed or sneezed.

However, cells from other parts of the body—including those which produce mesenchymal stem cells—lack ACE2 receptors, which makes them immune to the virus.

In many COVID-19 cases, a patient’s immune system responds to the virus so strongly, it harms healthy cells in the process. Jin explains that, once mesenchymal stem cells are injected into the blood, these cells can travel to the lungs and secrete growth factor and other cytokines—anti-inflammatory substances that modulate the immune system so it doesn’t go into overdrive.

But Lawrence Goldstein, director of UC San Diego’s stem cell program, says it’s not clear from the trial how many of the injected cells actually made it to the lungs, or how long they stayed there. He criticized the classification of patients in the study as “common,” “severe,” or “critically severe,” saying those categories weren’t well defined (Jin says these labels are defined by the National Health Commission of China). And Goldstein noted the lack of information about the properties of the stem cells used in the trial.  

“It’s pretty weak,” Goldstein says of the trial design.

Steven Peckman, deputy director of UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center, adds: “Researchers and clinicians should use a critical eye when reviewing such reports and avoid the ‘therapeutic misconception,’ namely, a willingness to view experimental interventions as both safe and effective without the support of compelling scientific evidence.”  

Jin himself doesn’t think most COVID-19 patients should receive stem cell infusions. “I think for the moderate patients, maybe don’t need the stem cell treatment,” he says. “For life-threatening cases, I think it’s essential to use mesenchymal stem cell treatment if no other drug is available.”

Goldstein says other potential treatments for COVID-19—such as drugs that modulate the body’s immune system—appear much more promising than stem cells. Many such drugs have been shown to be safe and effective at regulating the immune system and are already approved by regulatory authorities. It’s also easier to use drugs to treat a large number of patients compared with stem cell infusions.  

“When you’ve got a hundred things you want to try, it’s not obvious that this one is on the short list,” Goldstein says of stem cell trials for COVID-19. “It’s a higher priority to test well-known immune modulators than to test these cells.”

Facebook Switches to New Timekeeping Service

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Facebook recently switched millions of its own servers and consumer products (including Portal and Oculus VR headsets) over to a new timekeeping service. The company says the new service, built in-house by the company’s engineers using open-source tools, is more scalable than the one it used previously. What’s more, it will improve the accuracy of device’s internal clocks from 10 milliseconds to 100 microseconds.

To figure out what time it is, Internet-connected devices look to timekeeping services maintained by companies or government agencies such as the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). There are dozens of such services available. Devices constantly ping them for fresh timestamps formatted in the Network Time Protocol (NTP), and use the info to set or recalibrate their internal clocks.

With the announcement, Facebook joins other tech companies including Apple and Google that operate publicly-available timekeeping services of their own. Facebook’s service is now available for free to the public at

U.S. Consumers Might Get Their First Taste of Transgenic Salmon This Year

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

graphic link to special report landing page

Inside a row of nondescript buildings in the small town of Albany, in northeast Indiana—approximately 1,000 kilometers from the nearest coast—Atlantic salmon are sloshing around in fiberglass tanks.

Only in the past five years has it become possible to raise thousands of healthy fish so far from the shoreline without contaminating millions of gallons of fresh water. A technology called recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) now allows indoor aquaculture farms to recycle up to 99 percent of the water they use. And the newest generation of these systems will help one biotech company bring its unusual fish to U.S. customers for the first time this year.

For AquaBounty Technologies, which owns and operates the Indiana facility, this technology couldn’t have come at a better time. The company has for decades tried to introduce a transgenic salmon it sells under the brand name AquAdvantage to the U.S. market. In this quest, AquaBounty has lost between US $100 million and $115 million (so far).

In June, the company will harvest its first salmon raised in the United States and intended for sale there. Thanks to modifications that involved splicing genetic material into its salmon from two other species of fish, these salmon grow twice as fast and need 25 percent less food to reach the same weight as salmon raised on other fish farms.

Since AquAdvantage salmon are genetically modified, the company has taken special precautions to reduce the odds that these fish could reproduce in the wild. Raising all the salmon indoors, far away from wild populations, is key to that equation. And that strategy wouldn’t be possible without modern recirculating systems.

But it’s not yet clear whether U.S. consumers will buy AquaBounty’s salmon, or even if stores will sell it. Already Costco, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Whole Foods, and roughly 80 other North American grocery store chains have said they don’t plan to carry it. As of December, AquaBounty was unable to name any restaurants or stores where customers would be able to buy its salmon.

A 2018 report by Diamond Equity Research, paid for by AquaBounty, estimated potential annual sales of $10 million in the United States. Meanwhile, sales in Canada—where AquAdvantage salmon has been sold since 2017—brought in just $140,371 in the first nine months of 2019.

In late October, the biotech firm Intrexon Corp., which held 38.1 percent of AquaBounty’s shares, sold its entire stake to Virginia-based TS AquaCulture for $21.6 million. Both firms are owned by billionaire biotech investor Randal Kirk.

Eric Hallerman, a fisheries scientist at Virginia Tech who served on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel that reviewed AquAdvantage salmon, thinks it deserves a place on the table. “People want to eat more meat. We have to do it efficiently,” Hallerman says. “So, I think this has to be part of that.”

The first generation of recirculating systems, which rolled out in the 1980s and 1990s, largely failed. The filters involved couldn’t remove enough waste to maintain water quality at the indoor aquaculture farms that installed them. “Few [of these systems], if any, are still around,” says Brian Vinci, director of the Freshwater Institute, a program sponsored by a nonprofit called the Conservation Fund that has developed recirculation technology. “The ones that [still exist] grow tilapia—a very hardy species that’s able to handle ‘just okay’ water quality.”

Since then, scientists and engineers at the Freshwater Institute, Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and companies including Veolia have improved the technology for the next generation of systems—such as the one installed at AquaBounty’s Indiana facility.

These systems use a series of mechanical and biological filters to remove solid waste, ammonia, and carbon dioxide—all produced by the fish—from the water used on the farm. Sensors monitor temperature, pH, and water levels in every tank and track the oxygen content of the water, which must be replenished before it cycles back through. Alarms alert staff to potential problems.

Like all salmon, AquAdvantage fish begin life as fertilized eggs. In AquaBounty’s case, salmon start out at a hatchery on Prince Edward Island, in Canada, where the company keeps a small breeding stock. Technicians there gently massage female fish to extract eggs and prompt males to expel milt, or semen, which the staff mix together to produce fertilized eggs. Aside from the fish used in breeding, all the other salmon the company produces are sterile females, which cannot reproduce with one another or with wild salmon.

When these eggs become “eyed eggs”—so named because two little black eyes suddenly become visible inside each gelatinous orange blob—the eggs are considered stable enough to transport. At this point, they’re moved from the Prince Edward hatchery to AquaBounty’s Indiana farm, where the company had about 150,000 eyed eggs on site in November.

When the eyed eggs arrive, they’re put onto large trays that hold as many as 10,000 at a time. Then they’re placed into one of two incubation units until they hatch (typically within two weeks) and absorb their yolk sac—at which point the fry are said to be “buttoned up.”

The buttoned-up fry then slide into one of 12 small tanks in a nursery, where they begin eating commercial feed (the same kind used on other fish farms) until they weigh about 5 grams. Then they’re transferred into one of 24 tanks—still in the nursery—until they hit 40 to 50 grams.

At that point, the fish are moved from the nursery to a set of “pre–grow out” tanks, which can hold up to 20,000 fish at a time. Once they reach 300 grams, they’re switched over to a set of six tanks where they grow to about 4.5 kilograms.

Right before harvest, the fish must spend about six days being purged in specially-designed tanks that pump in fresh water. Here the fish are rinsed of any compounds that may have built up in the recirculation system and could spoil the salmon’s flavor.

Then, it’s harvest time. Common methods include electrocution or percussive stunning; AquaBounty isn’t yet sure which technique it will use. AquaBounty’s salmon are ready to harvest just 18 months after they hatch. It can take up to three years for wild salmon to reach market weight of 4.5 kg.

AquaBounty’s recirculating system cleans and recycles water and monitors conditions throughout every stage of a salmon’s life. Mechanical filters, such as the Hydrotech drum filters, capture fish waste. Biological filters containing bacteria convert ammonia to nitrite, and then change nitrite into nitrate. Water temperature is kept to between 13 and 15 °C.

One advance developed at Cornell, adopted by the Freshwater Institute and installed at AquaBounty’s facility, is a “self-cleaning” circular fish tank fitted with strategically placed nozzles, which create a whirlpool effect to mechanically separate waste such as uneaten food. “We get the tank to operate like a teacup or coffee cup, so when you swirl the water, the grounds go to the bottom,” Vinci says.

With its recirculating tech, AquaBounty aims to recycle 95 percent of the water used at its Indiana facility. Any water that can’t be recycled will pass through an on-site water treatment plant and then go into wetlands, according to Dave Conley, AquaBounty’s director of communications.

Even with the newest recirculating tech, Vinci at the Freshwater Institute says there’s still room for improvement. “We do use a lot of sensors, and that is one of the weakest parts of the RAS industry, in my opinion,” Vinci says. “I can’t tell you how many different probes we’ve tried.”

He hopes that the machine-vision technology developed by Aquabyte to count sea lice in coastal fish farms will someday be able to recognize individual fish in indoor aquaculture facilities and monitor their health and well-being. Compared with traditional fish farms, AquaBounty’s salmon live in close quarters—there are more than three times as many fish per cubic meter of water at the Indiana facility as there are in traditional fish farms.

Even so, the AquaBounty farm uses no vaccines, antibiotics, or chemical treatments, Conley says. Eyed eggs are disinfected with iodine upon arrival, and technicians clean and disinfect the tanks and incubator trays between each batch (about every three months). Before a fish leaves the nursery, it’s screened for eight different bacterial, parasitic, and viral diseases.

Rosalind Leggatt, a postdoctoral researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada who contributed to the agency’s environmental assessment of AquAdvantage salmon, says the development of recirculating technology has dovetailed nicely with AquaBounty’s plans. “The recirculating systems are advancing every six months,” she says. “They might go hand in hand together.”

Now, AquaBounty must try to win over retailers, restaurateurs, and consumers who have plenty of wild-caught and farm-raised salmon from which to choose. AquaBounty plans to produce about 1,200 metric tons of salmon a year. That’s a tiny fraction of the 351,136 metric tons of salmon imported in 2018 to the United States.

To entice customers, AquaBounty is touting the environmental benefits of its salmon. The company’s website even declares it to be “The World’s Most Sustainable Salmon.” The fact that this fish consumes far less feed to reach market weight is part of that story, as is the notion that eating farm-raised salmon preserves wild stocks. Decades of overfishing have landed U.S. wild Atlantic salmon populations on the endangered species list, making it illegal to catch them.

AquaBounty also points out that, for U.S. customers, the carbon emissions generated by the transportation of its salmon will be a fraction (1/25, according to the company) of the emissions produced by transporting Atlantic salmon raised on farms in Norway and Chile to the United States. All wild Atlantic salmon and the vast majority of farm-raised Atlantic salmon consumed in the United States are imported—a condition AquaBounty refers to as the “national salmon deficit.”

However, there’s a smattering of U.S. and Canadian fish farms that raise Atlantic salmon either indoors or along the coasts, and it’s not clear how AquaBounty’s sustainability claims would stack up against these homegrown options—or against wild Alaskan stocks that are sustainably caught, says Bruce Bugbee, a crop physiologist at Utah State University. “The question here is not whether it’s good to eat, and not whether it’s profitable. It’s [whether] they should be using the word ‘sustainable’ on their website.” he says. “And that’s a key question.”

Some North American fish farms even tout their products as not genetically modified—possibly to differentiate themselves from AquaBounty’s offering. Scientific reviews have repeatedly found that genetically modified (GM) crops are as safe to eat as non-GM crops. And reviews by the FDA and Environment and Climate Change Canada concluded that the environmental risks of AquAdvantage salmon were extremely low or negligible thanks to the containment measures that AquaBounty has put in place.

Starting this month, companies that produce bioengineered food—defined as food containing genetic material that does not occur naturally and which could not have resulted from conventional breeding—are required by the United States Department of Agriculture to apply a new label to their products. At press time, AquaBounty could not confirm whether its fish would carry the labels or not.

Undeterred, AquaBounty is already moving forward with its second product—gene-edited tilapia cleared for sale in Argentina. These fish grow faster, consume less food, and produce bigger fillets than conventional tilapia do.

With its progress in Argentina, Canada, and the United States, AquaBounty is finally nearing the end of its protracted push to bring bioengineered fish to consumers. But being first brings no guarantees—and for AquaBounty, it’s time to sink or swim.

This article appears in the January 2020 print issue as “Transgenic Salmon Hits U.S. Shelves.”

Egypt’s Massive 1.8-Gigawatt Benban Solar Park Nears Completion

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Amid the sand dunes of the western Sahara, workers are putting the finishing touches on one of the world’s largest solar installations. There, as many as 7.2 million photovoltaic panels will make up Benban Solar Park—a renewable energy project so massive, it will be visible from space. 

The 1.8-gigawatt installation is the first utility-scale PV plant in Egypt, a nation blessed with some of the best solar resources on the planet. The ambitious project is part of Egypt’s efforts to increase its generation capacity and incorporate more renewable sources into the mix. 

“I think Benban Solar Park is the first real step to put Egypt on the solar production world map,” says Mohamed Orabi, a professor of power electronics at Aswan University.

What Is ‘Hot Lightning’? Satellites Reveal Which Strikes Are Most Likely to Start Wildfires

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

New satellite sensor data, combined with info from the terrestrial U.S. National Lightning Detection Network, will help scientists identify the most dangerous lightning strikes

What Is ‘Hot Lightning’? Satellites Reveal Which Strikes Are Most Likely to Start Wildfires

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

New satellite sensor data, combined with info from the terrestrial U.S. National Lightning Detection Network, will help scientists identify the most dangerous lightning strikes

In the time it takes to read this sentence, lightning will strike somewhere in the world. In fact, lightning strikes are thought to occur between 50 and 100 times every second. Most of the time, lightning just puts on a pretty show. But sometimes, it kills people. And then there are the times when it ignites wildfires or damages electrical equipment.

With new tools, researchers can now distinguish the most damaging lightning strikes from the many millions of others that occur every year. All lightning is dangerous—but if we can tell which strikes are more likely to actually inflict harm, that information might help us react more quickly during a storm.

Already, the U.S. National Lightning Detection Network keeps a record of virtually all lightning that strikes the ground anywhere in the United States. That network is maintained by Helsinki-based Vaisala, which built it 30 years ago and sells the data to the National Weather Service and to utilities, airports, seaports, mines, and sporting arenas. Vaisala operates a global lightning detection network, as well.

But the company hasn’t been able to make one specific measurement that could provide clues as to how dangerous a given strike is likely to be—until now.

Alaska’s Engineering Colleges Prepare to Slash Programs, Lay Off Faculty

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Dramatic cuts to the budget of the state’s only public university put its engineering programs in jeopardy

A thousand students enrolled in the University of Alaska’s engineering colleges in Fairbanks and Anchorage—the only engineering programs in the state—are probably wondering: What next? Administrators have few answers to offer as they confront Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy’s dramatic budget cuts to the state’s only public institution of higher education. 

The future of Alaska’s engineering colleges is now in jeopardy along with the rest of the University of Alaska (UA) system. Dozens of engineering faculty, researchers, and staff could see their positions eliminated, and even tenured faculty members could lose their jobs. Students may not be able to finish their degrees in the programs or locations in which they started.

And thanks to the failure of another state budget measure called the reverse sweep, many engineering students have already lost merit-based scholarships promised to them through the Alaska Performance Scholarship program. Engineering students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) have lost more than US $1 million in scholarships that were awarded but not funded.

“The situation is looking rather grim,” says Kenrick Mock, interim dean for UAA’s College of Engineering. The college offers degree programs in computer science, electrical engineering, computer systems engineering, and project management among others.

Mock, who is in the Computer Science and Engineering Department, says budget cuts could mean losing one or two faculty members from a departmental staff of six, which currently supports 250 computer science majors and 50 computer systems engineering majors.

College- and department-level impacts won’t be clear until the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents decides later this month how best to restructure the system in light of the cuts. In the meantime, students, faculty, and staff are left to try to make sense of recent events.

On 28 June, Gov. Dunleavy vetoed US $130 million in state funding for the University of Alaska system for the fiscal year that began on 1 July—a step he said was necessary to contend with the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit, inflicted in large part by sluggish oil prices. Those cuts came on top of a $5 million reduction proposed by Alaska’s legislature.

Overall, state funding for the University of Alaska has been reduced by $136 million [PDF], or 41 percent, for the fiscal year that began 1 July. That translates to a 17 percent reduction to the University of Alaska’s total operating budget. Citing reputational damage caused by these cuts, the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents expects tuition, grant funding, and charitable donations to also drop, adding to a total loss of more than $200 million [PDF] in funding for the current fiscal year.

The University of Alaska operates three separately-accredited campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau along with more than a dozen technical schools and other branches across the state.

Last week, some legislators scrambled to find 45 votes to override the governor’s veto. But Dunleavy made that task more difficult by calling for a special session in the city of Wasilla, far from the state’s capitol of Juneau, to discuss Alaska residents’ annual permanent fund dividend payments. That move effectively split the legislature, with those remaining in Juneau voting to override the veto (37-1), but failing to capture the required number of votes.

The University of Alaska is now widely expected to declare financial exigency [PDF], an emergency status that would allow administrators to take extreme measures to reduce costs by closing campuses, slashing salaries and programs, or laying off tenured faculty.

However, closing the university’s flagship Fairbanks campus would still not be enough to cover the shortfall. In response to budget cuts in previous years, the university has already suspended or discontinued more than 50 degree programs and certificates, including its MS in Engineering Management program.

On Monday, the UA Board of Regents said it would wait until 30 July to decide whether to declare financial exigency. In the meantime, some legislators in the House Finance Committee still hope to draft and pass on a new budget that would restore part or all of the university’s funding.

“I’m just trying to catch up and figure out what the heck is going on,” said William Schnabel, dean of the College of Engineering and Mines at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), when reached for comment on Tuesday.

A six-hour drive north from Anchorage, the UAF College of Engineering and Mines has 650 students, including 65 pursuing master and doctoral degrees. Forty-five tenured or tenure-track faculty work there, along with 10 research faculty and 32 staff.

The college also includes the Institute for Northern Engineering, which hosts specialized research groups including the Alaska Center for Energy and Power and a consortium devoted to studying sustainable transportation in cold climates.

Schnabel is doing his best to stay positive while  grappling with the potential impact of the cuts. “We are absolutely going to be smaller in this college,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to do as many things. But the things we’re going to do are going to be excellent.”

For him, that will mean choosing which programs to invest in, and which to eliminate. “I don’t really plan that we’re going to take these budget cuts and spread them out evenly,” he says. “I think we’re going to drop programs, because I don’t want to keep all my programs and have everybody do it half-assed.”

“That will doom us,” he adds. “We have to be great at something in order to get students to Fairbanks.”

UAF engineering researchers are largely supported by grants and are therefore less likely to be cut than faculty who spend most of their time with students in classrooms. “The big danger with the research faculty is that they’ll just get fed up and leave,” Schnabel says.

Chris Hartman, who heads the computer science department at UAF, has fielded many questions from students about what the budget cuts means for their studies. “What I’m telling them is—I have no idea, but we will make sure that you have some path to graduation somehow,” he says.

Enrollment in many of UAF’s engineering programs has fallen in recent years (except computer science), which Schnabel says is a symptom of a statewide recession. Neither Schnabel nor Mock expect the engineering colleges to shut down completely, and other schools and programs could face worse fates, since there is strong industry support for engineering in Alaska.

Still, Schnabel worries that downsizing staff could cause the UAF college to lose ABET accreditation for those programs that remain, which he says would be “devastating” to the school and its students. “If you want to get an engineering license, you have to graduate form an ABET-accredited program,” he says. “And if you’re not accredited, you may as well not have a program.”

Chris Miller, president of Fairbanks-based engineering firm Design Alaska and an advisory board member for UAF’s College of Engineering and Mines, says his firm recruits heavily from UA engineering programs.

Of 44 technical staff members at Design Alaska, Miller estimates 65 percent are UA alums. Six UAF students are working at Design Alaska right now, and Miller says the firm hires UA grads for almost all of its entry-level positions.

“UA engineers understand working in Alaska, and being very cross-disciplined, self-reliant, and hands on,” Miller says. “We find Alaska-trained engineers ‘get it’ right away and perform well here.” He adds: “I have had countless people apply for jobs, and then look up Fairbanks, Alaska and say ‘no thanks’ to us.”

Computer science students who graduate from the Anchorage campus often become software developers, Mock says, and he estimates about 60 percent remain in the state. “In particular, the entrepreneurship community has been growing in Alaska and has already identified a shortage of programming talent as a gap, so the loss of our programs would have a definite impact on startups and the economy,” he says.

When students do leave the state to study engineering, they often never return, Schnabel adds. “Divesting in the engineering programs will send more good students away. So that’s a problem for the state,” he says.

Schnabel’s own son, Zeke, plans to start his freshman year of college at UAF’s College of Engineering and Mines this fall. He wants to study civil engineering. But given the university’s budget challenges, Schnabel says Zeke now thinks he may transfer and continue his studies out of state after his first year.

The first day of classes in Fairbanks is 26 August.

An Oft-Struck Mountaintop Tower Gets a New Lightning Sensor

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Säntis Tower in the Swiss Alps is struck by lightning more than 100 times a year

Atop a rocky peak in the Swiss Alps sits a telecommunications tower that gets struck by lightning more than 100 times a year, making it perhaps the world’s most frequently struck object. Taking note of the remarkable consistency with which lightning hits this 124-meter structure, researchers have adorned it with instruments for a front-row view of these violent electric discharges.

On Wednesday, a small team installed a new gadget near Säntis Tower in their years-long quest to better understand how lightning forms and why it behaves the way it does. About two kilometers from the tower, they set up a broadband interferometer that one member, Mark Stanley of New Mexico Tech, had built back in his lab near Jemez, New Mexico.

“You can’t really go to a company and find an instrument that’s built just for studying lightning,” says Bill Rison, Stanley’s collaborator who teaches electrical engineering at New Mexico Tech. “You have to build your own.”

The one Stanley built has three antennas with bandwidth from 20 to 80 megahertz (MHz) to record powerful electromagnetic pulses in the very high-frequency range that lightning is known to produce. The device also has a fourth antenna to measure sferics, which are low-frequency signals that result from the movement of charge that occurs with a strike or from storm activity within clouds“Basically, lightning is a giant spark,” Rison explains. “Sparks give off radio waves and the interferometer detects the radio waves.” 

To anyone who has witnessed a lightning strike, everything seems to happen all at once. But Stanley’s sensor captures several gigabytes of data about the many separate pulses that occur within each flash. Those data can be made into a video that replays, microsecond by microsecond, how “channels” of lightning form in the clouds.

By mapping lightning in this way, the Säntis team, which hired Stanley and Rison to haul their interferometer to Switzerland, hopes to better understand what prompts lightning’s “initiation”—that mysterious moment when it cracks into existence.  

So far, measurements have raised more questions than they’ve answered. One sticking point is, in order for a thunderstorm to emit a lightning strike, the electric field within it must build to an intensity on the order of several megavolts per meter. But while researchers have sent balloons into thunderstorms, no one has measured a field beyond 200 kilovolts per meter, or one-tenth of the required value, says Farhad Rachidi of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), who co-leads the Säntis research team.  

“The conditions required for lightning to be started within the clouds never seem to exist based on the measurements made in the clouds,” says Marcos Rubinstein, a telecommunications professor at Switzerland’s School of Business and Engineering Vaud and co-leader of the Säntis team with Rachidi. “This is a big, big question.”

In his own research at New Mexico Tech, Rison has laid some groundwork that could explain how small electric fields can produce such big sparks. In 2016, he and his colleagues published a paper in Nature Communications that described experimental evidence showing that a process known as fast positive breakdown can create a series of streamers, or tiny sparks, and may arise from much stronger local electric fields that occur in small pockets within a storm.

If enough streamers occur in quick succession and within close vicinity to one another, they make more streamers, adding up to a streamer “avalanche” that turns into positive leaders, or mini-bolts that branch toward clouds or the ground.

“We haven’t hit any roadblocks yet to say, this is something that isn’t the process for the initiation of lightning,” Rison says. With his evidence in hand, theorists are now trying to explain exactly how and why these fast positive breakdowns occur in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Säntis team wants to adapt a mathematical technique called time-reversal, which was originally pioneered for acoustics, to better understand lightning’s initiation. With this method, they intend to use data gathered by the tower’s many instruments (which include a collection of six antennas called a lightning mapping array, two Rogowski coils to measure current, two B-Dot sensors to measure the current time-derivative, broadband electric and magnetic field sensors, and a high-speed camera) to reconstruct the total path of strikes soon after they happen, tracing the electromagnetic radiation all the way back to its original source.

As has been true of past lightning research, their findings may someday inform the design of airplanes or electric grids, and help protect people and equipment against lightning strikes and other sudden power surges. The Säntis team’s work has held particular relevance for wind farm operators. That’s because most strikes recorded at the tower are examples of upward lightning—which travels from ground-to-cloud instead of cloud-to-ground.

Upward lightning often originates from tall buildings and structures, which can actually create a lightning bolt that shoots skyward, and this process can damage wind turbines. In 2013, the team published one of the most extensive descriptions to date of this type of flash.

More recently, their work has raised questions about why industry safety certifications for aircraft are based on data about downward strikes, instead of upward ones, which commonly occur with aircraft and cause particular kinds of damage that look more like lightning damage reported by pilots and mechanics.

By the end of this year, the Säntis team expects to record its 1,000th lightning strike at the tower. And there’s one more elusive scientific matter with massive practical implications they hope to someday resolve. “If we understand how lightning is initiated, we could take a big step forward on one of the other questions we’ve been trying to solve for a long time, and that’s to be able to predict lightning before it happens,” says Rubinstein.  

Transmission Failure Causes Nationwide Blackout in Argentina

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Preliminary reports suggest problems with several 500-kilovolt transmission lines disrupted the flow of electricity from two dams to Argentina’s grid

A preliminary company memo suggests that problems with at least two 500-kilovolt transmission lines were the proximate cause of nationwide blackouts in Argentina on Sunday 16 June. The lines connect a pair of hydroelectric dams to Argentina’s grid. Parts of Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay also experienced power outages, though the total number of people affected is not yet clear. 

Government authorities have not yet determined what caused the disconnect and investigations are ongoing. Officials are expected to issue a more comprehensive report within 10 days.

In a statement on Sunday morning, the Secretariat of Energy attributed the blackouts, which began at 7:07 AM local time, to the “collapse of the Argentine Interconnection System (SADI).” The SADI is a high-voltage transmission network operated by Transener that transports electricity from generators, including power plants and dams, to distribution networks that serve tens of millions of customers.

According to a public statement by Edesur, one of Argentina’s largest electricity distributors, the failure occurred along a critical route of Argentina’s interconnection system that supplies the nation’s grid with power generated by the Yacyreta Dam in Paraguay and the Salto Grande Dam on the Uruguay River.

ABB & Siemens Test Subsea Power Grids for Underwater Factories

Post Syndicated from Amy Nordrum original

Putting a power-distribution station on the ocean floor could allow more raw materials to be processed down there

Slowly but surely, oil- and gas-drilling technology is migrating from floating platforms to the seafloor. Pumps moved down there decades ago. More recently, compressors (which boost pressure in a well to keep gas flowing) and separators (which isolate oil from water and silt) have relocated to the murky depths.

Putting this equipment closer to wells makes them more productive and energy efficient. Some oil and gas companies even aspire to build subsea factories that extract and process oil and natural gas directly on the seafloor. These factories would be safe from hazards such as icebergs and hurricanes. They would be controlled remotely, reducing labor costs. Eventually, some believe, offshore platforms could be phased out entirely.

However, all of this sunken gear requires electricity. Today, operators typically string power lines from power plants or diesel generators aboard nearby oil rigs to every piece of subsea equipment they install. That works for a few machines, but it’s impractical to string dozens of umbilicals, as they’re known, to the ocean floor.

Industry suppliers ABB and Siemens are now putting the finishing touches on competing versions of the world’s first subsea power-distribution stations. Once installed, these stations would connect via a single line to a “topside” (maritime parlance for above water) generator, wind turbine, or power plant, and redistribute electricity to underwater equipment. “Our technology is an enabling technology for the subsea factory,” says Bjørn Rasch, head of subsea power for Siemens.

Both projects have been in the works for more than five years. ABB will complete its final round of testing in June and expects to install its first subsea power system in 2020. Siemens tested its version in shallow water in Norway last November and is now talking with clients about putting its first unit in the field. “We’re getting close to where we’re actually deploying this technology in a real project,” Rasch says.

Siemens’s model, which the company calls its Subsea Power Grid, consists of a transformer, a medium-voltage switchgear, and a variable-speed drive. Its distribution voltage is around 30 kilovolts, while its variable-speed drive puts out 6.6 kV. The system can provide electricity to devices with power ratings between 1 and 15 megawatts. The umbilical that hooks it to a generation station also includes an embedded fiber-optic cable so operators can run everything from afar.

One of the hardest parts of building the station, Rasch says, was ensuring it could withstand the high water pressure of the seafloor. Instead of encasing all the equipment in a pressurized chamber, engineers flooded the electronics with a synthetic fluid called Midel. This biodegradable fluid inside the equipment maintains the same pressure as the seawater, which alleviates stress. The fluid also passively cools the device by transferring heat from equipment to the chilly seawater.

Chevron, Eni Norge, Equinor, and ExxonMobile have all worked with Siemens to get the company’s project this far. The next step for both ABB and ­Siemens will be to deliver the first model for installation at an active production site.

Brian Skeels, professor of subsea engineering at the University of Houston and director of emerging technology for the offshore design and consulting firm TechnipFMC, has seen many attempts to “marinize” technologies to work underwater. Dealing with heat is a common stumbling block. If water can’t flow freely around a device, the heat it generates prompts marine life to grow on the equipment, which shortens its life-span. And, Skeels cautions, “what may work in shallow water may not work at deeper depths.”

Both systems are expected to work at depths of up to 3,000 meters and operate for 30 years with minimal maintenance. At the end of their lives, the units can be removed from the seafloor.

A power-distribution center would be just one piece of any future subsea factory—a vision that has captivated the industry for more than a decade. Skeels says the future of subsea processing will depend largely on whether such projects can add more value to the industry than they drain in expense. Investment into subsea processing dried up when oil prices crashed in 2014. Looking ahead, Skeels thinks the technology holds the most potential for remote wells more than 160 kilometers from other facilities.

Hani Elshahawi, digitalization lead for deepwater technologies at Shell, says there are clear benefits to having power readily available on the seafloor. But he doesn’t think subsea factories will supplant all platform activities, or replace any of them in the near future. “It will require decades, in my view,” he says. “We foresee a more gradual and lengthy transition.”

To Rasch at Siemens, though, the industry’s vision of subsea factories does not seem as far out as it once did. “There are many technologies in many companies that are in place or close to being in place,” he says. “This can be realized in the close future, that’s for sure.”

This article appears in the June 2019 print issue as “ABB and Siemens Test Subsea Power Grids.”