👩🔬 2022 in science. Nuclear fusion, AI in medicine, space selfie
From nuclear fusion to turning waste into gold: a brief list of the most incredible scientific discoveries of 2022.
The most striking science news of last year came from outer space. The James Webb Space Telescope began transmitting data to Earth and started with a bang: he took a selfie. In 2022, JWST showed some of the earliest galaxies and studied the atmospheres of exoplanets. In 2023, we are waiting for more space photos to help humans better understand their place in the universe.
First, scientists at the Joint European Torus, an experimental reactor in Oxford, produced 59 megajoules of fusion power, doubling the previous record set 25 years ago. Then, physicists at the US Livermore National Laboratory, for the first time, received more fusion energy than they spent on the reaction.
These achievements give hope that the advent of economically viable nuclear fusion is not far off. According to the IAEA, fusion makes it possible to obtain four times more energy per kilogram of fuel than nuclear fission. Also, nuclear fusion is almost four million times more efficient than burning oil or coal.
Scientists at Imperial College London have developed an AI capable of accurately diagnosing Alzheimer's disease at an early stage with just one MRI image of the brain.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Cancer Research in London has created an algorithm that, in less than two days, determines which combinations of drugs can help cancer patients. The AI-based test uses protein data from tumour samples to predict patients' drug responses accurately.
Plus, London-based DeepMind announced that its AlphaFold algorithm had predicted the structure of more than 200 million proteins—virtually all known to science. Artificial intelligence has opened a whole protein universe to people. It will help scientists develop new fertilisers and create new medicines. The process has already begun: researchers at the University of Oxford used AlphaFold to determine the protein structure found in the malaria parasite. By understanding how antibodies block the transmission of a specific protein, scientists can develop new treatments for malaria.
Alchemists believed in the existence of a philosopher's stone capable of turning ordinary substances into gold. In 2022, the University of Manchester scientists and Chinese colleagues proved that graphene — a material consisting of a layer of carbon one atom thick — can be used to extract gold from e-waste with a microscopic content of the precious metal.
The recipe for obtaining gold is straightforward: dissolve the electronic waste, add graphene to the solution, and pure gold will appear on graphene sheets in a few minutes. One gram of carbon material produces almost two grams of noble metal. The discovery has economic potential, with a gram of graphene costing less than $0.1 and gold about $70.
Tens of thousands of years ago, ancient people carved pictures of animals onto flat stones so they would look animated in the flickering light. A 2022 study described how the animal portraits carved on limestone rocks at a prehistoric shelter in southern France were exposed to hearth fires after they were made. Scientists visualised a roving firelight that makes engraved forms appear dynamic and alive.
Scientists have long been exploring quantum communication, which uses quantum mechanics to transfer information securely. It works by encoding data using the quantum properties of particles like photons, making it impossible to intercept information and promising to revolutionise data transmission. But the delicate nature of quantum particles, which lose their properties when interacting with the environment, challenges the technology development.
In 2022, it became clear that deep space will not be an obstacle for quantum particles. Photons can travel hundreds of thousands of light-years without losing their quantum properties. Thus, an advanced alien civilisation could send a quantum message to Earth. People just need to invent a way to receive it.
Elia Kabanov is a science writer covering the past, present and future of technology (@metkere)
Illustration: Elia Kabanov feat. MidJourney.