The COVID-19 crisis ensured science related to developing vaccines and improving virus testing kits was at the forefront of everyone’s mind during 2020, but scientists also managed to produce fascinating research and valuable breakthroughs in many other areas. In a salute to those hardworking and often under-appreciated scientists, here’s a sample of some of those achievements.
Record breakers and game changers
One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the year came just last month, with news that Alphabet’s DeepMind AI has made huge strides in being able to accurately predict the 3D structures of proteins. The “folding problem” is major challenge in our understanding of biology that has plagued biologists for half a century, and the rapid progress made by DeepMind AI has wide-ranging implications for medicine and many other fields of biological research.
In the physics lab, Ranga Dias at the University of Rochester, New York, led a research team that claims to have invented the world’s first room-temperature superconductor. Using a compound of organic-derived carbonaceous sulfur hydride made out of hydrogen, carbon, and sulfur under high pressure, the team created a material that is superconductive at 58 °F (14.5 °C)
Superconductors are materials that, under the right conditions, lose all their electrical resistance and expel magnetic fields. This gives them properties that seem almost magical, such as being able to hold an electric current indefinitely without a power source. They’ve been used to build powerful magnets that are used in CT scanners, fusion reactors, and maglev trains. However, superconductors need to be kept at cryogenic temperatures, which greatly restricts the applications of the technology. So if the Rochester teams’ approach pans out, it could have a great effect on future devices of all kinds.
Meanwhile, researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg set a new record with the world’s smallest engine. How small? It’s so small that it’s powered by a single charged calcium atom. The teeny engine won’t be running any motor cars, but it could see applications in single-ion refrigerators and pumps.
Not to be outdone, Purdue University came up with the fastest-spinning artificial object. It’s also very tiny, being made up of two silica nanoparticles joined to form a microscopic, dumbbell-shaped rotor. When propelled on its axis by a laser beam, this minimal rotor can clock in at 60 billion rpm. That makes it 100 times faster than the University of St Andrews’ previous record.
Meanwhile, over in the animal kingdom we saw the largest number of fish ever recorded in one deep sea location at one time, and the first animal observed to have domesticated other animals.
2020 also saw some heartening energy news for a world seeking ways to protect the environment while still keeping the lights on. One of our most read stories of the year involved a Dutch brewery that burns cheap powdered iron to produce energy with rust as waste, but no carbon dioxide. Better yet, the rust can be converted back into iron using a renewable energy source. Built with the aid of the Metal Power Consortium and TU Eindhoven, the new system will provide enough heat to brew 15 million glasses of beer per annum.
Another interesting development brings together a safer, more affordable type of reactor with the production of clean-burning hydrogen. Modular nuclear reactors have been in development for some years and have shown promise because they can be mass-produced in factories, then shipped to site. In addition, they are safer than many conventional reactor designs and can be easily scaled to local needs by simply adding more modules.
The hydrogen angle comes from NuScale Power, which has released a study showing that just one of its modules could economically produce almost 50 tonnes of hydrogen fuel per day. This is a potential step forward because most of the hydrogen produced in the world comes from breaking down natural gas, with alternative methods often having problems in scaling up to industrial levels.
Of course, if fusion power could be made practical, humanity would have a limitless supply of energy, the impact of which is almost impossible to imagine. In July, assembly began on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is the world’s largest fusion reactor and is expected to be completed by 2025.
But there’s a very big catch. Though it’s the largest, it suffers from the same problem as the smaller, older version in that it takes more energy to run it than it produces. However, the 35-nation project will provide scientists and engineers with valuable data as well as enabling the testing of components. This, along with other breakthroughs like the recent record set by Korea’s KSTAR device, will hopefully bring practical fusion power closer to reality.
Impatient for the Fusion Age to dawn, the British government is already seeking sites in the UK to build the world’s first commercial fusion power plant. Scheduled to be operational by 2040, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) is intended to not only generate power, but also to create a hub for fusion energy and associated industries.
Food for thought
Turning to the dinner plate, food made science news in 2020 as the US FDA gave its approval to the first genetically modified pig for food and medical use. The GM porker, called GalSafe, has been engineered to prevent it from producing alpha-gal, which is a sugar molecule that many people develop an allergy to due to tick bites. However, there are no current plans to make the meat available in supermarkets.
2020 also marks the year when lab-grown chicken went on the menu after getting the clearance by the government of Singapore. Though a bit on the pricey side, food tech startup Eat Just plans to market the cultured chicken nuggets in the city state.
If you’re worried that lab-grown meat may not be healthy enough, look at the work from Tufts University, where a team of researchers has found a way to genetically engineer bovine cells to produce beta-carotene, a plant-based substance that the human body converts into vitamin A. Aside from joining Golden Rice and Golden Potatoes, which have also been engineered to produce beta-carotene to fight malnutrition in the developing world, it also illustrates how genetic engineering, though controversial, has the potential to improve human health.
Not a good environment
Not even the lockdowns caused by COVID-19 could provide good news for the environment in 2020, as ice sheets continued to melt and plastic polluted both the highest and lowest places on the planet. Some positives did bob to the surface though – long lost species were rediscovered and blue whales returned to the waters around South Georgia in significant numbers for the first time in over half a century. Though that news is tempered by the fact that South Georgia is being threatened by a giant iceberg that broke free from the Antarctic ice shelf in 2017.
Science in 2020 wasn’t just about discovering the new, it was also about rediscovering the old. A team of researchers led by Rahil Alipour of the University College London discovered that the ancient Persians were forging crucible chromium steel 800 years before it was supposedly invented. By studying a medieval Persian manuscript and comparing it to the finds excavated from Chahak in southern Iran, the team discovered that a substance called “rusakhtaj,” which was used in forging steel at high temperatures, was actually chromium – traces of which were found at the archaeological site.
The region from Persia to India is already famous as the birthplace of the legendary Damascus steel, and metal smiths have worked for centuries to rediscover the secrets locked in the steel’s sinuous, wavy, light and dark banding patterns that resemble flowing water in an effort to reproduce them today. One novel approach by engineers from the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung (MPIE) in Düsseldorf and the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology in Aachenwas is to combine ancient and modern technology by developing a way to 3D print Damascus steel.
Always more to learn
Just to show that there are still frontiers of science to conquer, the well-trampled field of human anatomy got a shock this year when oral surgeon Matthijs Valstar and radiation oncologist Wouter Vogel in the Netherlands discovered a previously unknown set of saliva glands in the human head. The pair of glands were found deep in the back of the nasopharynx, which is the upper part of the pharynx that connects with the nasal cavity above the soft palate. They were spotted using a PSMA PET/CT scanner originally developed to capture images of prostate cancer tissues, but it now turns out it’s good for finding saliva glands. Aside from its value as a new trivia question, the discovery could help in the treatment of patients undergoing head and neck cancer radiotherapy.
Of course, that’s just a small taste of the many significant scientific achievements we’ve seen in 2020 – including some very weird ones. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the biggest breakthroughs of 2020 in the comments.