Scientists, technologists, researchers, and innovators, in many fields got little attention over the last two years as the world focused on the emergency push to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. But labs, researchers and companies remained busy, and this year they’ve reported a dizzying series of major discoveries and achievements. Here’s a look at 10 of the most stunning scientific breakthroughs of 2022:
Progress in Nuclear fusion marks a historic moment
Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced in December that they had produced the first fusion reaction that created more energy than was used to start it. The long-elusive achievement marked a major breakthrough in harnessing the process that fuels the sun. “This milestone moves us one significant step closer” to “powering our society” with zero-carbon fusion energy, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said.
Fusion involves pushing together two nuclei of a lightweight element, such as hydrogen, at a colossal speed, forcing them to fuse. The leftover mass is converted into an enormous amount of energy, according to Einstein’s formula E = mc^2. Unlike fission, in which atoms are split, fusion requires small amounts of ordinary fuel — the amount of hydrogen in a glass of water could provide enough energy for one person’s lifetime — and does not create much radioactive waste, which is why it’s been called “the holy grail for the future of nuclear power.”
The James Webb Telescope
Popular Science magazine this year named NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope the Innovation of the Year in aerospace technology. Unlike the Hubble space telescope, which scanned the heavens from low Earth orbit, the Webb telescope is camped hundreds of thousands of miles farther out, sitting in Earth’s shadow, where it is permanently blocked from sunlight. Its view further protected by a multi-layer sunshield, it sits at the temperature (-370 degrees Fahrenheit) best suited for its infrared sight.
As a result, Popular Science says, the $10 billion JWST “can see deep into fields of forming stars. It can peer 13 billion years back in time at ancient galaxies, still in their nursery. It can peek at exoplanets, seeing them directly where astronomers would have once had to reconstruct meager traces of their existence. It can teach us about how those stars and galaxies came together from primordial matter, something Hubble could only glimpse.”
The World’s Second Biggest Cryptocurrency Successfully Switches to Proof-Of-Stake
The “merge” of 2022 saw the popular Ethereum blockchain – which acts as a distributed computing platform as well as a cryptocurrency – successfully switch from a proof-of-work (PoW) model (similar to Bitcoin) to proof-of-stake (PoS).
According to the Ethereum Foundation, by doing so, it reduced the overall energy usage of the network by 99.9%. This is significant because the large amount of energy used by blockchain networks has often been seen as a hurdle that has to be cleared before the technology will live up to its potential. Essentially, PoS and PoW are two different methods of validating transactions on a blockchain – a distributed, decentralized database that relies on cryptography to keep multiple copies of the database synchronized, effectively making them tamper-proof.
As well as less energy intensive and therefore less damaging to the planet, blockchains, and cryptocurrencies that operate using PoS algorithms are faster, meaning transactions will be processed more quickly. Blockchain is proposed as a solution for a host of problems ranging from creating new systems of money to acting as the foundation of new digital societies and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). Successfully managing the transition of a blockchain used by millions of people is a step towards proving that the underlying technology is sound.
A universal flu vaccine
U.S. public health officials have long warned Americans to brace for another possible COVID-19 surge as winter hits and families gather for the holidays. Indeed, the nation is facing a “tripledemic,” with COVID-19 cases rising, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) overloading many hospitals, and the 2022-23 flu season building into what could be the worst in a decade. As of early December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had already recorded 4,500 flu deaths.
Fighting the flu represents a new challenge every year because influenza viruses are constantly evolving. Some years, the vaccines are effective. Sometimes they miss the mark. But now Scott Hensley at the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues have created a flu vaccine based on mRNA molecules — the same technique Moderna, and Pfizer, along with its partner BioNTech, used to make their widely used COVID-19 vaccines. The vaccine has produced antibody responses against all 20 known strains of influenza A and B in tests on mice, with the effectiveness lasting four months. The results were similar in tests on ferrets, fueling hopes the universal vaccine could work in humans, too.
Changing an asteroid’s trajectory
If you’ve watched a movie about an asteroid threatening to wipe out life on Earth, relax. NASA this year proved with its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission that it has the ability to deflect a giant space rock off a collision course with our planet. NASA sent the 1,100-pound DART spacecraft slamming into a 525-foot-diameter asteroid, Dimorphos, at 14,000 miles per hour to see whether the impact force would be enough to change its trajectory.
Dimorphos, which didn’t actually threaten Earth, was orbiting around a larger parent asteroid, Didymos, every 11 hours and 55 minutes before the crash. After DART slammed into Dimorphos on Sept. 26, astronomers clocked its orbit time at 11 hours and 23 minutes, 32 minutes shorter than before, signaling a significant change in its path. “All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it’s the only one we have,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This mission shows that NASA is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us.”
AI brings big changes for artists
Artificial intelligence is opening up new possibilities for businesses and households, and now new text-to-image generators are giving everyone from artists to urban planners to reconstructive surgeons a new tool to help them visualize ideas. DALL-E 2, which Open AI released in July, looks at hundreds of millions of captioned images to turn text prompts written by users into images.
Mark Chen, the lead researcher on DALL-E 2, told The Atlantic that image generators like DALL-E 2 aim to “democratize” art. “This is the most exciting new technology in the AI space since natural-language translation,” Atlantic deputy editor Ross Anderson said.
New vaccines to fight Malaria
Malaria, found in more than 90 countries, kills an estimated 627,000 people every year. Vaccines could help reduce or eliminate the toll, but scientists have struggled to develop a highly effective one. This year, though, the technology used to create mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 has helped a research team led by George Washington University develop two experimental mRNA vaccine candidates that are highly effective in reducing malaria infection and transmission, according to a study published in December in npj Vaccines, an open-access scientific journal in the Nature Portfolio.
“Malaria elimination will not happen overnight but such vaccines could potentially banish malaria from many parts of the world,” says Nirbhay Kumar, a professor of global health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
With new tools available, Cancer treatments rapidly advance
Scientists reported progress on several fronts in the battle against cancer. A team led by Chris Jones, a professor of Pediatric Brain Tumor Biology at the Institute of Cancer Research, worked with the company BenevolentAI to use artificial intelligence tools to come up with a new drug combination to fight diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, an incurable childhood brain cancer. The proposed combination extended survival in mice by as much as 14 percent and has been tested in a small group of children.
In another potential breakthrough, Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr. of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center wrote a paper published in June in the New England Journal of Medicine describing a treatment that resulted in complete remission in all 18 rectal cancer patients who took the drug. “I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” Dr. Diaz said.
Paxlovid – A Pill For Covid
Vaccines have been hugely successful at cutting the risk of dying from Covid-19, but they are of limited use against new variants, and they can’t be administered once someone has tested positive. The pill developed by Pfizer as a “cure” at the start of the year has proven to be effective at reducing the chance of a person suffering from severe symptoms, even if given after infection. Initial findings suggest that they reduce the risk of hospitalization by 89%. The drug works by disrupting the virus’s ability to replicate itself within the body – essentially by forming a protective coating around the cells. The drug was actually approved for use in December 2021, but it didn’t make its way into general healthcare use until early 2022, so I’m bending the rules slightly to include it in this list! More recent findings suggest that it may even be effective for treating and relieving symptoms of long covid – which until now have often seemed to be untreatable.
The World’s Biggest Carbon Removal Plant Opens
The Orca, close to Reykjavik, Iceland, is the largest and most powerful facility of its kind, with the capacity to capture 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. The carbon dioxide is sucked through filters that bind it with water and pump it into the ground, where natural processes eventually transform it into carbon minerals – essentially rocks. The facility itself is powered by carbon-neutral energy generated at a nearby geothermal plant.
Although 4,000 metric tons might sound like a lot, in reality, it’s only equivalent to the emissions created by 900 cars. The genius of Orca’s design, however, is that it is built using a modular design that can be replicated relatively simply and cheaply anywhere in the world. Orca, and other similar facilities, could prove to be a vital tool in our struggle to keep rising global temperatures under control.