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Science & Climate: Some Important News of 2022

If we look back, we find a happening year for science, technology, and health. This year also brought in natural calamities due to global climate change, suggesting a more hazardous time ahead for humanity.
Climate Change May Increase Mortality Rate by 6 Times Due to Excess Heat: Lancet Study

The year has come to an end, and if we look back, we find a happening year for science, technology, and health. This year also brought in natural calamities due to global climate change, suggesting a more hazardous time ahead for humanity. Let us look at important news from the field of science and climate in 2022.

1. The Success of Fusion Reaction in 'Net Energy Gain'

The US department of energy (DOE) has announced the generation of energy from a nuclear fusion reaction, which has been claimed as a major scientific breakthrough. But why? In the half-a-century-long quest for fusion energy, scientists at the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) achieved the breakeven point in fusion energy. The breakeven point indicates achieving more energy from fusion than the energy they put in to run the experiment. This breakthrough is also seen as a future substitute for fossil fuels. Only time will tell when and how it will prove to be a viable alternative source of clean energy, but right now, the technology still needs to turn into power grids, experts opined.

The LLNL scientists achieved the so-called 'net energy gain' on the decisive experiment carried out on December 5, according to the DOE release, where they put 2.05 mega joules (MJ) of energy into the target. In return, they obtained 3.25 MJ of energy as output.

Other elaborate fusion experiments have also been conducted in other collaborative projects elsewhere. But they use different technologies than the US scientists did.

Last year, Chinese scientists achieved a record-breaking success when their tokamak, called the EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak), managed to carry the fusion reaction for 101 seconds and at an extreme temperature of about 120 million degrees Celsius. The temperature required in magnetic confinement fusion is generally around 100 million degrees Celsius, which was attained in earlier experiments. But no experiments could ever sustain that temperature for as long as the Chinese experiment did.

Last year, scientists in the UK, with the world's largest and most powerful tokamak, the Joint European Torus (JET), produced 59 MJ of energy. The fusion reaction is sustained for five seconds. This was more than double the energy the JET could produce in 1997, 22 MJ. Moreover, there is a megaproject called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). Under construction, ITER will be the world's largest tokamak nuclear fusion reactor. Headquartered in France, the ITER started in 2013 and has several countries working jointly. Notably, India is also a part of the ITER megaproject.

2. Space Exploration by James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is in space with its aim of discovering the early universe. The successful operation of the JWST has been exciting throughout the year. In July this year, the JWST produced the first images of the cosmos. After that, JWST continues to mesmerise by producing images of planets in the solar system. The latest, in November, the telescope reported having spotted two objects that can be the most distant galaxies ever seen. Researchers are still in the process of confirming the distances of these galaxies. They attempt to do this by analysing the spectral properties of the light emitted by them. The researchers say that if the initial estimates are correct, these galaxies may have formed some 350 million to 450 million years after the Big Bang occurred.

With an expense of $10 billion, the Webb telescope is expected to have a lifetime of 10 years in space. The Webb has a mass of 6,200 kilogrammes. A primary target of the observatory will be the epoch where the early pioneering stars whose light ended the darkness theorised to engulf the cosmos shortly after the Big Bang happened, a time of more than 13 billion years ago. The nuclear reactions in those celestial objects would have given birth to heavy atoms like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and Sulphur, essential for forming lives.

The other aim of the Webb to study the atmospheres of distant planets may help researchers judge if any such planets outside the solar system are habitable. The JWST uses infrared wavelength to study the universe.

3. Asteroid en route to Earth Deviated from Its Path

An asteroid named Dimorphos collided with a spacecraft named DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) intentionally as a test to see whether similar events would be possible in future to nudge an asteroid out of its way, which may be potentially harmful to Earth. The DART hit Dimorphos, a 160m wide object, as its target.

This unusual and first-of-its-kind joint experiment by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and ESA (European Space Agency) successfully hit the asteroid 11 million kilometres from Earth. Cameras installed in DART returned an image per second immediately after the spacecraft collided with the target. It was a steady image stream as the target was obliterated. Notably, DART target Dimorphos is a small member of an asteroid pair. It is the moon of the much larger sibling Didymos.

4. Climate Change-Driven Extreme Weather Events

This year also was similar to manifesting extreme weather events due to man-made climate change. There have been terrible heat waves in many parts of the globe, including India and UK. The UK recorded the highest-ever temperature above 40 degrees Celsius.

Floods have devastated Pakistan this year, with 33 million people affected and more than 1200 killed. Rivers breaching their banks, coupled with the bursting of glacial lakes, have inundated almost one-third of the country, causing a massive economic loss. A convergence of factors such as extreme heat waves, melting glaciers, and heavy monsoon rainfall can explain the scale of floods in the country. Pakistan's northern region consists of many glaciers. This year's prolonged heat wave caused the melting of many glaciers, eventually flowing more water into the country's river system.

Pakistan has witnessed a rise in temperature by 0.3 degree Celsius per decade from 1952-2009. The floods in Pakistan are considered a wake-up call to the world as far as the threats of climate change are concerned. However, there is another angle to it. Many in Pakistan felt a sense of climate injustice because Pakistan contributes less than 1% of the global emission of greenhouse gases. But the sensitive geo-ecological positioning of Pakistan makes it extremely vulnerable to the threats of climate change, which may have manifested this year.

On the other hand, neighbouring China reeled under extreme heat and severe drought. Along with long spells of heat, the rainfall shortage has led to the depletion of water levels in rivers and reservoirs, which in turn caused an electricity crisis. Many industries have to shut down because of electricity shortages, with huge areas of croplands damaged. Extreme heat for around two months, with hundreds of places in the country recording temperatures beyond 40 degrees Celsius. Subways have become makeshift rest stations where people can recover from the heat. On August 18, Chongqing in the Sichuan province experienced temperatures as high as 45 degrees Celsius. It was the most severe hot spell in Chongqing since 1961. On August 20, Chongqing witnessed a minimum temperature of 34.9 degrees Celsius, the highest minimum temperature that has ever been recorded in August.

5. Finding new antimicrobial peptides from the human gut with the help of AI (Artificial Intelligence)

AI has become an integrated part of any research; it is slowly getting into various day-to-day activities. Among the advances in AI, one important and interesting finding was identifying antimicrobial peptides. Research led by a Chinese team reported identifying 2349 antimicrobial peptides.

Finding new antimicrobial drugs is a great challenge nowadays. With the rise of antibiotic-resistant microbes, the existing antibiotics are getting less efficient, which is why scientists are searching for more and more new kinds of antibiotics. The Chinese team showed how AI could be utilised to identify new antimicrobials. The team identified the antimicrobials from the genomes of microbes in the human gut. Notably, almost half of the newly identified antimicrobials are new without having any similarity with the known ones. The AI-predicted antimicrobials are being tested on animals before being used in human medical treatment. Animal testing already showed that three of these newly predicted antimicrobials are safe to use by humans.

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