2020 could be a massive year in breakthrough science and here are four topics that will define the next decade.
For those of us of a certain age, saying the year 2020 sounds like the far future, yet here we are about to clock into the second decade of the 21st century.
With politics heading in unpredictable and bizarre directions, the world of sci-tech appears to be mirroring this same path. On the one hand, we have technology in our hands that gives us communication tools that we could only have dreamed of a few decades ago. But on the other, our insatiable demand for the materials to make these gadgets has brought our planet to its knees.
So what does the future hold for sci-tech, and what should we expect to see in the months and years ahead? Here are just a few topics I think will dominate the headlines in the new ‘roaring twenties’.
Some may roll their eyes at the suggestion that nuclear fusion is a possibility, let alone one that’s in reach within our lifetime. The big pay-off, if achieved, would be harnessing the immense power of the sun within a contained reactor.
This would give humanity a source of clean, cheap, safe energy that would far outshine anything current renewable technologies could achieve. However, this is not a new science, and has famously been ‘just 20 years away’ for more than half a century.
#ITER – the largest international cooperative energy project to harness power from fusion: a portrait by Jonathan Tirone (text) and Alastair Philip Wiper (photos) on Bloomberg Businessweek. https://t.co/WhgqQP4vum @BW @virtualnomad #fusionenergy pic.twitter.com/d4vLKCdFKl
— ITER (@iterorg) October 31, 2019
However, research – and funding – into the area has escalated dramatically in the past year or two, to the point that teams are achieving lengthier and lengthier stable plasma reactions within reactors. Other teams have found ways to make them more cost-effective to build and discovered that the addition of a common metal might play a crucial role in this development.
The European Investment Bank certainly doesn’t see fusion as a pipe dream, having recently pumped €250m into a groundbreaking experimental reactor to be built in Italy. Similarly, the UK recently announced plans to build a new £22m nuclear fusion research facility. Then, of course, there is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor based in France, which plans to start running the first experiments in 2025.
Will nuclear fusion be achieved next year? No. But the key that opens the door to its success might come along.
Google recently claimed that it had achieved ‘quantum supremacy’ by completing a calculation in three minutes and 20 seconds that a traditional supercomputer could not complete in under 10,000 years.
Bypassing the traditional computer built on ones and zeroes with qubits – which can be one, zero or both at the same time – quantum computing is seen as being as influential on healthcare and research as the internet was when it first came on the scene.
However, while IBM and others have dismissed Google’s claim as exaggerated, this year has seen a glut of breakthroughs in the field, which suggests 2020 could have its ‘Apollo moment’.
For instance, in July, researchers from Purdue University and the University of Rochester demonstrated their method of relaying information by transferring the state of electrons. Meanwhile, researchers from Dartmouth College and MIT found a way to make these computers ‘quieter’, which could make their blistering computational speeds more precise.
If the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is right, we have a little more than a decade to save the planet from a climate catastrophe. This alarming announcement last year was not the catalyst for researchers to start getting serious about climate research, but it has become the rocket booster accelerating new discoveries.
The next decade of climate research will be defined in two ways: understanding how our planet is changing and what our priorities should be; and finding ways of scaling back the damage we’ve caused.
Just recently, we learned rice yields could plummet by almost half as a result of soil drastically changed by the onset of the climate crisis. A team of Stanford University researchers grew rice in ‘future soil’, similar in composition to what it will be like in a CO2-abundant planet. However, by understanding this, there is hope that rice varieties could be bred capable of withstanding these changes.
There are also those working on ways to drastically cut back on our biggest emission producers, such as an international team that has put forward a way of powering fridges with the twisting of elastic bands.
Of course, there is the much-debated topic of geoengineering, an attempt to fundamentally change how our planet behaves to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Should we just focus on tackling where our emissions come from or also find ways to take back what we’ve already done? 2020 will be a year dominated by these questions.
It has been a few years since ‘clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’ – or CRISPR-Cas9 to you and me – exploded onto the scene, promising a tool that could cut out harmful mutations in DNA, just like a scissors. Now, still in its infancy, it has made headlines for all the wrong reasons with one Chinese researcher going rogue to use it on human embryos.
This has understandably raised alarm bells in the scientific community over its potential use in humans when so little is understood of the long-term consequences. But things are changing. Just recently, Wired reported about a research team that has fine-tuned CRISPR to be less error prone. Meanwhile, another team has captured atomic-level 3D images of Cas9 before and after cutting the DNA, giving us a better picture of what edits are happening.
Other uses for CRISPR are also appearing, notably with a team that has developed its own version, dubbed ‘ECRISPR’. This is a universal biosensing point-of-care medical device – similar to existing blood-glucose sensors – for the accurate and rapid detecting of viruses such as human papillomavirus or parvovirus.
With dedicated CRISPR start-ups popping up in increasing frequency and peer-reviewed ethical human trials already posting results, 2020 could be a defining year for the gene-editing tool.