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US lab reports it is on the cusp of major nuclear fusion breakthrough

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An experiment conducted earlier this month saw a small pellet of hydrogen isotopes heated to produce “more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second”, according to the US National Ignition Facility.

A laboratory in the US is on the cusp of a breakthrough in nuclear fusion research which would see the fuel it generates release more energy than is needed to ignite it.

The US National Ignition Facility (NIF) confirmed that a successful experiment on 8 August “made a significant step” toward this goal, which is known as ignition

It saw light focused from the facility’s enormous laser systems – the size of three American football fields – on to a target smaller than a BB pellet made of deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen with different numbers of neutrons.

This laser beam produced a hot spot on the pellet the diameter of a human hair, which generated “more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second”.

As the pellet heated, it yielded 1.35 megajoules (MJ) of energy, approximately 70% of the laser energy beamed at it, and closer than ever before to the ignition point of an energy yield exceeding the 1.9 MJ from the laser.

The National Ignition Facility announced the experiment took place on 8 August
Image:The National Ignition Facility announced the experiment took place on 8 August. Pic: NIF

Nuclear fusion – the same process that occurs inside the hearts of stars – is a potentially completely green source of energy.

Unlike nuclear fission, the only type of nuclear power currently in use, which splits apart atoms such as uranium to capture the energy released, fusion merges two nuclei together to form a heavier element.

As the heavier element has less mass than the two nuclei which formed it, the excess mass is turned into energy, as explained by Einstein’s famous formula E = mc².

E = MC²

This formula means energy (E) equals mass (m) times the speed of light (c) squared (²).

It shows that energy and mass are equivalent, and allows scientists to calculate the energy produced by the loss of mass in nuclear experiments such as fusion reactions.

The speed of light is a universal constant and is the speed at which energy, such as electromagnetic radiation, always moves.

It is squared to reconcile the different measurements we use for space and time, although these are part of the same continuum in physics.

The enormous amounts of energy thus contained in even the smallest amounts of matter are key to why nuclear fusion is such a potentially powerful energy source.

Although the full scientific results of the research will be published in a peer-reviewed journal, the NIF’s initial analysis shows an eightfold improvement over experiments conducted in spring of this year, and a increase 25 times over the NIF’s record yield in 2018.

This result is a historic step forward for inertial confinement fusion research, opening a fundamentally new regime for exploration and the advancement of our critical national security missions,” said Kim Budil, the director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory which houses the NIF.

“It is also a testament to the innovation, ingenuity, commitment and grit of this team and the many researchers in this field over the decades who have steadfastly pursued this goal.”

Ms Budil added: “For me it demonstrates one of the most important roles of the national labs – our relentless commitment to tackling the biggest and most important scientific grand challenges and finding solutions where others might be dissuaded by the obstacles.”

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Science & Tech

COVID-19: Facebook removes Chinese-backed network of fake accounts spreading coronavirus disinformation

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The false profiles, with links to Chinese-backed agencies, originated and spread false claims the US pressured scientists to blame China for COVID-19.

Facebook has removed hundreds of fake accounts linked to a campaign by China to spread unfounded claims about the pandemic.

The bogus profiles originated claims the US pressured scientists to blame China for COVID-19.

An investigation found these claims were amplified by employees of Chinese state-run companies, soon becoming the subject of domestic news headlines.

“In effect it worked like an online hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting the original fake persona and its anti-US disinformation,” Ben Nimmo, who leads investigations into disinformation at Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said.

The social media company said one of the accounts belonged to a fictitious Swiss biologist named Wilson Edwards.Advertisement

The Wuhan Institute of Virology that it is claimed COVID-19 may have escaped from
Image:The Wuhan Institute of Virology that it is claimed COVID-19 may have escaped from

In July, when the operation began, Mr Wilson’s profile claimed US officials were using “enormous pressure and even intimidation” to get scientists to back calls for renewed investigations into the origin of coronavirus.

Within hours, hundreds of other accounts – some only created only that day – began liking, reposting or linking to the post.

Many of the accounts were later found to be fake, with some of the users posing as westerners and others using likely fabricated profile photos.

Facebook said it found links between the accounts and a tech firm based in Chengdu, China, as well as to overseas employees of Chinese infrastructure companies.

Within a week of the initial post, large media outlets in China were reporting on the claims as if they had been made by a real scientist.

The operation was exposed when Swiss authorities announced in August that they had no record of any biologist with that name.

In all, Meta removed about 600 accounts on Facebook and Instagram that were linked to the network.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said in the past that the country’s government does not employ trickery on social media.

Coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China in December 2019 before spreading around the world.

Different governments, experts and organisations, including the US, have suggested the virus may have come from a lab leak in the city – a claim China vehemently denies.

That theory was dismissed by a team led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February.

However, their report, released in March, was criticised for not finding sufficient evidence to discard the idea – and the WHO’s director-general has since said there had been a “premature push” to rule out the lab leak theory.

The US carried out their own investigation and came to the same conclusion.

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Science & Tech

Meta: UK competition regulator tells Facebook owner to sell GIF library Giphy

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The investigation into the acquisition has been acrimonious, with Meta previously being fined £50m by the CMA for deliberately refusing to comply with the regulator’s inquiries.

Facebook’s owner Meta has been issued a legally binding order to sell the GIF library Giphy after an investigation found the takeover “could harm social media users and UK advertisers”.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an in-depth investigation into the deal in April after raising a number of concerns. It subsequently warned of the potential forced sale in August.

Giphy – a website for making and sharing animated images, known as GIFs – was acquired by Facebook (now Meta) in May last year to integrate the GIFs with Instagram, but the CMA has now ordered the acquisition to be unravelled.

Sky News understands Facebook intends to appeal the CMA’s decision. It has four weeks to do so and the appeal would go to a the Competition Appeal Tribunal, which is independent of the CMA.

Meta could potentially challenge that ruling in the UK courts, but only on points of law.Advertisement

Facebook has rebranded to Meta
Image:Facebook’s parent company was renamed Meta last month

Stuart McIntosh, who chaired the independent inquiry into the acquisition, said: “The tie-up between Facebook and Giphy has already removed a potential challenger in the display advertising market.

“Without action, it will also allow Facebook to increase its significant market power in social media even further, through controlling competitors’ access to Giphy GIFs.

“By requiring Facebook to sell Giphy, we are protecting millions of social media users and promoting competition and innovation in digital advertising,” Mr McIntosh explained.

The investigation into the acquisition has seen points of acrimony, with Meta being fined a record £50m by the CMA for deliberately refusing to comply with the regulator’s inquiries.

Meta argued that it has been in compliance with the competition watchdog’s primary orders at all times.

At the time of the fine, the company complained that the CMA delayed for seven months a request to amend these orders which was eventually agreed in what the company described as nearly an identical manner to what had been requested.

When Facebook first merged with Giphy it terminated the image library’s advertising services, “removing an important source of potential competition” according to the CMA.

This was considered “particularly concerning given that Facebook controls nearly half of the £7 billion display advertising market in the UK”.

However in Meta’s response to the preliminary findings, the social media giant described the acquisition as a simple vertical merger and said that Giphy was financially troubled and suggested that its attempts to monetise its GIF library for display advertising were unsuccessful.

“If GIF paid alignments were the promising business model that the CMA believes they are, then one would expect to encounter them in the real-world at scale… Yet that is not the case,” the response stated.

According to the regulator, the acquisition potentially also enabled the social media giant to change the terms of access to the GIF library for its competitors.

“For example, Facebook could require Giphy customers, such as TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat, to provide more user data in order to access Giphy GIFs.

“Such actions could increase Facebook’s market power, which is already significant,” the regulator said.

In its review of the merger, the CMA said it risked entrenching Meta’s market dominance, noting that its platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) already accounted for 73% of all user time spent on social media in the UK.

A spokesperson for Meta said: “We disagree with this decision. We are reviewing the decision and considering all options, including appeal. Both consumers and Giphy are better off with the support of our infrastructure, talent, and resources.

“Together, Meta and Giphy would enhance Giphy’s product for the millions of people, businesses, developers and API partners in the UK and around the world who use Giphy every day, providing more choices for everyone.”

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Health

COVID-19: Mild and moderate cases during pregnancy doesn’t harm babies’ brains, finds study

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Parents should be reassured, there is “no evidence that a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection has any effect on the brain development of the unborn child” say scientists.

Mild and moderate coronavirus infections in pregnant women appear to have no effect on the brain of the developing foetus according to a new study.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic “there is evidence that pregnant women are more vulnerable” to the coronavirus, according to a study presented to the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

The new study aims to identify what the possible consequences are for the unborn child if the mother is infected during pregnancy, and to study the likelihood of the virus being passed on to the foetus.

“Women infected with SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy are concerned that the virus may affect the development of their unborn child, as is the case with some other viral infections,” said Dr Sophia Stoecklein, senior author of the study.Advertisement

“So far, although there are a few reports of vertical transmission to the foetus, the exact risk and impact remain largely unclear,” added Dr Stoecklein, from the department of radiology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

“The aim of our study was to fill this gap in knowledge regarding the impact of a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection on foetal brain development,” she added.

MRI scans were used to study 33 pregnant women who were infected with COVID-19 during their pregnancy, with the women roughly 28 weeks into the pregnancies at the time of the scan.

The scans were evaluated by radiologists with years of experience in foetal MRIs who found that the brain development in the assessed areas was age-appropriate in all of the children, with no findings indicating any infection affected the brains.

“In our study, there was no evidence that a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection has any effect on the brain development of the unborn child,” Dr Stoecklein said. “This fact should help to reassure affected parents.”

But she cautioned that only mothers with mild to moderate symptoms who were not hospitalised were included in the study, meaning the impact of “severe infection on brain development in the foetus has not been conclusively determined”.

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