Science news March 2018

Energy Utopia – Fusion Power     March 2018

Is it possible to have pollution free, sustainable energy in unlimited quantities? There may be interesting geo-ethical consequences to this hypothetical situation but surely it is a goal worth pursuing. The potential answer is ‘Fusion Power’. Copying the sun, fusion between hydrogen elements to make helium releases massive amounts of energy. A key advance toward this goal was the invention of a new superconducting material; steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide (YBCO). The energy is produced at extremely hot temperatures and magnetic fields will be used to contain the hot plasma. The technology builds on research at MIT but with large international collaboration, in particular ITER, a group currently building a facility in southern France.

Fusion energy is now potentially in reach. This could mean an unlimited carbon –free energy future. A big step forward is a collaboration between MIT in Cambridge MA and a new private company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems. The researchers predict the new magnets will be available within 3 years and production will happen within 15 years. ITER plan to begin producing fusion energy around 2035.

If MIT are involved, then it will probably happen.

Lassa fever in Nigeria, Good and bad news

The bad news is that Nigeria is suffering its worst outbreak of Lassa fever. Tragically, since the beginning of the year, the disease has killed over a hundred people, including brave healthcare workers. Lassa fever is caused by a virus of the Arenaviridae family. Many infected people get no symptoms but at the other end of the spectrum, like Ebola, symptoms include fever and bleeding from the mouth and GI tract. The death rate is about 25% of those detected.

But there is some good news. The public health reforms put in place since the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa are working at full steam. Without them, the crisis would have been significantly worse.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has become stronger, faster, and is better equipped. There are many more well trained staff who have access to sophisticated data-management tools which runs on smartphones, a great improvement on the previous pen and paper method. There are now four labs in Nigeria that can test for Lassa virus, cutting the diagnostic wait from four days to 24 hours.

There is human to human transfer of the virus but the reservoir of infection is in the rat. It is not known for certain yet why this outbreak is moving so fast. Researchers believe it is not the virus that is changing but the transmission from the rats. This view is supported as other rat borne diseases, e.g. monkey pox, are also increasing. It is also possible that the detection rate is dramatically improving due to education and the activities of the NCDC.

Read more at     Nigeria hit by unprecedented Lassa fever outbreak   Leslie Roberts et al   Science  16 Mar 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6381, pp. 1201-1202 DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6381.1201

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