Top 15 Breakthroughs and Future Trends from February 2021

03/05/2021 - 18:39

Kirk Nankivell

Wow, February 2021 will go down in the books as an incredibly productive month!

Typically these updates are around 10 or so updates, but there were a number of things that happened that are going to have huge implications for our future. From a breakthrough mRNA cancer vaccine to futuristic terahertz communications to cloning the first endangered animal to a new rover on Mars, let's take a look at the top stories from the past month (in mostly chronological order):

1. Photonics for artificial intelligence and neuromorphic computing

Nature Photonics

Photonic integrated circuits have enabled ultrafast artificial neural networks, providing a framework for a new class of information processing machines... Neuromorphic photonics offers sub-nanosecond latencies, providing a complementary opportunity to extend the domain of artificial intelligence.

2. SpaceX plans world-first all-civilian space journey for late 2021

New Atlas

After last year carrying astronauts into space as part of a regular crewed flight program for NASA, SpaceX is now looking to extend this experience to everyday people. The company has outlined plans for what would become the world’s first all-civilian mission to space, with plans to lift off in the latter part of the year.

3. U.S. Navy Has Patents on Tech It Says Will ‘Engineer the Fabric of Reality’


The U.S. Navy has patents on weird and little understood technology. According to patents filed by the Navy, it is working on a compact fusion reactor that could power cities, an engine that works using “inertial mass reduction,” and a “hybrid aerospace-underwater craft.” Dubbed the “UFO patents, The War Zone has reported that the Navy had to build prototypes of some of the outlandish tech to prove it worked.

4. Physicist Designs Plasma Thruster That Could Make Space Travel 10 Times Faster


It'll take about seven months to send humans to Mars using today's spaceships. That's not exactly a quick jaunt, but it is doable.

Trips to other planets could take years, though, and if we want to explore the rest of our solar system — or the places beyond it — we're going to need a faster way to travel.

5. Quantum tunneling in graphene advances the age of terahertz wireless communications

Scientists from MIPT (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology), Moscow Pedagogical State University and the University of Manchester have created a highly sensitive terahertz detector based on the effect of quantum-mechanical tunneling in graphene. The sensitivity of the device is already superior to commercially available analogs based on semiconductors and superconductors, which opens up prospects for applications of the graphene detector in wireless communications, security systems, radio astronomy, and medical diagnostics. The research results are published in Nature Communications.

6. Chemists create and capture einsteinium, the elusive 99th element


Scientists have successfully studied einsteinium — one of the most elusive and heaviest elements on the periodic table — for the first time in decades. The achievement brings chemists closer to discovering the so-called "island of stability," where some of the heftiest and shortest-lived elements are thought to reside.

7. Nevada bill would allow tech companies to create governments

Associated Press

Planned legislation to establish new business areas in Nevada would allow technology companies to effectively form separate local governments. Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak announced a plan to launch so-called Innovation Zones in Nevada to jumpstart the state’s economy by attracting technology firms, Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Wednesday.

8. Negative Interest Rates Are Coming, but There Is No Chance That They Will Work

Naked Capitalism

We’ve sometimes addressed why negative interest rates are a bad idea. A corroborating data point: Sweden ditched its negative interest rate experiment in 2019, and said in mumbled economese that it didn’t do what it was supposed to do. One of the many times we debunked the official rationale for negative interest rates was in a 2016 post, Economists Mystified that Negative Interest Rates Aren’t Leading Consumers to Run Out and Spend.

9. Graphene “nano-origami” creates tiniest microchips yet

University of Sussex

The tiniest microchips yet can be made from graphene and other 2D-materials, using a form of ‘nano-origami’, physicists at the University of Sussex have found. This is the first time any researchers have done this, and it is covered in a paper published in the ACS Nano journal. By creating kinks in the structure of graphene, researchers at the University of Sussex have made the nanomaterial behave like a transistor, and have shown that when a strip of graphene is crinkled in this way, it can behave like a microchip, which is around 100 times smaller than conventional microchips.

10. Light used to detect quantum information stored in 100,000 nuclear quantum bits

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, were able to inject a 'needle' of highly fragile quantum information in a 'haystack' of 100,000 nuclei. Using lasers to control an electron, the researchers could then use that electron to control the behavior of the haystack, making it easier to find the needle. They were able to detect the 'needle' with a precision of 1.9 parts per million: high enough to detect a single quantum bit in this large ensemble.

11. Breakthrough mRNA vaccine developed for cancer immunotherapy by Chinese scientists


Similar to COVID-19 vaccines, Chinese scientists have developed a new mRNA vaccine that activates the immune system to attack a protein made by tumour cells instead of the protein produced by the coronavirus. Crucially, this mRNA is contained in a breakthrough hydrogel developed by the team from the Chinese National Centre for Nanoscience and Technology, that, when injected into mice with melanoma, slowly released the RNA which successfully caused tumours to shrink and prevented them from metastasising.

12. Touchdown! NASA's Mars Perseverance Rover Safely Lands on Red Planet


The largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent to another world touched down on Mars Thursday, after a 203-day journey traversing 293 million miles (472 million kilometers). Confirmation of the successful touchdown was announced in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California at 3:55 p.m. EST (12:55 p.m. PST).

13. Scientists establish freaky two-way communications with lucid dreamers

New Atlas

Four independent experiments across the globe have found that it's possible to establish two-way communications with people in the weird, hallucinatory state of lucid dreaming, opening up a new field of real-time "interactive dreaming" research. This is a big deal for scientists trying to work out what the heck is going on as we sleep, because typically they've had to rely on the fragmented, fading scraps of memory people have once they've woken up.

14. The First Endangered American Animal Has Been Cloned

Singularity Hub

Last summer a horse named Kurt was born in Texas. Kurt wasn’t just any horse—he was a clone made from DNA that had been frozen for 40 years and came from an endangered wild horse species from Central Asia. Kurt was—and still is—pretty special. But now he’s got some competition for the title of “most amazing endangered animal cloned from frozen DNA.” The new contender is a black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Ann.

15. Bitcoin’s value just passed $1 trillion

Ars Technica

Bitcoin's price soared past $56,000 on Friday, pushing the combined value of all bitcoins past the $1 trillion mark—at least in theory. That's more than the market capitalization of Facebook, though Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and Microsoft are worth more. Bitcoin's value has almost doubled from $29,000 since the start of the year.