Each year, a handful of innovations, breakthroughs, and discoveries push the boundaries of what is possible using technology. The most important are those that help to solve problems and overcome challenges that impact our planet or our everyday lives.
I’ve picked out some of what I feel are the most significant steps forward that have been taken over the past 12 months, and in this post, I will highlight how they are – or have the potential to – make the world a better place.
Paxlovid – A Pill For Covid
Vaccines have been hugely successful at cutting the risk of dying from Covid-19, but they are of limited use against new variants, and they can’t be administered once someone has tested positive. The pill developed by Pfizer as a “cure” at the start of the year has proven to be effective at reducing the chance of a person suffering from severe symptoms, even if given after infection. Initial findings suggest that they reduce the risk of hospitalization by 89%. The drug works by disrupting the virus’s ability to replicate itself within the body – essentially by forming a protective coating around the cells. The drug was actually approved for use in December 2021, but it didn't make its way into general healthcare use until early 2022, so I’m bending the rules slightly to include it in this list! More recent findings suggest that it may even be effective for treating and relieving symptoms of long covid – which until now have often seemed to be untreatable.
Nuclear Fusion – A Step Closer To Reality?
Physicists have long believed that we will one day be able to harness the energy created via nuclear fusion – the same process that powers the sun. In 2022, we took a step closer, as researchers at the National Ignition Facility published a paper outlining their successful attempts at creating "self-heating burning plasma." It's hoped that this breakthrough will eventually lead to commercially viable fusion reactors that will provide us with a nearly limitless, cheap, and clean source of energy.
Building on this research, startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems is now working with MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center on plans to build a factory that can mass-produce components for the first commercial fusion reactors. The first step will be to create prototype machines that will be the first machines to achieve net energy production using fusion. Following that, it’s hoped that full-scale production will begin on fusion generators that will create energy that will be fed into national grids early in the next decade.
Before 2022, breakthroughs in space flight in recent years had mostly centered on "space tourism," with Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, successfully carrying paying passengers into space in 2021. This year saw a potentially more significant milestone reached, as Axiom-1 became the first privately funded crewed mission to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). Using a craft designed by SpaceX, three astronauts successfully launched from Kennedy Space Center in April and spent 16 days docked with the ISS’s Harmony hub. The Axiom-1 mission is considered to be hugely important to the future of space travel as it is planned to be a first step on the road to establishing a privately funded and operated space station, which commercial businesses will use to carry out their own research and development projects in space.
The World’s Biggest Carbon Removal Plant Opens
The Orca, close to Reykjavik, Iceland, is the largest and most powerful facility of its kind, with the capacity to capture 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. The carbon dioxide is sucked through filters that bind it with water and pump it into the ground, where natural processes eventually transform it into carbon minerals – essentially rocks. The facility itself is powered by carbon-neutral energy generated at a nearby geothermal plant.
Although 4,000 metric tons might sound like a lot, in reality, it's only equivalent to the emissions created by 900 cars. The genius of Orca’s design, however, is that it is built using a modular design that can be replicated relatively simply and cheaply anywhere in the world. Orca, and other similar facilities, could prove to be a vital tool in our struggle to keep rising global temperatures under control.
The World’s Second Biggest Cryptocurrency Successfully Switches to Proof-Of-Stake
The “merge” of 2022 saw the popular Ethereum blockchain – which acts as a distributed computing platform as well as a cryptocurrency – successfully switch from a proof-of-work (PoW) model (similar to Bitcoin) to proof-of-stake (PoS).
According to the Ethereum Foundation, by doing so, it reduced the overall energy usage of the network by 99.9%. This is significant because the large amount of energy used by blockchain networks has often been seen as a hurdle that has to be cleared before the technology will live up to its potential. Essentially, PoS and PoW are two different methods of validating transactions on a blockchain – a distributed, decentralized database that relies on cryptography to keep multiple copies of the database synchronized, effectively making them tamper-proof.
As well as less energy intensive and therefore less damaging to the planet, blockchains, and cryptocurrencies that operate using PoS algorithms are faster, meaning transactions will be processed more quickly. Blockchain is proposed as a solution for a host of problems ranging from creating new systems of money to acting as the foundation of new digital societies and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). Successfully managing the transition of a blockchain used by millions of people is a step towards proving that the underlying technology is sound.