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SpaceX and Starlink – Moving at Warp Speed

For the last two years, SpaceX has dominated news regarding space launches and rocket travel. This not only includes rocket explosions shortly after take-off but also successful two-person crew missions to the International Space Station. (Read more about the “stellar” accomplishments of SpaceX in this Bold story.) While these stories are certainly newsworthy, a more recent one is attention-grabbing as well. This one has to do with its low-earth orbit constellation of SpaceX satellites known as Starlink. In a relatively short-time, SpaceX has placed more than 1,500 of these in orbit. As a result, the company has already released beta-testing access to its broadband Internet services.

Despite being well proven as a broadband network, many are quickly signing up for Elon Musk’s latest endeavor. Much of the appeal is the potential such a system might bring to Internet users in terms of speed and latency. But it reflects an even deeper sense of trust in a company that has taken a unique approach to space projects and programs. Despite setbacks and naysayers, SpaceX has shown time and again that’s its long-range goals are both feasible and realistic. This is why many are eager to support SpaceX satellites and the Starlink constellation.

“To date, over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink.” –  Siva Bharadvaj, SpaceX Operations Engineer

The Rationale Behind Starlink

The overarching goal of Starlink is to create a network capable of providing high-speed Internet globally. In order to achieve, this Elon Musk and others support a low-earth orbital network that can better accommodate communications’ needs. Rather than having high-orbiting satellites, SpaceX satellites in lower-orbits can enhance speed and reduce latency of responses. Plus, the Starlink network can offer expanded connectivity to rural and remote regions of the globe. This rationale is what supports Musk’s current efforts.

While the Starlink constellation of SpaceX satellites offer enhanced Internet access and performance, other benefits also exist. Such a network can also create a more robust communications system that would support 5G activity. This type of network will be essential for expanding use of artificial intelligence, data analytics and the Internet-of-Things. As more and more smart devices and objects flood the market, satellite constellations like Starlink will be needed. This too is driving companies like SpaceX to expedite space launches and satellite placement in the near-term.

“The only limitation is high density of users in urban areas. Most likely, all of the initial 500k will receive service. More of a challenge when we get into the several million-user range.” – Elon Musk, Founder and CEO of SpaceX

The Growing Launches of SpaceX Satellites

SpaceX has been rather prolific as of late in placing more low-orbit earth satellites in its Starlink network. Ultimately, the plan is to have thousands of these satellites in place in order to achieve long-term goals. SpaceX already has 1,500 in place with many more launches planned this year. The last launch, which was this past month, involved a Falcon 9 rocket that carried 60 additional SpaceX satellites. Since May of 2019, this represented the 26th such launch for this purpose. Given the paucity of space missions in the past half-century, this level of activity is quite profound.

One of the most notable strategies Musk is using to achieve this accelerated timetable related to rocket reusability. The current rocket booster has been involved in the last 9 flights with successful capture and return. It is not scheduled to perform a 10th launch in the near future. If it is successful, it will break the record set by the previous Falcon 9 rocket booster. Between these two boosters alone, they have placed almost half of all SpaceX satellites. This is highly critical to Starlink network’s success, since this significantly reduces placement costs. By developing rocket components that can be reused, Musk introduced key innovation into the industry. It has now become the standard by which the competition will be measured.

“I don’t think we’re going to do tiered pricing to consumers. We’re going to try to keep it as simple as possible and transparent as possible, so right now there are no plans to tier for consumers.” – Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX

How Starlink Might Be SpaceX’s Cash Cow

For Elon Musk, many of his more recent endeavors have required ongoing capital and support. Tesla seems to have turned the corner, with new models receiving increasing consumer demand. SpaceX has recently received a boost from approvals by NASA for future rocket launches. But of all these endeavors, Starlink may offer the quickest path to profitability for Musk. SpaceX offered users the option to sign up for beta-testing in February of this. Since that time, half a million have done so. That’s pretty impressive given the short amount of time and the other options many consumers have for Internet connectivity.

The cost of this satellite network for beta-users is roughly $99 a month and an upfront charge of $499 for the user terminal. SpaceX states that it is not planning on tiered pricing, and instead, hopes to keep things simple. It also expected these fees to fall over time. Estimates suggest that the company could generate $30 billion a year from these services once SpaceX satellites are all in place. That’s a nice infusion of capital that the company could certainly use to advance a number of ongoing projects. This includes Musk’s ultimate goal of establishing colonies for humankind on Mars.

SpaceX Far Ahead of the Competition

Notably, there is competition when it comes to the placement of low-orbit satellites and Internet constellations. But SpaceX is ahead of others by far. Amazon hopes to soon launch its Kuiper satellites, but a current date has not yet been set. The FCC requires that Amazon have a minimum of 1,600 satellites in place by 2026 to comply with their current approval. Likewise, other countries like the UK are investing in these systems as well. But clearly the Starlink system and SpaceX satellites are well out in front. This may prove to be important as being first to market often has its advantages. And with SpaceX’s aggressive plans, catching up from behind may prove to be challenging if not impossible.


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Could Anode-Free Batteries Be the Batteries of the Future?

The need for better battery energy storage systems is evident. The percentage of those with smart phones continually increases, and electric cars are certainly the future. Battery solutions for these items tend to make up roughly a quarter of the overall cost when purchasing them. To date, lithium batteries have provided the best solution, offering both high density and convenience. But these are not without problems. In addition to being costly and large, their primary substance, lithium, is not overly abundant in supply. As a result, researchers are actively pursuing other options for battery energy storage.

Some of the most recent investigations in this regard has involved different types of ions. Rather than using lithium, some researchers are exploring zinc batteries and sodium batteries. Likewise, they are also identifying new ways to create batter energy storage systems without the typical anode structure. Novel techniques are being employed to eliminate the anode component, which offers the possibility for smaller and less costly solutions. Based on these recent developments, it may just be that anode-free zinc and sodium batteries could soon replace traditional ones. And if so, this could be a major game-changer overall.

“The problem has been, with this [anode-free battery] chemistry, no one ever showed this anode-free battery can have a reasonable lifetime. They always fail very quickly or have a very low capacity or require special processing of the current collector.” – Peng Bai, Assistant Professor, Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, McKelvey School of Engineering, University of Washington, St. Louis

The Basics of Batter Energy Storage

In order to appreciate how anode-free batteries might be a good idea, the basics of battery energy storage should be understood. In a traditional battery, including lithium batteries, there is a cathode and an anode. (Read up on lithium batteries and their alternatives in this Bold story.) The cathode and anode have different charges, and the metal ions like lithium travel from one to the other. When lithium ions travel from anode to cathode, they release electrons which are collected by a current collector. This provides the battery with energy, which we use on our devices and other items. Recharging of the battery then occurs when the lithium ions move back from the cathode to the anode.

A yellow graphic depicting a battery
Innovation has caught up to the technology behind electrical batteries, making them more powerful and efficient.

For some time, scientists have tried to eliminate the anode component in battery energy storage systems. Rather than using the anode, they instead insert a metal current collector where the metal ions can form and generate a charge. The problem, however, has been that the metal ions formed often have irregularities called dendrites. These dendrites cause batteries to short circuit or have limited life-spans. This has been especially true for zinc and sodium batteries in the lab. Until now, no one had figured out how to prevent these irregularities from forming.

“In our discovery, there are no dendrites, no finger-like structures. This kind of growth mode has never been observed for this kind of alkali metal.” – Bingyuan Ma, Doctoral Student, Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, McKelvey School of Engineering

Breakthroughs with Anode-Free Zinc and Sodium Batteries

Some notable breakthroughs have recently taken place in terms of anode-free batter energy storage systems. Researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis made a notable discovery concerning anode-free sodium batteries. Previously, it had been thought that dendrite formation with sodium batteries were inevitable. But they found that reducing the water content in the electrolyte solution prevented these from forming. As a result, they were able to create anode-free sodium batteries that functioned as well as lithium batteries. Not only are these sodium batteries lighter, smaller, and durable, but they are much cheaper. Plus, sodium is readily available, especially when compared to lithium.

In other research labs, similar discoveries have been made concerning anode-free zinc batteries. These batteries, like sodium batteries, have been previously challenging to make because of dendrite formation as well. But scientists at Stanford University have been successful by providing a carbon nano-technologies to coat the materials collecting current. In doing so, zinc metal ions form without irregularities, and the battery energy storage system operates at 62.5% efficiency. They are now exploring changes that could increase this to as high as 95% efficiency. zinc is also readily available, which makes it another attractive alternative to lithium batteries as well.

“The disposable alkaline batteries used in many everyday electronics are based on zinc, but researchers are making real progress in making these systems rechargeable.” – Marshall A. Schroeder, Materials Engineer, US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory

No Anode Looks to Be the Best Anode

The benefits to anode-free battery energy storage stems from several features. Without an anode, batteries will be more compact and smaller, requiring less space. This means devices could become even smaller and more mobile. In addition, anode-free zinc and sodium batteries are much less costly to make. In part, this is because both materials are in abundance. As more devices and items become dependent on battery energy storage, this will be important. Relying on lithium for a growing dependence on electric energy is concerning from a sustainability perspective. This is why both rechargeable zinc and sodium batteries could be the key to our future energy needs.

While lithium batteries remain the best option for battery energy storage presently, it’s likely this will change in the years to come. Anode-free batteries make logical sense, especially given their advantages. If zinc and sodium batteries can be made to be rechargeable, their other features will make them much more attractive. And with several research labs making tremendous progress in these areas, this shift will likely occur sooner rather than later. For the moment, it looks like anode-free batteries will indeed be the next big thing in sustainable energy solutions.


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Move Over CRISPR – RLR Shows Promise as a Better Gene Editing Technique

CRISP-Cas9 has made big news in the last few years. This relatively new gene editing technique enables scientists to selectively alter cell DNA. In the process, foods are being made more nutritious and healthier. Treatments for some genetic diseases are being developed as are warning markers for early detection. And an array of precision medicine considerations is being explored through enhanced DNA sequencing. But CRISPR has some features that make it less than ideal in some instances. This is why some researchers are exploring new gene editing techniques, and RLR looks to be a promising one.

RLR stands for Retron Library Recombineering. This gene editing technique leverages bacteria’s natural cellular machinery to evaluate millions of different DNA sequences. As a result, the ability for scientists to accelerate potential discoveries about different DNA codes is significantly improved. Better yet, RLR provides an inherent way to track each of these mutant DNA sequences. This allows scientists to better identify which ones might be most effective for precision medicine and other applications. For these reasons, many researchers are excited about the opportunities that RLR offers.

“RLR enabled us to do something that’s impossible to do with CRISPR: we randomly chopped up a bacterial genome, turned those genetic fragments into single-stranded DNA in situ, and used them to screen millions of sequences simultaneously.” – Max Schubert, PhD., Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering

How RLR Gene Editing Works

Retrons are unique little packets of genetic material and enzymes within bacterial cells. Each consists of a single strand of RNA, single strand of DNA, and the enzyme reverse transcriptase. The enzyme interacts with the RNA to make changes to the single stranded DNA naturally. Interestingly enough, however, is that scientists are not exactly sure what this process does for a bacterial cell. Retrons may play a role in a bacteria’s ability to cause disease. Alternatively, they may also be important in how the cell uses energy or adapts to its environment.

While the actual purpose of retrons in bacterial cells is undefined, their potential in precision medicine is evident. Scientists can use retrons to create millions of different single-stranded DNA segments and then test each one. Gene editing using retrons provides an incredible number of DNA variants, called DNA mutants. And each one may have different effects that might be useful in precision medicine, enhanced nutritional foods, or other areas. (Learn more about gene-edited foods in this Bold story) Also, each retron-created DNA mutant sequence serves as its own tracking material. Like bar codes on packages, the unique DNA sequence lets scientists know exactly which one offered the best result.

“We figured that retrons should give us the ability to produce ssDNA within the cells we want to edit rather than trying to force them into the cell from the outside, and without damaging the native DNA, which were both very compelling qualities.” – Daniel Goodman, PhD., Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow at UCSF

How RLR Might Be Better than CRISPR

Without question, CRISPR-Cas9 techniques have been tremendous in revolutionizing gene editing approaches. (For deeper dive into CRISPR therapeutics, check out this Bold story.) However, these tools are not without some limitations. In essence, scientists use CRISPR to cut select DNA sequences from cells and replace them with others. In the process, through trial and error, they identify the best sequence for the desired effect. This has been used to create decaffeinated coffee beans, fruits with higher nutritional value, and treatment of muscular dystrophy. The precision medicine uses alone of CRISPR are believed to be enormous.

Someone editing a gene with an ink pen
Gene editing may be dominated by the CRISPR technique, but RLR is showing promise, too.

Unfortunately, CRISPR can be difficult to acquire in large quantities, which limits the ability to use it in research settings. Also, the Cas9 component, which cuts the DNA are precise locations is not always foolproof. It can also damage or cut DNA sequences outside the intended regions. CRISPR also requires introduction of new DNA sequences into the cell rather than from within. In each of these areas, RLR looks to be better. It permits intracellular DNA changes, allows millions of experiments to be performed at once, and is highly precise. As a gene editing tool, RLR holds greater promise in identifying new precision medicine treatments.

“Being able to analyze pooled, barcoded mutant libraries with RLR enables millions of experiments to be performed simultaneously, allowing us to observe the effects of mutations across the genome, as well as how those mutations might interact with each other.” – George Church, PhD., Faculty, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering

Recent Research Involving RLR

While the gene editing technique involving RLR has been known for a few years, recent research has revealed its potential. In studies conducted at the Wyss Institute at Harvard, scientists have been examining the feasibility of RLR in E. Coli bacteria. Their protocol showed that E. Coli took up 90 percent of the retrons containing mutant DNA overall. As a result, the ability to detect mutations that caused antibiotic resistance was markedly accelerated. From the standpoint of precision medicine, this has great promise in identifying disease causes and therapies.

The downside to date is that RLR gene editing has only been demonstrated in bacterial cells. The same process has not yet been tested effectively using mammalian cells where precision medicine benefits may lie. Thus, while RLR may eventually prove to be much better than CRISPR, the latter remains the preferred approach currently. CRISPR has been shown feasible in plant and mammalian cells despite its limitations. In time, hopefully researchers can show that RLR is similarly an option in these settings.

RLR and the Future of Precision Medicine

Both CRISPR and RLR share one important thing in common beyond the fact that they can be used for gene editing. Both reflect inherent cellular processes that bacteria use to enhance their survival. CRISPR is believed to help bacteria fight off viruses by cleaving genetic material from threatening viruses for future viral identification. RLR is thought to provide bacteria with some advantages in adapting to its environment. But in terms of precision medicine, both give us opportunities to find genetic combinations that provide insights and cures. If RLR is faster and more thorough, then there’s little question it will be the prefer gene editing approach. This may not only be true for precision medicine but for a variety of applications.


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