Can you imagine speeding between cities through low-pressure tubes at 760 mph in a driverless capsule? Elon Musk did in 2013. A team from MIT last week won his design competition with an aluminium and carbon fibre pod levitated 15mm by magnets and thrust forwards by induction motors. The journey would be controlled by independent electronics and include a mechanically fail-safe braking system. Testing of Hyperloop is due to start in April in California. Chief operating officer Bibop Gabriele Gresta has called it “the closest thing to teletransportation”.
The Ministry of Defence will be buying Zephyrs, high-altitude solar-powered aircraft that fly above the jet streams for months. The 25m-wingspanned models carry highly efficient solar cells and batteries to keep the propellers turning – theoretically eternally. Year-long operation could be possible between latitudes of 40 degrees North and South. The Zephyrs are likely to carry surveillance or communication equipment for the MoD. Future applications could be in delivering internet access to remote locations.
Genetically edited crops
A strain of barley undergoing gene editing to make its own fertiliser from soil nitrogen is under development at the John Innes Centre of crop research. The concept is backed by the Gates Foundation, and is perceived to be groundbreaking for farmers without the funds to buy fertiliser. Leader of the project Professor Wendy Harwood pointed out that gene editing “is closer to old-fashioned breeding techniques than it is to genetic modification technology” due to the process’s use of only the plants existing DNA, rather than that of other organisms.
Human gene editing
The stem cell scientist Dr Kathy Niakan has been given the go-ahead to research gene editing in human embryos up to a size of around 250 cells. The controversial licence was approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Director of the Francis Crick institute Paul Nurse said he was “delighted” and that the research “will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates”. Embryos will not be implanted or studied for more than 2 weeks.