Axios Science

A yellow flower with its stem sitting in an Erlenmeyer flask.

February 22, 2024

Welcome back to Axios Science. This edition is 1,729 words, about a 6½-minute read.

1 big thing: Batteries and motors that could help electric planes take off

Illustration of an airplane with a glowing lightning bolt on the tail

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The arrival of electric planes that can carry hundreds of people thousands of miles hinges on developing a new generation of batteries, motors and other technologies beyond what's powering today's electric cars, Axios' Joann Muller and I write.

Why it matters: Electric planes lead to cleaner flying, but plenty of R&D work remains before takeoff.

State of play: Smaller, shorter-range electric planes and electric air taxis could become commercially available as early as 2025, with others in development.

  • Many are electric vertical-takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that resemble helicopters and carry a handful of people a short distance — say, between downtown and the airport.
  • The moonshot, though, is to electrify larger planes that can take off and land like conventional airplanes that run on jet fuel.

How it works: "To fly an airplane you need two big things: power to propel them forward and energy to keep them flying for a long duration," says Kiruba Haran, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

For electric aircraft, the energy part of that equation centers on batteries and fuel cells.

  • Electric aviation presents unique challenges, Alex Kosyakov, cofounder and CEO of Illinois-based battery materials startup Natrion, tells Axios.
  • Batteries for eVTOLS and electric planes require higher energy density than those for electric cars because it takes so much power to get off the ground.
  • And they must last for the duration of longer flights connecting cities.

What they're saying: "It's a far more resilient and robust solution that's required than is needed for an EV," says Halle Cheeseman, a program director at the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

  • The necessary energy density intersects with other important considerations for aircraft, including batteries' weight and heat tolerance.

Driving the news: The Department of Energy (DOE) this week announced that 12 teams will receive a total of $15 million through Cheeseman's program to try to develop batteries and energy storage systems with about four times as much energy density as current technologies.

  • The goal is to electrify a plane that could carry up to 100 people for 1,000 miles.

Zoom in: The winning teams are taking a range of approaches, including new battery chemistries, optimizing electrode materials, rethinking the packaging of hydrogen that powers fuel cells and developing hybrid fuel-cell battery systems.

  • Natrion, NASA, and others are developing solid-state batteries that can tolerate much higher temperatures, potentially making them safer than traditional lithium-ion batteries — and useful for aviation. They also charge faster.

For power, electric aircraft need motors that convert electricity — possibly generated by batteries and fuel cells, though there are hybrid scenarios as well — into mechanical work for propulsion.

  • Haran and others, including Toshiba and Airbus, are focusing on superconducting motors that can generate megawatts of power to propel jets. Superconducting materials have no resistance, minimal heat loss and can carry more current, meaning less material — and less weight.

Yes, but: Existing superconducting materials have to be cooled to extremely low temperatures.

  • One possible design uses the energy generated from vaporizing liquid hydrogen into fuel to cool the superconductor.
  • There are also a variety of non-superconducting machines in development, plus hybrid turboelectric planes that use gas turbines to drive electric motors.

The bottom line: For the last 50 years, people were making electric machines "incrementally better," Haran says. Now they have a "clean sheet" for designing "a really efficient propulsion system."

  • "We're trying to reinvent the electric machine," he says.

2. First private space company lands on the Moon

Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lunar lander in Houston in October 2023.

Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lunar lander in Houston in October 2023. Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Space company Intuitive Machines this evening became the first business to land a private spacecraft on the Moon, Axios' Jacob Knutson writes.

Why it matters: The touchdown could be the genesis of a lunar economy and the anticipated era of privatized, for-profit Moon exploration.

  • Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lunar lander — nicknamed "Odysseus" — is the first fully robotic lander developed in the U.S. to touch down on the Moon since the Surveyor 7 spacecraft in 1968.

Details: The lander launched into space from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last week and traveled over 621,000 miles before successfully entering lunar orbit yesterday.

Of note: The experiments are crucial for upcoming missions in NASA's Artemis program, which includes a manned lunar landing now scheduled for 2026.

  • Through the experiments, NASA will collect data on Odysseus' movement and fuel use during its descent as well as conditions in the Moon's south pole region.
  • The region is home to craters with perpetually dark and extremely cold interiors but warm rims that receive almost continuous sunlight.
  • NASA is interested in such craters because they could one day host vital support systems for humanity's first base on the Moon, which may be developed during future Artemis missions.

Read more

3. A watershed moment for cancer therapies

Sign post with red cross and blank street sign

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

A new class of cancer treatments that harness the body's immune system to fight tumors is being hailed as the biggest thing in oncology since CAR-T revealed the promise of cell therapy more than a decade ago, Axios' Tina Reed writes.

  • But with price tags of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the drugs raise familiar concerns about affordability and access.

Why it matters: CAR-T has been successful in some blood cancers, but it's not yet been approved for solid tumors, which make up about 90% of cancer types. The new therapy class — tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, or TIL — uses immune cells from a patient's tumor to mount a long-lasting defense against solid tumors.

Driving the news: The Food and Drug Administration last week gave the first-ever accelerated approval of a TIL to Iovance Biotherapeutics' melanoma therapy Amtagvi. It was hailed as a major milestone for a growing pipeline of TIL candidates that could eventually be deployed against a range of other cancers.

  • "This is the tip of the iceberg of what TIL can bring to the future of medicine," Patrick Hwu, CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center, told Axios.

How it works: TILs have been around for decades — National Institutes of Health researcher Steven Rosenberg is widely credited with discovering them in 1988 — but their use has been limited to several academic cancer centers.

  • TIL therapy works by extracting patients' T-cells directly from tumors and essentially "giving them the Club Med treatment," said Jason Bock, CEO of the Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, a joint venture between MD Anderson Cancer Center and biomanufacturing company Resilience.
  • Patients' immune systems are temporarily weakened before providers infuse the strengthened and multiplied cells back into the patient.
  • In a Phase 2 clinical trial of Amtagvi, 31.5% of patients responded to the treatment.
  • In more recent NIH research on TIL therapy, Rosenberg told Axios there was a 56% response rate among patients with melanoma, and 24% of patients had a complete disappearance of their melanoma, regardless of where it was.
  • Companies with TILs in early and mid-stage clinical trials include Obsidian Therapeutics, Instil Bio, Turnstone Biologics and Achilles Therapeutics. Their candidates are aimed at melanoma, as well as lung, ovarian and kidney cancers.

Keep reading

4. Worthy of your time

Some cognitive skills improve as we get older (Olivia Goldhill — STAT)

How tracking animal movement may save the planet (Matthew Ponsford — MIT Tech Review)

The decimal point is 150 years older than historians thought (Jo Marchant — Nature)

5. Something wondrous

A humpback whale calf peering at me as it plays in the warm protected waters of Moorea. Once the calves are strong enough, they will make the long journey with their mother back to the feeding grounds of Antarctica

A humpback whale calf in the waters of Moorea. Photo: Karim Iliya

The songs of humpback, blue and other baleen whales are generated by the unusual anatomy of their larynx described in a new paper.

Why it matters: A whale's song helps it find other animals in the vast ocean and plays a large role in their behavior, study co-author Coen Elemans, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark, told PopSci.

  • "Thus understanding how they make sound is crucial to understand the biology of whales in general."

The big picture: Humans and other terrestrial mammals have vocal cords — paired folds of tissue in the larynx that vibrate when air exhaled from the lungs passes through the gaps between paired folds, producing sound.

  • When the land mammals that were ancestors of today's whales returned to the sea, they needed to be able to inhale and exhale large volumes of air when they surfaced to breathe and to hold that air in when they sang underwater, the authors write this week in the journal Nature.
  • Toothed whales — orcas and sperm whales, for example — use the larynx to seal the airway and have a vocal organ in their nose that makes sounds.
  • Baleen whales, on the other hand, have an unusual larynx that serves both respiratory and sound-producing functions. But scientists didn't know how the organ generates sounds.

What they did: The team studied larynges removed from three baleen whales — a sei, a humpback and a minke — that had died from various suspected causes.

  • Using an air supply system to mimic the whale lung, they pushed air through the extracted larynges and found sound was produced when air flowed through a space between a fatty pad and the top surface of the vocal folds, which vibrated.

What they found: The team concluded baleen whales evolved "unique laryngeal structures .... [that] allow some of the largest animals that ever lived to efficiently produce frequency-modulated, low-frequency calls," they write.

  • But digital models built by the team indicate the structures also put "physiological limits" on the sounds the whales can make. They can only be produced in shallow waters — where there are also boats — and at lower frequency sounds that are similar to those made by vessels.
  • That prevents them from escaping noise from ocean vessels and reduces their communication range, the authors write.

Yes, but: The complexities of sound traveling underwater suggested whales' ability to communicate might not be quite as hampered by shipping noise as the new study suggests, Christopher Clark, a professor emeritus of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University told the NYT.

The bottom line: The study is "a game-changer for understanding how biological sounds are generated," Joy Reidenberg, a professor of anatomy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai wrote in an accompanying article.

Big thanks to editor Alex Fitzpatrick and copy editor Carolyn DiPaolo.