Jul 8, 2021

Axios Science

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week's newsletter — about deep-sea mining's impact, ultra-cold quantum computing, synchronized fireflies and more — is 1,312 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The unknowns of mining the deep sea

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The prospect of mining the seafloor is prompting calls for more research about its potential impact on the ocean and sea life.

The big picture: Metal-rich mineral nodules on the ocean floor contain cobalt, nickel and other ingredients that power batteries, solar panels and other renewable energy technologies. But they also support unique organisms, and mining a habitat that scientists are just beginning to explore and understand carries risks.

What's happening: The Pacific island nation of Nauru last month triggered a clause in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, requiring the International Seabed Authority to finalize rules for mining the ocean floor within two years.

  • At that time, contracts to mine the seabed would proceed under the regulations put in place.

But some marine scientists and policy experts say the scientific research required to create regulations can't be done in two years.

Details: Polymetallic nodules resting 15,000 feet below sea level on the ocean floor are rich in cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese, which build up around fragments of shell and rock over millions of years.

  • About half of the seafloor biodiversity in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the North Pacific Ocean where mining exploration is focused is associated with nodules, says Lisa Levin, a biological oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Many of the animals, such as sponges and corals, are thought to be slow-growing and some support unique sea life.
  • The vast majority of biodiversity in the deep sea hasn't been described. Levin says it should be characterized before mining to know whether it has unique properties useful for medicine, materials and more.
  • "We don't yet know enough about the connections" between the seafloor and water column, she says, adding fisheries depend on a healthy water column and it's unclear how mining one area may affect another.

Other big questions are how far the plumes of sediment created when nodules are harvested travel and what impact they have on the ocean environment.

  • Recent tests in the CCZ found the densest part of the plume generated by a prototype nodule collector rose 16–20 feet above the seafloor, while smaller concentrations of sediment were detected at heights up to about 100 feet.
  • Most of the plume settled in or near the test area, says marine geologist Annemiek Vink of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Germany, which is conducting the research as part of a project called MiningImpact. But they found nodules blanketed with sediment up to about 1,600 feet away from the source.

Yes, but: These testing areas are small in comparison to what would be mined, says Levin.

  • And there are open questions about the effects of plumes farther from the collection sites.

What to watch: Vink says the team is working on detailed analyses of how the sediment behaves at different depths of the water column and how much is redeposited or blanketed on the nodules.

  • They're also analyzing samples of microbes and fauna taken before and after the tests as well as noise emissions, and they plan to monitor the area over the next five years.
  • Other researchers, meanwhile, are studying whether artificial nodules can be placed on the seafloor to aid recovery after mining.
2. Catch up quick on COVID-19

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The U.S. is hitting its vaccination ceiling, Axios' Tina Reed reports. 58% of American adults are fully vaccinated.

The SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant, now dominant in the U.S., can evade antibodies, but fully vaccinated people are protected, according to a new study, Axios' Jacob Knutson reports.

Russia's COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik, appears to be safe and effective — "but questions remain about the quality of surveillance for possible rare side effects," Bianca Nogrady reports for Nature News.

The global death toll from COVID-19 is now more than 4 million.

3. An ultra-cold approach to quantum computing

ColdQuanta's Hilbert quantum computer. Photo: Courtesy of ColdQuanta

A Boulder, Colorado-based startup says it achieved a new milestone in quantum computing with an approach that traps atoms in an ultra-cold array, Axios' Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: Companies are experimenting with strategies to develop quantum computers. Cold atom technology promises to produce qubits — the basic unit of quantum computing — that are more stable, a key goal of the emerging industry.

Driving the news: ColdQuanta announced Wednesday that it had been able to trap 100 qubits in a large and dense 2D cold array for its quantum computer.

  • The company will be using the technology in a quantum computer — code-named "Hilbert" after David Hilbert, a pioneer in the mathematics that undergirds quantum computing — that it expects to be available for cloud customers by the end of the year or early 2022.

How it works: ColdQuanta traps cesium atoms in a 2D array using lasers, which brings down their temperature to just a few microdegrees above absolute zero, says Paul Lipman, the company's president of quantum computing.

  • "Because the qubits are extremely cold, it reduces the noise in the system, and we can enjoy much longer coherence times than you would have with a superconducting quantum computer," he adds.
  • That matters because quantum computers are judged not just on the number of qubits they can use but on their ability to maintain qubit coherence, which can be disrupted by vibrations, temperature fluctuations and other factors from the outside environment.

By the numbers: The entire 100-atom array is roughly the width of a human hair.

4. Worthy of your time

Northwest heat wave impossible without climate change (Seth Borenstein — AP)

Microorganisms play a bigger part in tea-making than was realized (The Economist)

51,000-year-old carved bone is one of the world's oldest works of art (Tom Metcalfe — NBC News)

China beats Google to claim the world's most powerful quantum computer (Matthew Sparkes — New Scientist)

5. Something wondrous

A stacked image of Photinus carolinus in the Smoky Mountains. Credit: Peleg Lab at CU Boulder

The synchronized flashing of fireflies is a summertime wonder — and a scientific mystery. New research maps the flashes in a swarm and suggests how these glowing displays are coordinated.

The big picture: Synchronization occurs in many systems — from the cells in our heart that contract at the same time to pump blood and neurons in the brain that synchronize at the onset of seizures.

  • "As physicists, we're always looking for universalities in many systems," says Orit Peleg, an author of the study and assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
  • Modeling synchronization could help to inform efforts to decentralize telecommunications networks or to control swarms of robots, she adds.

How they did it: The researchers recorded video of thousands of fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in June 2020 using two cameras.

  • The video was then used to reconstruct where the flashes occur in 3D space and at what time.
  • Flashes from the male Photinus carolinus fireflies started in one location — once there was a critical density of individuals — and then cascaded across the swarm, according to the study published this week in Science Advances.
  • The phenomenon can be seen with the eye, but the empirical data helps the researchers to model how the flashes propagate.
  • The researchers suggest the fireflies take visual cues from others near and far in the nightly ritual to attract females on the ground.

The team also measured the velocity of the fireflies and found they move at about 1 foot/second, but the wave of light propagates at about 10 feet/second.

  • "It is information that is moving along, not the matter of fireflies themselves," says Raphael Sarfati, a physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an author of the study.

The big question: Are there leaders and followers? In future experiments, Peleg says they want to track individuals rather than the group to try to understand what or who decides to start the first flash.