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Zinc Batteries are the Future

This energy storage facility under construction in southeast England uses lithium-ion batteries.

CHRIS RATCLIFFE/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

 

Batteries used in hearing aids could be key to the future of renewable energy

If necessity is the mother of invention, potential profit has to be the father. Both incentives are driving an effort to transform zinc batteries from small, throwaway cells often used in hearing aids into rechargeable behemoths that could be attached to the power grid, storing solar or wind power for nighttime or when the wind is calm. With startups proliferating and lab studies coming thick and fast, “Zinc batteries are a very hot field,” says Chunsheng Wang, a battery expert at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Lithium-ion batteries—giant versions of those found in electric vehicles—are the current front-runners for storing renewable energy, but their components can be expensive. Zinc batteries are easier on the wallet and the planet—and lab experiments are now pointing to ways around their primary drawback: They can’t be recharged over and over for decades.

The need for grid-scale battery storage is growing as increasing amounts of solar, wind, and other renewable energy come online. This year, President Joe Biden committed to making the U.S. electricity grid carbon free by 2035. To even out dips in supply, much of that renewable power will have to be stored for hours or days, and then fed back into the grid. In California alone, the public utilities commission envisions deploying more than 8800 megawatts of rechargeable batteries by 2026, and last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed $350 million in state funding to develop long-duration energy storage technologies. “That trend will not go down. It will only continue to grow,” says Mark Baggio, vice president for business development at Zinc8 Energy Solutions, a zinc battery producer.

For power storage, “Lithium-ion is the 800-pound gorilla,” says Michael Burz, CEO of EnZinc, a zinc battery startup. But lithium, a relatively rare metal that’s only mined in a handful of countries, is too scarce and expensive to back up the world’s utility grids. (It’s also in demand from automakers for electric vehicles.) Lithium-ion batteries also typically use a flammable liquid electrolyte. That means megawatt-scale batteries must have pricey cooling and fire-suppression technology. “We need an alternative to lithium,” says Debra Rolison, who heads advanced electrochemical materials research at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).

Enter zinc, a silvery, nontoxic, cheap, abundant metal. Nonrechargeable zinc batteries have been on the market for decades. More recently, some zinc rechargeables have also been commercialized, but they tend to have limited energy storage capacity. Another technology—zinc flow cell batteries—is also making strides. But it requires more complex valves, pumps, and tanks to operate. So, researchers are now working to improve another variety, zinc-air cells.

A better battery

Zinc is cheaper than many battery metals and could store more energy.

 

Energy density (watt-hour/kilogram)Cost ($/kilowatt-hour)050040030020010001000250500750Zn-MnO2Zn-airNiZnLi-ionNi-metalhydridePb-acidBatteries based onother metalsZinc-basedrechargeable batteries
B. HOPKINS ET AL., SUSTAINABLE ENERGY & FUELS, 4, 3363 (2020), ADAPTED BY C. BICKEL/SCIENCE

In these batteries, a water-based electrolyte spiked with potassium hydroxide or another alkaline material separates a zinc anode and a cathode made of other conductive materials, often porous carbon. During discharge, oxygen from the air reacts with water at the cathode to form hydroxide ions, which migrate to the anode, where they react with zinc to eventually produce zinc oxide. The reaction releases electrons that flow from anode to cathode through an external circuit. Recharging the batteries means reversing the flow of current, causing zinc metal to re-form on the anode.

But zinc batteries don’t like to run in reverse. Irregularities across the anode’s surface cause the electric field to intensify at certain spots, which causes zinc to deposit there, further enhancing the electric field. As the cycle repeats, tiny spikes called dendrites grow, eventually perforating and shorting out the battery. Equally troublesome, water in the electrolyte can react at the anode, splitting into oxygen and hydrogen gas, which can burst the cells apart.

Researchers have begun to deal with these downsides, churning out nearly 1000 papers per year. In 2017, for example, Rolison and colleagues reported in Science that they reengineered the anode as a 3D network of zinc metal pocked with tiny voids. The electrode’s vast surface area reduced the local electric field, which prevented the buildup of dendrites and reduced the likelihood of splitting water molecules. NRL licensed the technology to EnZinc.

This month, Wang and his colleagues reported in Nature Nanotechnology that when they added a fluorine-containing salt to their electrolyte, it reacted with zinc to form a solid zinc fluoride barrier around the anode. Ions could still wriggle through during charging and discharging. But the barrier prevented dendrites from growing and repelled water molecules, blocking them from reaching the anode.

“It’s a great development,” says Wei Wang, who directs the Energy Storage Materials Initiative at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Still, Chunsheng Wang notes his device is somewhat slow to discharge. To improve that, his team wants to add catalysts at the cathode to speed up the reaction between oxygen and water.

The same strategy features in work by researchers led by Jung-Ho Lee from Hanyang University. In Nature Energy on 12 April, they reported creating a fibrous and conductive cathode from a mix of copper, phosphorus, and sulfur that also served as a catalyst, dramatically speeding up oxygen’s reaction with water. That and other advances produced batteries that could be charged and discharged quickly and had high capacity, 460 watt-hours per kilogram (compared with about 75 Wh/kg for standard zinc cells with manganese oxide cathodes and 120 Wh/kg for scaled-up lithium-ion systems). The batteries were stable for thousands of cycles of charge and discharge. The result “looks like another important step,” Chunsheng Wang says.

Such advances are injecting new hope that rechargeable zinc-air batteries will one day be able to take on lithium. Because of the low cost of their materials, grid-scale zinc-air batteries could cost $100 per kilowatt-hour, less than half the cost of today’s cheapest lithium-ion versions. “There is a lot of promise here,” Burz says. But researchers still need to scale up their production from small button cells and cellphone-size pouches to shipping container–size systems, all while maintaining their performance, a process that will likely take years. Burz also notes electric utilities and other companies looking to buy cheap large-scale batteries want to see years of steady operation first. “These customers need to see that it works in the real environment,” he says.

Enigmatic Designs Found in India May Be The Largest Images Ever Made by Human Hands
 
 
Boha 3’s meandering lines. (C & Y Oetheimer, Archaeological Research in Asia, 2021)

Enigmatic Designs Found in India May Be The Largest Images Ever Made by Human Hands

 
26 MAY 2021

Hidden in the vast, arid expanses of India’s Thar Desert lie mysterious old drawings carved into the land.

These newly discovered designs are of such immense scale, they were likely never able to be glimpsed in their entirety by those who made them, researchers say.

 

The huge motifs are examples of geoglyphs – giant hand-made depictions and patterns built upon or carved into the land, often occupying such scope that the true appearance of their forms can only be appreciated from far above.

Amongst all known geoglyphs of historical relevance – including the famous Nazca Lines of Peru – the Thar Desert formations appear to stand alone, however, representing what may actually be the largest-ever graphical depictions designed by humans.

010 geoglyphs 3(Carlo & Yohann Oetheimer, Archaeological Research in Asia, 2021)

Above: Aerial view of giant spiral (Boha 1) and Boha 2, including the serpent figure in lower-right corner.

“So far, these geoglyphs, the largest discovered worldwide and for the first time in the Indian subcontinent, are also unique as regards their enigmatic signs,” researchers explain in a new paper detailing the find.

Discovered by a pair of independent researchers from France – Carlo and Yohann Oetheimer – the new geoglyphs were spotted using Google Earth, during a virtual survey of the Thar Desert region (also known as the Great Indian Desert); this region encompasses some 200,000 square kilometers (roughly 77,000 square miles) of territory overlapping India and Pakistan.

 

Amidst this huge, dry landscape, the Oetheimers identified several sites located around the ‘Golden City’ of Jaisalmer, marked by geometrical lines resembling geoglyphs.

Closer inspection during a field study in 2016 using an uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) revealed some of the identified sites were furrows dug for tree plantations, but also helped reveal a cluster of enigmatic line formations seemingly absent of trees.

In particular, two “remarkable geometrical figures” of exceptional character close to the village of Boha stood out: a giant spiral and a serpent-shaped drawing, each connected by a cluster of sinuous lines.

The lines that make up these figures are stripes etched into the ground, ranging up to 10 centimeters deep (4 in) and spreading 20 to 50 cm wide (8-20 in). While these dimensions up close may be unremarkable, what they end up making up is not.

010 geoglyphs 3(Carlo & Yohann Oetheimer, Archaeological Research in Asia, 2021)

Above: Section of giant spiral, seen at ground level.

The largest geoglyph identified, the giant asymmetrical spiral (called Boha 1), is made from a single looping line running for 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), over an area 724 meters long by 201 meters wide (790 by 220 yards).

 

To the southwest of this huge vortex shape rests a serpentine geoglyph (Boha 2), composed of an 11-kilometer long line, which encompasses a serpent-like figure, a smaller spiral, and a long boustrophedon-style sequence of lines running back and forth.

Other small geoglyphs can also be found in the Boha region (including a feature of meandering lines, called Boha 3), which in total includes around 48 kilometers of still visible lines today, which the researchers estimate may once have extended for about 80 kilometers.

“The giant spiral and serpentine figure are definitely the major points of interest, closely connected to Boha 3, suggesting that all the other geoglyphs were created as a framework for this set,” the researchers write.

“Due to their spatial contiguity, patterns 1, 2, and 3 can be perceived as a sequential project.”

Just what this project represents, and who created it, is not yet fully clear, but the researchers suggest the formations are not ancient but rather relatively recent geoglyphs, perhaps at least 150 years old; they may also be contemporary with Hindu memorial stones found in the area.

010 geoglyphs 3(Carlo & Yohann Oetheimer, Archaeological Research in Asia, 2021)

Above: A Hindu memorial stone, located near the geoglyphs, and thought to be part of the contemporaneous cultural context of the lines.

Without definitively knowing more about the identity of their creators, it’s difficult to speculate as to the function and meaning of these giant geoglyphs, but the researchers nonetheless have a few ideas.

 

Given the region is flat, and the makers of these structures would not have been able to take in their creations (which would have required being about 300 meters up in the air), the authors say it’s unlikely these designs were intended as a form of artistic expression contemplated from the ground, but rather might have served as an unknown type of cultural practice in their making.

“[This] invites us to consider religious, astronomical, and/or cosmological meanings,” the researchers say.

“Because of their uniqueness, we can speculate that they could represent a commemoration of an exceptional celestial event observed locally.”

While there’s a lot we don’t yet know about these mysterious marks and their semantic relationship to each other, the researchers say the strange motifs are remarkable for their unrivaled size in particular, but also their design and implementation, which would have involved knowledge of mathematics and planimetry to achieve.

It will fall to future research to follow these fascinating leads, but the Oetheimers hope that for now the publication of their study will influence Indian authorities to protect the heritage of these mysterious lines, before human activity further disturbs and conceals them.

After all, whatever they are, they look to be pretty special.

“After extensive research, we consider the Boha geoglyphs to be the largest abstract and organically arranged man-made geometric figures discovered so far,” the researchers write.

“We remain convinced that these unique geoglyphs are closely connected to their geographical and cultural context, and possibly contain a universal message linked to the Sacred and the cosmos.”

The findings are reported in Archaeological Research in Asia.

Chinese hackers posing as the UN Human Rights Council are attacking Uyghurs

Chinese-speaking hackers are targeting Uyghur Muslims with fake United Nations reports and phony support organizations, according to a new report.

Uyghurs and other members of the faithful pray during services at the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as seen during a government organized visit for foreign journalists on April 19, 2021. Under the weight of official policies, the future of Islam appears precarious in Xinjiang, a remote region facing Central Asia in China's northwest corner. Outside observers say scores of mosques have been demolished, which Beijing denies, and locals say the number of worshippers is on the decline.AP PHOTO/MARK SCHIEFELBEIN

Chinese-speaking hackers are masquerading as the United Nations in ongoing cyber-attacks against Uyghurs, according to the cybersecurity firms Check Point and Kaspersky. 

Researchers identified an attack in which hackers posing as the UN Human Rights Council send a document detailing human rights violations to Uyghur individuals. It is in fact a malicious Microsoft Word file that, once downloaded, fetches malware: the likely goal, say the two companies, is to trick high-profile Uyghurs inside China and Pakistan into opening a back door to their computers.

Screenshot source: Check Point

“We believe that these cyber-attacks are motivated by espionage, with the endgame of the operation being the installation of a back door into the computers of high-profile targets in the Uyghur community,” said Lotem Finkelstein, head of threat intelligence at Check Point, in a statement. “The attacks are designed to fingerprint infected devices, including all of [their] running programs. From what we can tell, these attacks are ongoing, and new infrastructure is being created for what look like future attacks.”

Hacking is a frequently used weapon in Beijing’s arsenal, and particularly in its ongoing genocide against Ugyhurs, which uses cutting-edge surveillance both in the real world and online. Recent reporting by MIT Technology Review shed new light on another sophisticated hacking campaign that targeted members of the Muslim minority.

In addition to pretending to be from the United Nations, the hackers also built a fake and malicious website for a human rights organization called the “Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation,” according to the report. The group’s fake website offers grants—but in fact, anybody who attempts to apply for a grant is prompted to download a false “security scanner” that is in fact a back door into the target’s computer, the researchers explained.

“The attackers behind these cyber-attacks send malicious documents under the guise of the United Nations and fake human rights foundations to their targets, tricking them into installing a backdoor to the Microsoft Windows software running on their computers,” the researchers wrote. This allows the attackers to collect basic information they seek from the victim’s computer, as well as running more malware on the machine with the potential to do more damage. The researchers say they haven’t yet seen all the capabilities of this malware.

The code found in these attacks couldn’t be matched to an exact known hacking group, said the researchers, but it was found to be identical to code found on multiple Chinese-language hacking forums and may have been copied directly from there.

Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic minority in China, targeted via fake foundations

 

May 27, 2021

Introduction

 

During the past year, Check Point Research (CPR), in cooperation with Kaspersky’s GReAT, have been tracking an ongoing attack targeting a small group of Uyghur individuals located in Xinjiang and Pakistan. Considerable effort was put into disguising the payloads, whether by creating delivery documents that appear to be originating from the United Nations using up to date related themes, or by setting up websites for non-existing organizations claiming to fund charity groups.

In this report, we examine the flow of both infection vectors and provide our analysis of the malicious artifacts we came across during this investigation, even though we were unable to obtain the later stages of the infection chain.

 

Delivery Document

Our investigation began with a malicious document named UgyhurApplicationList.docx (MD5: a1d773621581981a94459bbea454cdf8), which carried the logo of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and contained decoy content from a United Nations general assembly discussing human rights violations.

Fig. 1 Delivery document carrying the UNHCR logo

 

After clicking on “Enable Editing”, a malicious external template is downloaded from officemodel[.]org. This template has embedded VBA macro code, which then checks the operating system’s architecture, and based on this proceeds to decode a 32-bit or a 64-bit payload.

Fig. 2 Malicious macros checking the operating system version

 

The payloads are embedded in the document itself and are base64 encoded. After the corresponding version is decoded, it is then named OfficeUpdate.exe and saved under the %TEMP% directory. In the two OfficeUpdate.exe samples we located, the payload was a shellcode loader which starts with basic evasion and anti-debugging techniques, by using functions such as sleep and QueryPerformanceCounter.
The shellcode in both variants attempts to fetch a remote payload. In the first variant, we found the loaded shellcode attempted to connect to 185.94.189[.]207, where the second variant tried to connect to officemodel[.]org, even though it crashes during execution. Unfortunately, we were not able to retrieve the next stage payload for analysis.

 

Delivery Websites

The domain observed in the malicious document (officemodel[.]org) resolved to the same IP address as unohcr[.]org – a domain impersonating the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This overlap in resolution happened over a long period of time, from April to December 2020.

By pivoting on that infrastructure we were able to reveal another infection vector that was used in this operation: distribution through fake websites that host malicious executables targeting Windows users.

Fig. 3 Connection to additional domains

 

Another IP address that unohcr[.]org resolved to revealed a domain named tcahf[.]org, which hosted a website claiming to represent TCAHF – the “Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation”.

TCAHF is supposedly a private organization that funds and supports groups working for “Tukric culture and human rights”, when in truth it is a made up entity, and most of its website’s content is copied from the legitimate opensocietyfoundations.org.

Scientists Say They Have the Answer to Vaccine Induced Blood Clots

Why might AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines cause blood clots? 

A health worker holds a vial of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine inside a Catholic church turned into a vaccination centre in Manila on May 21, 2021.
A health worker holds a vial of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine inside a Catholic church turned into a vaccination centre in Manila on May 21, 2021.   –   Copyright  TED ALJIBE/AFP
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Rare fatal blood clots linked to the COVID-19 vaccines AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have caused major concerns, but a group of scientists in Germany claims they have cracked the code as to why this is happening.

The researchers suggest vaccines that put adenovirus vectors – the cold viruses used to insert the spike protein of COVID-19 into the nucleus of the cell – into the body can, in some people, cause bits of coronavirus proteins to enter the nucleus and break up.

The fragments then exit into the bloodstream and can cause clotting. The rare clumps in the blood can then become serious if the clots approach vital organs.

 
 
 

The scientists wrote in a pre-print study, which has not undergone peer review, that the vaccine is delivered to the nucleus of the cell rather than to the fluid around it that acts as a protein factory.

“The adenovirus life cycle includes the infection of cells … entry of the adenoviral DNA into the nucleus, and subsequently gene transcription by the host transcription machinery,” the researchers said.

“And exactly here lies the problem: the viral piece of DNA … is not optimised to be transcribed inside of the nucleus”.

The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are mRNA vaccines that do not use this system and there have been no cases reported of blood clots with these doses.

But there is a way for the vaccine’s manufacturers to eliminate the risks, the scientists claim.

Professor Rolf Marschalek, a professor at Goethe University in Frankfurt who was a part of the study, told the Financial Times the vaccines can be redesigned. He also told the newspaper Johnson & Johnson is in contact with him.

Why do the vaccines affect younger people?

The study suggests that elderly people use drugs that thin blood more often, or even on a daily basis, which could decrease the risk of blood clots.

The researchers also suggested older immune systems display more immune senescence -the progressive decline in immune function with increasing age – which means young peple exhibit stronger immune reactions than elderly people, and women even stronger than men.

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP
A health worker prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine at a coronavirus vaccination centre at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in MadridGABRIEL BOUYS/AFP

“All this would imply a higher incidence in young women when compared to men or elderly people,” the study said.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson jabs in particular have been linked to rare deadly blood clotting disorders, especially for women under the age of 60.

What are the vaccine rules in Europe?

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in April there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and “very rare cases of unusual blood clots with low blood platelets”.

The agency said it received reports of 169 cases of the rare brain blood clot by early April, after 34 million doses had been administered in the European Economic Area (EEA).

But the EMA stresses the benefits of being vaccinated against COVID-19 outweigh the risks of developing blood clots.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has reported 309 clots and 56 deaths out of the 33 million vaccines administered with AstraZeneca. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been linked to 28 cases of blood clots in the United States.

As a consequence, some European countries temporarily halted these vaccines but have now set age limits. However, they have failed to reach a consensus on a common approach to administering them.

In Italy, it is recommended the AstraZeneca vaccine is administered to those over the age of 60, for France over the age of 55 and the UK advises it is not used on those under the age of 30.