May 15, 2008
From a new drug to the "father of all bombs": Russian science in 2007 - some of the highlights
MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - 2007 was a happy year for Russian science. The country's leadership showed it understood that science and science-intensive industry were at the core of the economy and key to maintaining an independent foreign policy, sovereignty, and Russia's position in the world's league of nations.
The Government allocated more than 250 billion rubles (over $10 billion) for a five-year program of fundamental research. Now all the novel ideas in the country will follow an established pattern from conception to commercial realization.
In 2006, the government invested 2.86 billion rubles in 13 projects under the program, in addition to 3.6 billion rubles raised from private sources. Industry responded by turning out 12 billion rubles' worth of hi tech products.
The 2007 figures are even more impressive. Business investment in science-intensive projects under the program jumped to 6 billion rubles, which the government matched.
The development of unique building materials for use on the polar shelf and in pipelines is the most successful example of public-private cooperation. Private spending to these projects was three times the size of the public contribution.
The following is a list of some of the achievements reported by Russian researchers in recent months. It should be remembered that the Academy of Sciences pursues fundamental studies practically across the whole range of science. The following selection is therefore not exhaustive, and reflects achievements in fields most familiar to this writer or representing sufficient public interest.
* The St. Petersburg Influenza Research Institute and the Organic Synthesis Institute of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in the Urals have developed a wide-spectrum anti-viral preparation called Triazoverin, which is also effective against the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu virus. Clinical tests have shown it effectively suppresses virus reproduction.
More than 240 chemicals were tested to develop the medicine, which has no equivalent abroad and is equally effective against infection whatever its gravity or stage.
Professor Alan Hay, director of the WHO World Influenza Centre, considers the development of the preparation one of the greatest achievements of Russian science and believes it could be used to protect humankind against a coming flu pandemic.
* In 2007, the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Cytology was given official go-ahead to manufacture and use its newly developed dermal equivalent (DE), which has proved effective in healing derma (deep-skin) burns.
The derma is a particularly important layer of skin that underlies the upper fabric. The DE is a combination of collagen gel (which acts as the "substratum") and skin-forming cells or fibroblasts. Its application has already saved people with 90% to 98% skin burns. The DE can also be used to treat trophic ulcers, fistulas and bedsores.
Next on the agenda is the development of a full skin equivalent - a combination of the DE and a multi-layer package of ceratinocytes, which can effectively treat different skin lesions.
* In January, Sweden's Royal Academy of Sciences decided to award the Crafoord Prize (second in importance only to the Nobel Prize) to Rashid Syunyaev, chief researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Space Research Institute. The prize was given for his decisive contribution to high-energy astrophysics and cosmology, particularly a study of processes occurring in the vicinity of black holes and neutron stars.
Among professionals Mr Syunyaev is known as the first person to "have seen" black holes. He showed that matter falling into a black hole or onto a neutron star forms a fast-rotating disk, and begins to emit high-energy photons as it accelerates.
In recent years the team of Russian scientists led by Syunyaev has been able to practically double the number of previously registered neutron stars and black holes.
Being the first to map three most interesting areas of the sky (within the Russian quota of the Integral observatory's observation time), they detected and identified 135 point sources of hard X-ray radiation.
They have also discovered a specific population of X-ray objects wrapped up in a dense envelope of dust and gas. Their work has also revealed for the first time hard X-ray radiation from a gigantic molecular cloud in Sagittarius, which is most likely a light echo of the activity of a super-massive black hole.
A new class of neutron stars, which absorb matter from super-dense stellar winds, has also been discovered.
* The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has awarded the Bruno Rossi Prize to Alexei Vikhlinin and Maxim Markevich, members of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Space Research Institute, for their work to determine the Universe's parameters from data on galactic clusters. This prize is awarded annually "for a considerable contribution to high-energy astrophysics". The focus is usually put on recent original studies.
The Russian scientists have graphically demonstrated that so-called dark matter, which makes up more than 80% of the mass of galactic clusters, behaves almost like a non-interacting environment.
X-ray and optical observations of two merging clusters have shown that galaxies and dark matter freely "interpenetrate" each other, whereas flows of gas consisting of conventional protons and electrons are braked to form a huge cloud of hot plasma between the clusters.
Another important achievement has been exact measurement of the masses of galactic clusters at gigantic (~1029 km) distances from the Earth, and counting up the number of clusters of various masses in our closest neighborhood and in the "younger" Universe.
These measurements are essential for calculating the parameters of the modern Universe and, specifically, the properties of "dark energy", which is supposed to determine the rate of the universe's expansion.
The work done by the Russian scientists has graphically demonstrated the tremendous potential of X-ray cluster observations for "precision" cosmology - the measurement of the Universe's cosmological parameters with an accuracy of a few percentage points.
* New data has been obtained from the Venus Express mission. Russian scientists have taken the most direct role in devising observation instruments and programs for the mission.
From orbit around Venus the apparatus made the first observations of the Venusian atmosphere from its upper layers practically down to its bottom.
The results obtained suggest that Venus resembles Earth not only in size, but also in the processes that once took place on its surface. The structure and movement of the Venusian atmosphere are now understood so well that we can map its temperature chart to the highest modern standards.
Instruments also determined the content of the atmosphere over different parts of the planet, and confirmed the presence of lightning on Venus, which may have a telling effect on atmospheric chemistry.
* Last year, St Petersburg's Ioffe Physics and Technical Institute reported further advances in improving the performance of one of the most important elements of a fusion reactor - a tokamak. Today, the world has 300 different tokamaks, built to study controlled thermonuclear fusion. This reaction is the opposite of what happens in traditional nuclear reactors: nuclei fuse rather than divide, releasing enormous amounts of energy.
The Institute's tokamak is an experimental model. It cannot initiate fusion, but it gives scientists an opportunity to study the processes that occur in a tokamak, and to test structural components for a larger reactor.
Specifically, scientists have devised a plasma gun, a device which injects the working gases - hydrogen and tritium - the fuel for the fusion reactor - into the tokamak. Their gun has already attracted worldwide attention, attracting several bids to buy it.
But no one is going to sell the technology as yet: the current priority is to bring the research to its logical conclusion. The technology has not yet been pushed to its limit. If the plasma's injection rate is increased to 800 or 1,000 kilometers per second, the gun could rival the tried and tested, but less forward-looking, technology of fuel feeding at the $12bn International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor ITER in France.
* St Petersburg scientists have also been investigating the atomic structure of a new mineral (called krivovichevite) found in the Khibiny Mountains on the Kola Peninsula. A crystalline analysis of the mineral suggests that it is an intermediate form of lead. However, its instability (the mineral degrades on exposure to water) suggests that its next phase must be stable and highly toxic, in which lead is present in the atmospheric air and water. A study of the common features of krivovichevite and its atmospheric phase could show scientists how to "intercept" or "encapsulate" lead before it reaches the atmosphere (for example, from copper-nickel or sulphide deposits) and pollutes it.
* Scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of High-Molecular Compounds have combined useful properties of two different polymer classes. In 2007, they synthesized a polyamide that enjoys both high temperature and crack resistance and the ability to crystallize. Unlike its American "rival" ULTEM, produced by General Electric, which begins to disintegrate above 2150C, the new polyamide is in crystalline state at low temperatures, starts to devitrify at 2150C and does not begin to melt until 3150C. It is the ability to crystallize, which the scientists "grafted" onto polyamide that helps it withstand elevated temperatures.
* Non-biodegradable synthetic polymers brought about a revolution in human life in the 20th century. But their application created a global ecological problem, that of "polymer junk", which can be solved only by adopting polymers able to degrade into benign by-products. Such polymers are currently being developed at the Biophysics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Siberia.
Its scientists have shown that a bottle made from the biodegradable plastic they invented can "dissolve itself" in a water pond within three to four months (depending on water temperature and mineral content).
* Scientists from the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics and the Moscow Physics and Technical Institute have calculated the amount of methane released into the atmosphere in the second half of the 20th century. Methane is the third-ranking greenhouse gas in the world. A warmer climate could cause changes in the methane cycle with global effects. Permafrost, which covers some two-thirds of Russia's territory, is one of the main sources of methane. If it melts, excessive quantities of methane will enter the atmosphere, a situation scientists call a "methane bomb". A 1-degree change in temperature over the entire Earth's surface could increase methane release by an average of 7%. Increased oil and gas production could also lead to more methane emitted into the air.
Now, to sum up, two more events that can be highlighted either as major achievements for Russian science or sensational scandals.
* In July 2007, news broke that the Russian submersibles Mir-1 and Mir-2 had dived four kilometers below the North Pole, set up a titanium Russian tricolor on the ocean bed, and successfully resurfaced. "Our mission was to remind the world that Russia is a great polar and research power," said Artur Chilingarov, the expedition leader. In other words, it was to tell a special UN commission that the underwater Mendeleyev and Lomonosov ridges were a continuation of the Siberian continental shelf. In that way, Russia could extend the borders of its Arctic shelf and at the same time claim exclusive rights to 10 billion tons of hydrocarbons below the seabed. Russia would also retain full control of the Northern Sea Route, the shortest distance from Europe to America and Asia, which with continued warming could soon be free of ice all year round. But the world received Russia's "patriotic campaign" with mixed feelings.
* In September 2007, Russia tested a vacuum bomb containing an explosive developed with the help of nanotechnologies that is more destructive than TNT. Compared with an American device known as the "mother of all bombs", the Russian bomb contains less explosive (7.1 tons compared with 8.2 tons in the American weapon) but has four times more power, 20 times the area of destruction and twice the ground zero temperature. Its developers have dubbed it the "father of all bombs".
Yury Zaitsev is an adviser at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences.