On 8 August 2021, a laser-initiated experiment at the United States National Ignition Facility (NIF), based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, made a significant breakthrough in reproducing the power source of the stars, smashing its own 2018 record for energy released from nuclear fusion reactions 23 times over. This advance saw 70% of the laser energy put in released as nuclear energy. A pulse of light, focused to tiny spots within a 10-metre diameter vacuum chamber, triggered the collapse of a capsule of fuel from roughly the size of the pupil in your eye to the diameter of a human hair. This implosion created the extreme conditions of temperature and pressure needed for atoms of hydrogen to combine into new atoms and release, kilogram for kilogram, 10m times the energy that would result from burning coal.
The result is tantalisingly close to a demonstration of “net energy gain”, the long sought-after goal of fusion scientists in which an amount greater than 100% of the energy put into a fusion experiment comes out as nuclear energy. The aim of these experiments is – for now – to show proof of principle only: that energy can be generated. The team behind the success are very close to achieving this: they have managed a more than 1,000-fold improvement in energy release between 2011 and today. Prof Jeremy Chittenden, co-director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies at Imperial College London, said last month that “The pace of improvement in energy output has been rapid, suggesting we may soon reach more energy milestones, such as exceeding the energy input from the lasers used to kickstart the process.”
If you’re not familiar with nuclear fusion, it’s different from its cousin, nuclear fission, which powers today’s nuclear plants by taking big, unstable atoms and splitting them. Fusion takes small atoms and combines them to forge larger atoms. It is the universe’s ubiquitous power source: it’s what causes the sun and stars to shine, and it’s the reaction that created most of the atoms we are made of.
Scientists have long been excited about fusion because it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide or long-lived radioactive waste, since the fuel it requires – two types of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium – is plentiful enough to last for at least thousands of years, and because there is zero chance of meltdown. Unlike renewables such as wind and solar power, plants based on fusion would also take up little space compared with the power they would be able to generate.
However, because the NIF’s breakthrough is about demonstrating the principle only, the total amount of energy generated is not very impressive; it’s only just enough to boil a kettle. Nor does the gain measurement account for the energy used to run the facility, just what’s in the laser pulse. Despite this, it is nevertheless a landmark moment in the decades-long quest to produce fusion energy and use it to power the planet – which is, perhaps, the greatest scientific and technological challenge humanity has ever undertaken.
Although the experiment may have happened in a vacuum, NIF’s advance has not, and the pace of progress in fusion may surprise some long-time sceptics. Even Dr Mark Herrmann, head of the NIF’s fusion programme, says the latest development was “a surprise to everyone”. Many recent advances have been made with a different type of fusion device, the tokamak: a doughnut-shaped machine that uses a tube of magnetic fields to confine its fuel for as long as possible. China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (East) set another world record in May by keeping fuel stable for 100 seconds at a temperature of 120m degrees celsius – eight times hotter than the sun’s core. The world’s largest ever magnetic fusion machine, Iter, is under construction in the south of France and many experts think it will have the scale needed to reach net energy gain. The UK-based Joint European Torus (Jet), which holds the current magnetic fusion record for power of 67%, is about to attempt to produce the largest total amount of energy of any fusion machine in history. Alternative designs are also being explored: the UK government has announced plans for an advanced tokamak with an innovative spherical geometry, and “stellarators”, a type of fusion device that had been consigned to the history books, are enjoying a revival having been enabled by new technologies such as superconducting magnets.
This is a lot of progress, but it’s not even the biggest change: that would be the emergence of private sector fusion firms. The recently formed Fusion Industry Association estimates that more than $2bn of investment has flooded into fusion startups. The construction of experimental reactors by these firms is proceeding at a phenomenal rate: Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has its origins in MIT research, has begun building a demonstration reactor in Massachusetts; TAE Technologies has just raised $280m to build its next device; and Canadian-based General Fusion has opted to house its new $400m plant in the UK. This will be constructed in Oxfordshire, an emerging hotspot for the industry that is home to private ventures First Light Fusion and Tokamak Energy as well as the publicly funded Jet and Mast (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) Upgrade devices run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
Some of the investors in these firms have deep pockets: Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, Legal & General, and Chevron have all financed enterprises pursuing this new nuclear power source. For now, publicly funded labs are producing results a long way ahead of the private firms – but this could change.
With such progress, interest, and investment – and net energy gain perhaps just one or two more improvements away – perhaps it’s time to retire the old joke, so cliched it has been banned by editors at the Economist, that “fusion is 30 years away… and always will be”.
But it does depend on what we mean by “fusion” in that context; the scientists and their backers are now focusing on the bigger objective of fusion as a viable power source like fission, solar or wind. This requires far more than just “breakeven” in energy: a functioning fusion power plant would probably need at least 30 times the energy out for energy put in. However, scaling up the gain in energy is but one difficulty in making fusion a viable power source. A commercial reactor will have to solve several tricky engineering problems such as extracting the heat energy and finding materials that will withstand the relentless bombardment the reactor chamber will receive over its lifetime. Fusion reactors must also be self-sufficient in tritium, one of the two types of hydrogen that are fed in as fuel. For this, it is necessary to surround the reactor chamber with lithium because its atoms are converted to tritium when struck by the most energetic products of fusion – and this process has yet to be demonstrated at scale.
Those pursuing fusion have long known of the obstacles, but – with limited resources – achieving the immediate goal of gain has been a bigger priority. That’s beginning to change as fusion scientists and engineers look beyond scientific proof of principle. Around the world, several recently opened facilities are dedicated to solving these problems and, although they’re not trivial, everyone in fusion is confident that the obstacles can be overcome: progress depends on investment and will.
To find examples of how these two factors can be transformative, look no further than the pandemic. A sudden shot of both investment and motivation transformed the use of mRNA to fight disease from a wild idea to an accepted technology in the form of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Katalin Karikó, whose foundational work on mRNA has been key to the success of the technology, had the will to persevere for many years with little recognition and even less funding. Her dedication, and that of her colleagues, combined with a massive investment in development, testing and deployment is what enabled the vaccines to be ready in record time. The world wanted this, and we made it happen.
Global heating has made the need to turn carbon-free fusion energy into a usable power source ever more urgent. The world’s response thus far has been lackadaisical: it’s 2021 and more than 80% of global primary energy consumption still comes from coal, oil and gas. Fossil fuel consumption actually increased between 2009 and 2019 (though it fell in 2020 as most of the world locked down to help prevent the spread of Covid-19). While progress to date has been slow, most nations have pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Dr Ajay Gambhir, a senior policy research fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London, says most electricity generation needs to come from near-zero carbon sources as soon as 2030 in order to achieve this. Dr Michael Bluck, also of the Grantham Institute, expresses serious doubts that commercial fusion energy will be ready in time, saying that it is “very difficult to see this [conventional tokamaks] happening until after 2050” and that laser fusion has “another 50 years to go, if at all”.
Those working in fusion do recognise that time is of the essence, and it’s part of what is motivating the recent acceleration. The startups’ vision necessarily sees fusion power being deployed at an unprecedented rate. “If we want to contribute to net zero by 2050 we need to be building plants, multiple, in the 2040s,” Nick Hawker, CEO of First Light Fusion, tells me. And who says the fusion firms couldn’t do it with the right tailwind? We would never have believed that a vaccine, let alone the first mRNA vaccine, could be developed and approved within a year instead of over decades.
The scale of the climate challenge is so immense that we need to throw the kitchen sink at it. That means renewables, fission, energy storage, carbon capture, and any other lifeline humanity can grab. If the world doesn’t have the will to at least try to deploy fusion energy too, it would be a missed opportunity. Fusion could afford people in developing countries the same energy consumption opportunities as people in developed nations enjoy today – rather than the global cutbacks that may be necessary otherwise. And we are likely to need fusion well beyond 2050, too: as a source of large-scale power to extract the carbon dioxide we’ve already put into the atmosphere, and because it’s the only feasible way we can explore space beyond Earth’s immediate vicinity.
Whether commercial fusion energy is ready in time to help with global warming or not depends on us as a society and how badly we want – no, need – star power on our side.
Elon Musk has denied claims in a news report that he sexually harassed a flight attendant on a private jet in 2016, calling the accusations “utterly untrue”.
SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Musk, paid the female attendant $250,000 (£200,000) in a severance settlement after a sexual misconduct claim against the world’s richest person, according to the news website Business Insider.
The attendant was a cabin crew member who was contracted to work for SpaceX’s corporate jet fleet. She accused Musk of exposing his erect penis to her, rubbing her leg without consent and offered to buy her a horse if she performed an erotic massage, according to interviews and documents obtained by Business Insider.
Musk, who is worth $212bn and is also CEO of the electric carmaker Tesla, told his 94.1 million Twitter followers that the allegations were “utterly untrue”. The Guardian has not been able to verify the Business Insider account. SpaceX has been approached for comment.
Shares of the electric carmaker skidded more than 10% on Friday amid concerns that the alleged sexual misconduct and Musk’s previous political comments could threaten to damage Tesla’s brand and sales. The share drop knocked about $66bn off Tesla’s market value and put the stock at its lowest since last August.
The alleged incident took place in 2016 and the settlement was agreed in 2018. According to a declaration prepared in support of the claim, the attendant said that after taking the job she was encouraged to train as a masseuse so she could give Musk massages. It was during one of those massages, onboard Musk’s Gulfstream jet, that she was propositioned by the SpaceX chief executive.
The attendant, who Insider does not name, told her friend that she was asked to go to Musk’s cabin during a flight to London to give a “full body massage”. Upon entering the room, she found Musk was “completely naked except for a sheet covering the lower half of his body”. The declaration says that during the massage Musk “exposed his genitals” and “touched her and offered to buy her a horse if she would ‘do more’, referring to the performance of sex acts”. The attendant, a horse rider, declined and continued with the massage without any sexual activity.
In an interview with Business Insider about the allegations, the attendant’s friend said Musk’s penis was erect when he propositioned her.
According to the declaration, after the incident the attendant felt she was being marginalised in her job. She felt “she was being pushed out and punished for refusing to prostitute herself”, says the declaration.
The attendant hired a lawyer in 2018 and sent the allegations to SpaceX’s HR department. The complaint was resolved after a session with a mediator attended by Musk, according to Insider. In November of that year, Musk, SpaceX and the attendant entered into a severance agreement that involved a $250,000 payment in exchange for a pledge not to sue over the claims.
Responding to Insider’s story, Musk told the news site that there was “a lot more to this story”. He wrote: “If I were inclined to engage in sexual harassment, this is unlikely to be the first time in my entire 30-year career that it comes to light,” adding that the story was a “politically motivated hit piece”.
Without referring directly to the article, Musk tweeted on Friday that attacks against him should be “viewed through a political lens” and that he would continue to fight for “your right to free speech”. Musk said on Wednesday that he would vote Republican instead of Democratic, predicting a “dirty tricks campaign against me” would follow.
Musk has agreed to buy Twitter, the social media company with 229 million users, for $44bn but has said the deal is “on hold” until he receives further details of the number of fake and spam accounts on the platform.
Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.
The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.
In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.
Check Point Research also noted that around the same time that they observed the Twisted Panda attacks, another Chinese advanced persistent threat (APT) group Mustang Panda was observed exploiting the invasion of Ukraine to target Russian organizations.
In fact, Twisted Panda may have connections to Mustang Panda or another Beijing-backed spy ring called Stone Panda, aka APT10, according to the security researchers.
In addition to the timing of the attacks, other tools and techniques used in the new campaign overlap with China-based APT groups, they wrote. Because of this, the researchers attributed the new cyberspying operation “with high confidence to a Chinese threat actor.”
During the the course of the research, the security shop also uncovered a similar loader that contained that looked like an easier variant of the same backdoor. And based on this, the researchers say they expect Twisted Panda has been active since June 2021.
Phishing for defense R&D
The new campaign started on March 23 with phishing emails sent to defense research institutes in Russia. All of them had the same subject: “List of [target institute name] persons under US sanctions for invading Ukraine”, a malicious document attached, and contained a link to an attacker-controlled site designed to look like the Health Ministry of Russia.
An email went out to an organization in Minsk, Belarus, on the same day with the subject: “US Spread of Deadly Pathogens in Belarus”.
Additionally, all of the attached documents looked like official Russian Ministry of Health documents with the official emblem and title.
Downloading the malicious document drops a sophisticated loader that not only hides its functionality, but also avoids detection of suspicious API calls by dynamically resolving them with name hashing.
By using DLL sideloading, which Check Point noted is “a favorite evasion technique used by multiple Chinese actors,” the malware evades anit-virus tools. The researchers cited PlugX malware, used by Mustang Panda, and a more recent APT10 global espionage campaign that used the VLC player for side-loading.
In this case of the Twisted Panda campaign, “the actual running process is valid and signed by Microsoft,” according to the analysis.
According to the security researchers, the loader contains two shellcodes. The first one runs the persistence and cleanup script. And the second is a multi-layer loader. “The goal is to consecutively decrypt the other three fileless loader layers and eventually load the main payload in memory,” Check Point Research explained.
New Spinner backdoor detected
The main payload is a previously undocumented Spinner backdoor, which uses two types of obfuscations. And while the backdoor is new, the researchers noted that the obfuscation methods have been used together in earlier samples attributed to Stone Panda and Mustang Panda. These are control-flow flattening, which makes the code flow non-linear, and opaque predicates, which ultimately causes the binary to perform needless calculations.
“Both methods make it difficult to analyze the payload, but together, they make the analysis painful, time-consuming, and tedious,” the security shop said.
The Spinner backdoor’s main purpose is to run additional payloads sent from a command-and-control server, although the researchers say they didn’t intercept any of these other payloads. However, “we believe that selected victims likely received the full backdoor with additional capabilities,” they noted.
Tied to China’s five-year plan?
The victims — research institutes that focus on developing electronic warfare systems, military-specialized onboard radio-electronic equipment, avionics systems for civil aviation, and medical equipment and control systems for energy, transportation, and engineering industries — also tie the Twisted Panda campaign to China’s five-year plan, which aims to expand the country’s scientific and technical capabilities.
And, as the FBI has warned [PDF], the Chinese government isn’t above using cyberespionage and IP theft to accomplish these goals.
As Check Point Research concluded: “Together with the previous reports of Chinese APT groups conducting their espionage operations against the Russian defense and governmental sector, the Twisted Panda campaign described in this research might serve as more evidence of the use of espionage in a systematic and long-term effort to achieve Chinese strategic objectives in technological superiority and military power.” ®
Katie Mannion of unicorn start-up Pleo explains some dos and don’ts for businesses looking to boost their brand.
Alongside a strong vision, and an even stronger team to implement it, successful B2B marketing is integral to company growth.
But how do businesses achieve it, especially across numerous regions?
Building a strong B2B marketing operation is like building a house. If the foundations aren’t strong enough, the walls will crack and the message you work so hard to convey will be ignored or misinterpreted.
With strong positioning, you can avoid cracks in your marketing. Focusing on your brand positioning and the pillars built around this can make a huge difference and give your strategy the direction it needs.
So what makes a strong positioning? The best I’ve seen are clear, ownable and memorable.
Try to avoid overcomplicating your message. If potential customers can’t understand what you’re trying to say, they’ll look elsewhere.
Understanding how your messaging will be received in different countries or regions is really important, too. For various reasons and cultural differences, your message will land differently in the UK versus Ireland, or Germany versus France.
The positioning you take needs to be aligned to the market that your brand is going to own. It’s what makes you unique and why you should be chosen above the competition.
Test your messaging and campaigns with different audiences and prospects to know if you’re going in the right direction, and never be afraid to tear up what you perceive to be a great idea if the feedback and data says so.
For many start-ups or SMEs, it’s hard to compete with businesses with large budgets and access to dedicated marketing agencies. In order to cut through the noise, you need to focus on marketing activities that will get you noticed.
Building a meaningful brand takes time and money and many young companies don’t have either of these resources in abundance. The solution? Build a brand that stands out in its messaging and creates a platform for unique and eye-catching ideas.
Sometimes going big and bold is your only opportunity to ‘earn’ attention (as opposed to paying substantial amounts for it). My favourite example of this includes the ‘We’re OK Hun’ campaign from Hun Wines during the 2020 lockdown in London. They had an opportunity to buy cheap ad space in prime areas such as Oxford Circus to create a stir with this clever viral campaign.
Do more than build it
Lots of brands seem to think: ‘build and they will come’. In B2B marketing nothing could be further from this.
What happens when you’ve launched your product, the doors are open for business and the customers don’t come?
What are you going to do to build around the launch? Have you briefed your sales team? Devised a PR plan? Forged partnerships? Worked on creative content and events to support?
To move the needle, marketers need to be making moves across multiple channels and pull a number of levers synchronously and strategically. Focus on the activities you can build around business announcements or product launches to really elevate the comms around your brand.
Invest in your tools
The less manual work you have to do the better. A huge consideration as a marketer is your martech stack.
It is important that you build a marketing tech stack that can be with you for the long haul. Be sure to pick tools that don’t just help you scale, but still serve their purpose when you have scaled.
Replacing a critical tool you’ve outgrown can slow your company’s growth momentum. New systems can take months or even years to integrate fully, and the bigger you are, the more expensive they are to introduce.
Align your teams
Marketing and sales departments often set their strategies and goals separately from each other. But when they aren’t aligned, both teams suffer.
Ultimately, it’s crucial that your head of marketing and head of sales are on the same page and reaching for the same goals together. Sales and marketing alignment starts with sharing the same objectives and KPIs. This means setting common goals for both departments to work towards together.
Carefully planned campaigns will bring salespeople’s intimate knowledge of your customers into the company’s core. These insights will also help build better products for the future.
The bottom line is that nurturing your relationship with sales across the business is key for marketing efficiency and revenue growth of the business.
Broaden your perspective
Diversity of people inspires a diversity of thought. Diversity of thought fosters a creative environment that allows ideas to flourish.
I don’t always hire on B2B experience but, rather, a passion for storytelling, creativity and bringing a brand to life through various activities.
When you work in marketing there is a real opportunity to lead meaningful change in how your brand is perceived by the world. To do this effectively, you need a team of different perspectives which is unified in its ambition to do things differently.
Take it step by step
Marketing can be overwhelming. Focus on small incremental changes that make a huge difference over time.
Automate the tasks you find yourself short on time to complete.
Clearly define your niche and category and stick to it.
Involve your customers, always.
Keep a positive and open relationship between sales and marketing to scale your B2B marketing the best way possible.