Improving proton therapy at the coffee machine

If you put ten scientists of various backgrounds into a room and tell them to ‘come up with something smart’, you won’t achieve much. But if you build a dedicated care facility where they can mingle and provide a coffee machine to top it off, you may spark flashes of brilliance. That’s how HollandPTC inspired a TU Delft physicist and an LUMC radiation-oncologist to come up with the idea of measuring protons inside a cancer patient – during the delivery of the proton radiotherapy treatment.

Proton radiotherapy already has a mind boggling accuracy of only a few millimeters. Using highly advanced ‘intelligent’ PET detectors, the researchers aim to improve this accuracy even further. It will be the protons themselves who, by creating just a tiny bit of radiation inside the patient, tell the story of where they stop and deliver most of their cell-killing radiation dose. It will take a few years to get there, but eventually this advanced radiation treatment will spare the healthy organs surrounding the tumour even better, reducing unwanted side-effects even further. Read more about the visualisation of protons during the radiotherapy treatment here.

Shining a light on cloud maintenance

The cloud – just another one of those things you often hear about but don’t really care about. That is, until it stops working for a few hours and you’re stuck in the supermarket with a cart full of groceries, unable to pay by ATM-card and not carrying any cash. That is what happened to me at Albert Heijn a few weeks ago.

More and more services that are essential to our society operating smoothly are stored in the cloud. It is growing and growing and already responsible for about 2% of our world-wide energy demand. If it doesn’t break down under its own weight, it may eventually become a climate hazard. That is, until Georgios Andreadis came along.

For his master’s thesis, he researched how to bring capacity planning for cloud data centres into the 21st century. As a result, these centres may be able to continue to meet the ever-growing computational demands of businesses, scientists and governments, while increasing their efficiency and environmental sustainability. Next time society doesn’t crumble, that’s what I’ll be grateful for.

Not too hard to handle: some other uses of diamond

Diamond certainly is a material that is very hard to handle. But control it at the atomic level and you can actually mould it to some very sophisticated uses. You may, for example, be able to create the ultimate building block for the future quantum computer. Or you may be able to image individual molecules, down to their exact atomic layout. That is exactly what Mohamed Abobeih did. Read more about his scenic route towards fault-tolerant qubits here.

A balloon trip to the galaxy

Launching a balloon into space sounds impossible, and it is. But if your balloon is the size of a soccer stadium, you can bring a telescope all the way to the edge of space. At that altitude of 36 kilometers, far above the water vapour in the earth’s atmosphere, the telescope is free to observe the far-infrared radiation that tells the story of the birth and death of galaxies.

Still a useless mission, if it weren’t for three detectors developed by researchers from TU Delft and SRON (Space Research Organisation of the Netherlands). The launch date is December 2021, but you can already read about their intricate workings and the 20-year long road of painstaking development leading up to this all time high for infra-red space exploration.

Flooding Amsterdam with solar panels

Installing a million solar panels, like Amsterdam intends, sounds like a decent step towards ensuring a decent supply of energy. But it may actually jeopardise the reliability of the electrical grid, putting homes at risk. That’s why researchers from TU Delft are looking at the big picture, taking into account the underground low-voltage network as well as the need for green and blue roofs to save the people of Amsterdam from drowning and choking. Here you can read more about the urban puzzle of where to put a million solar panels.

Smart buildings for a smooth energy transition

New solar and wind farms pop up faster than trendy coffee bars. But the energy transition isn’t only about replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. It is also about transitioning from centralised energy production in a few large power plants, towards distributed and two-way energy distribution. Our electrical grid, which is quite old, hasn’t been designed with two-way energy distribution in mind, let alone been optimised for it. Too much renewable energy may actually jeopardise the reliability of our electrical grid.

With a share of 30% in our national energy consumption, the built environment can play an important role in ensuring the energy transition to be a smooth one. Using smart energy solutions, buildings can help mitigate fluctuations in the supply of and demand for energy. With proper understanding of their exact energy need, whole campuses and neighbourhoods can even become self-sustaining, reducing . The best path towards a sustainable future hasn’t yet been laid out, but the NWO Perspectief programme on Smart Energy Solutions in the Build Environment helps in laying the ground work for a smooth transition.

Millimetre wave radar for improved road safety

It will still take some time for the fully autonomous car to arrive, and they may never be able to navigate Delft city centre where you have to deal with ten pedestrians and fifteen cyclists simultaneously. Not to mention a plethora of small bridges, frequent changes in traffic situations and the erratic non-law-abiding behaviour of said pedestrians and cyclists.

But the goal of millimetre wave radar is not to make this possible, but to improve road safety in general. The technology may require another step reduction in resolution (to see the motor cycle overtaking the oncoming truck), but it is a getting there fast. It will soon become compulsory technology, just like the seatbelt and the airbag. Read more about millimetre wave car rader here.

The Future, batteries not included

It is all about the Internet of Things nowadays. Will it be a billion devices connected to eachother through the internet? A trillion? A gazillion? Fact is that all these devices are likely to be dependent on batteries for performing their tasks. These batteries are an environmental hazard. They also need to be replaced and, eventually, stored or processed. Isn’t there some smart(er) solution?

Indeed there is! It is called intermittent computing. A large proportion of the Internet of Things devices doesn’t continuous power. They can live off energy harvested from the environment, only continuing their tasks once enough energy has been stored. It does require some very smart technical solutions to ensure proper operation under up to a hundred power failures per second. That is what intermittent computing is about, and that is how intermittent computing will replace trillions of batteries.

Some like it noisy, or the predictive power of pollen

Have you every wondered if the predicted rise in sea level due to global warming could be the result of some rounding errors running amok? Or if those annoying variations in stock market prices can somehow be tamed? Mark Veraar may be one of the few people on earth who can actually provide (the semblance of) an answer. Noise is his thing. Well, the advanced mathematical modelling of noise and its consequences is. 

The basis of such modelling lies in the apparent random motion of pollen in air. So, it will be up to pollen to prove that the latest hurricane ravaging the Caribbean was indeed caused by a swallowtail butterfly flapping its wings in China. Here you can read more about Mark Veraar’s research on noise.

 

Math in times of cholera (and other epidemics)

While you may prefer infectious diseases over redoing a high-school math exam, you should be aware that it is mathematics that helps us understand the spread of such diseases, helps us determine effective measures against this spread and, eventually, helps us control and constrain outbreaks and epidemics. Sure, the most advanced of these disease models require teams of specialised mathematicians to solve them as so many details need to be taken into account. For a bit of basic understanding, however, you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon. High-school math will pretty much do the trick. Read here about a bit of math to constrain epidemics.