This Christmas season is a time of thanks and hope for imposing leaps in science that are being made:
First, Prince William, who founded the Earthshots Prize, announced awards in Boston in 2022. One category was called Revive Our Oceans. The winner was a group called Indigenous Women of the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef has been under attack, and the winners are committed to its defense. They work to protect beaches and turtles and preserve seagrass that captures ten times more CO2 than Amazon forests. They martial ancient aboriginal knowledge and use modern tools like drones to monitor the reef’s changes in coral as well as inland bushfires.
Second, for 20 years the US Department of Energy has funded the concept and development of a Small Modular Nuclear Reactor (SMR) called the NuScale Power Module. Safer, cheaper, scalable, and carbon-free are the advantages. It’s the only SMR to receive design approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Less than 100 ft tall, the module is a 15 ft wide cylinder that sits in a bath of water below ground level. It can produce 77 MegaWatts of electricity that can power 60,000 homes. The goal is to be up and running in Idaho by 2029.
Third, the medical establishment has a breakthrough in treating certain cancers. The method takes T-cells, which are part of the immune system that fights cancer, out of the body to genetically modify them, using the CRISPR technique, and then reinject them back into the body as a “living drug”. Using CRISPR, the T-cells can be finely-tuned and made more deadly in their attack on particular cancer cells.
These “off-the-shelf” T-cells can be manufactured in large amounts quickly using CRISPR, rather than having to wait weeks or months previously. On December 12, 2022, Dr McGuirk from University of Kansas, announced trial results that were surprisingly good and opened a new door to treatment of cancers: tumors had shrunk for 67% of 32 patients with lymphoma cancer. 40% of patients achieved complete remission. There is great enthusiasm for the potential of this technique to cure many other cancers.
Fourth is a breakthrough in nuclear fusion that is quite stunning.
Nuclear fusion breakthrough.
In the last century, the greatest century of physics, one of the discoveries was nuclear fission. When a heavy atom such as plutonium breaks apart, a tiny amount of mass is lost and reappears as a huge amount of energy — because E = mc^2, where c is the velocity of light and a very large number.
Under a threat that Germany would develop a chain-reaction bomb based on this reaction, the US government poured an enormous amount of funds into building a fission bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico, not far from where I live. It was tested in the White Sands desert south of Albuquerque, and eventually used to end the war with Japan.
Commercial application led quickly to grid-sized nuclear reactors in different countries. Some were successful – France gets 70% of its electrical energy from 56 nuclear reactors while the US gets about 20% of its energy from 93 nuclear reactors.
But success is uneasy when terrible accidents occur, such as Chernobyl, Russia, in 1986 and Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, and the ever-present worry about nuclear waste disposal in the US.
A sister nuclear reaction is when two hydrogen nuclei are forced to merge into helium by overcoming the repulsive forces and once again an enormous amount of energy is released. This was the basis of US hydrogen bomb tests in the South Pacific (Bikini Atoll) in the 1950s before the test ban treaty of 1963.
Commercial application of nuclear fusion has been sought over the decades since then. For example, one endeavor is based in Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, where hot charged plasma is confined by electrical fields. The idea was to confine, compress and heat the plasma (energy-in) until hydrogen nuclei merge (energy-out). But energy-in was always greater than energy-out.
Another commercial application was at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Here 192 lasers were used to confine, compress and heat the plasma by blasting a $1 million pellet of mixed hydrogen isotopes. The results were always the same – until now. Announced in the week ending December 16, 2022, energy-out (3.1 MegaJoules) was more than energy-in (2.1 MegaJoules) for the first time. It is a genuine breakthrough. The temperature achieved was 3 million degrees C.
Putting this in perspective.
First, energy-in versus energy-out is too simple, because to power up the lasers requires vastly greater energy: 400 MegaJoules. See ref 1.
Second, the success story was about just one event – one fusion ignition. To be anywhere near practical would require many, many fusion events per minute, and would need a laser that is thousands of times more powerful. Plus the cost would have to be a million times cheaper (Ref 1). In a word, this one success, though inspiring, is not remotely close to even imagining practical application.
So it’s not cheap and it’s not practical, but it would produce high-intensity energy and it would be carbon-free.
Nuclear fission energy is a million times more powerful than any other energy source on earth. And this is a big reason why investments have been made in countries like France and the USA to build dozens of nuclear power plants.
Nuclear fusion creates 3-4 times more energy than nuclear fission. That is one part of the dream. Another part of the fusion dream is there are no nuclear waste products to dispose of – waste products that can take hundreds or thousands of years to decay. A third part is fusion is not a chain reaction, so the danger of runaway nuclear reactions and explosions is non-existent.
Since generating electricity is responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, the final part of the dream is nuclear fusion plants sprinkled across a country to provide high-intensity carbon-free electrical energy.
But remember, it’s only a dream. Despite its advantages, carbon-free nuclear fusion won’t put the oil and gas industry out of business by 2050 and maybe not even by 2100.
Mankind has replicated the sun’s source of light and heat. At about 15 million degrees C, the gaseous interior of the sun is compressed under tremendous pressure – a teaspoon weighs 750 gm or 1.65 lb. To replicate the sun’s interior conditions in the lab and to achieve breakeven (energy-out more than energy-in) is an impressive feat.
But nuclear fusion is not remotely close to even imagining commercial application.
So why are we spending big money investigating it? Because that’s what advanced countries do. They build telescopes like the James Webb and install them on satellites to study the universe. They build rockets to put men and women on the moon. They build magnetic racetracks to accelerate protons to the speed of light before they crash and reveal in the fragments elusive subatomic particles like the Higgs boson.
Politics plays a big part in deciding where government support and funding for science is distributed. Thankfully, as reported above, many examples exist of countries using science to resolve pressing problems that benefit humankind directly.
Reference 1: Jerusalem Demsas, Power of the Sun, The Atlantic Daily, December 16, 2022.