Dubbed the compact fusion reactor (CFR), the device is conceptually safer, cleaner and more powerful than much larger, current nuclear systems that rely on fission, the process of splitting atoms to release energy. Crucially, by being “compact,” Lockheed believes its scalable concept will also be small and practical enough for applications ranging from interplanetary spacecraft and commercial ships to city power stations….
Yet the idea of nuclear fusion, in which atoms combine into more stable forms and release excess energy in the process, is not new. Ever since the 1920s, when it was postulated that fusion powers the stars, scientists have struggled to develop a truly practical means of harnessing this form of energy. Other research institutions, laboratories and companies around the world are also pursuing ideas for fusion power, but none have gone beyond the experimental stage. With just such a “Holy Grail” breakthrough seemingly within its grasp, and to help achieve a potentially paradigm-shifting development in global energy, Lockheed has made public its project with the aim of attracting partners, resources and additional researchers….
To understand the breakthroughs of the Lockheed concept, it is useful to know how fusion works and how methods for controlling the reaction have a fundamental impact on both the amount of energy produced and the scale of the reactor. Fusion fuel, made up of hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, starts as a gas injected into an evacuated containment vessel. Energy is added, usually by radio-frequency heating, and the gas breaks into ions and electrons, forming plasma.
The superhot plasma is controlled by strong magnetic fields that prevent it from touching the sides of the vessel and, if the confinement is sufficiently constrained, the ions overcome their mutual repulsion, collide and fuse. The process creates helium-4, freeing neutrons that carry the released energy kinetically through the confining magnetic fields. These neutrons heat the reactor wall which, through conventional heat exchangers, can then be used to drive turbine generators.
Until now, the majority of fusion reactor systems have used a plasma control device called a tokamak, invented in the 1950s by physicists in the Soviet Union. The tokamak uses a magnetic field to hold the plasma in the shape of a torus, or ring, and maintains the reaction by inducing a current inside the plasma itself with a second set of electromagnets. The challenge with this approach is that the resulting energy generated is almost the same as the amount required to maintain the self-sustaining fusion reaction….
The CFR will avoid these issues by tackling plasma confinement in a radically different way. Instead of constraining the plasma within tubular rings, a series of superconducting coils will generate a new magnetic-field geometry in which the plasma is held within the broader confines of the entire reaction chamber. Superconducting magnets within the coils will generate a magnetic field around the outer border of the chamber. “So for us, instead of a bike tire expanding into air, we have something more like a tube that expands into an ever-stronger wall,” McGuire says. The system is therefore regulated by a self-tuning feedback mechanism, whereby the farther out the plasma goes, the stronger the magnetic field pushes back to contain it….
The team acknowledges that the project is in its earliest stages, and many key challenges remain before a viable prototype can be built. However, McGuire expects swift progress. The Skunk Works mind-set and “the pace that people work at here is ridiculously fast,” he says. “We would like to get to a prototype in five generations. If we can meet our plan of doing a design-build-test generation every year, that will put us at about five years, and we’ve already shown we can do that in the lab.” The prototype would demonstrate ignition conditions and the ability to run for upward of 10 sec. in a steady state after the injectors, which will be used to ignite the plasma, are turned off. “So it wouldn’t be at full power, like a working concept reactor, but basically just showing that all the physics works,” McGuire says.
An initial production version could follow five years after that. “That will be a much bigger effort,” he says, suggesting that transition to full-scale manufacturing will necessarily involve materials and heat-transfer specialists as well as gas-turbine makers. The early reactors will be designed to generate around 100 MW and fit into transportable units measuring 23 X 43 ft. “That’s the size we are thinking of now. You could put it on a semi-trailer, similar to a small gas turbine, put it on a pad, hook it up and can be running in a few weeks,” McGuire says. The concept makes use of the existing power infrastructures to enable the CFR to be easily adapted into the current grid. The 100-MW unit would provide sufficient power for up to 80,000 homes in a power-hungry U.S. city and is also “enough to run a ship,” he notes.
Lockheed estimates that less than 25 kg (55 lb.) of fuel would be required to run an entire year of operations. The fuel itself is also plentiful. Deuterium is produced from sea water and is therefore considered unlimited, while tritium is “bred” from lithium. “We already mine enough lithium to supply a worldwide fleet of reactors, so with tritium you never have too much built up, and that’s what keeps it safe. Tritium would be a health risk if there were enough released, but it is safe enough in small quantities. You don’t need very much to run a reactor because it is a million times more powerful than a chemical reaction,” McGuire notes.
A hand painted in an Indonesian cave dates to at least 39,900 years ago, making it among the oldest such images in the world, archaeologists reported … in a study that rewrites the history of art.
The discovery on the island of Sulawesi vastly expands the geography of the first cave artists, who were long thought to have appeared in prehistoric Europe around that time. Reported in the journal Nature, the cave art includes stencils of hands and a painting of a babirusa, or “pig-deer,” which may be the world’s oldest figurative art.
"Overwhelmingly depicted in Europe and Sulawesi were large, and often dangerous, mammal species that possibly played major roles in the belief systems of these people," says archaeologist and study leader Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.
The finds from the Maros cave sites on Sulawesi raise the possibility that such art predates the exodus of modern humans from Africa 60,000 or more years ago….
In the new study, the researchers investigated mineral layers less than 0.4 inches (10 millimeters) thick covering images in seven caves, and in some cases sandwiching them. Trace amounts of radioactive uranium in these mineral layers reveal when water carried the minerals over the cave wall. Finding the ages of these deposits narrows down the time when the images were painted.
The age discovered for the oldest hand stencil in the cave—39,900 years old—is therefore merely the minimum age of the minerals coating the image, meaning the art could be thousands of years older.
The world is swarming with countless prokaryotes that evolve at breathtaking rates. Even so, they were not quick about inventing eukaryotic cells. Fossils tell us that the oldest bacteria arose between 3 and 3.5 billion years ago, but there are no eukaryotes from before 2.1 billion years ago. Why did the prokaryotes remain as simple cells for so damn long?
There are many possible explanations, but one of these has recently gained a lot of ground. It tells of a prokaryote that somehow found its way inside another, and formed a lasting partnership with its host. This inner cell—a bacterium—abandoned its free-living existence and eventually transformed into the mitochondria. These internal power plants provided the host cell with a bonanza of energy, allowing it to evolve in new directions that other prokaryotes could never reach.
If this story is true, and there are still those who doubt it, then all eukaryotes—every flower and fungus, spider and sparrow, man and woman—descended from a sudden and breathtakingly improbable merger between two microbes. They were our great-great-great-great-…-great-grandparents, and by becoming one, they laid the groundwork for the life forms that seem to make our planet so special. The world as we see it (and the fact that we see it at all; eyes are a eukaryotic invention) was irrevocably changed by that fateful union—a union so unlikely that it very well might not have happened at all, leaving our world forever dominated by microbes, never to welcome sophisticated and amazing life like trees, mushrooms, caterpillars, and us.
For people who use the word “science” as a bludgeon and trumpet their strict commitment to fact and reason, the Obama administration and its supporters are strangely incapable of rational analysis of new climate-change regulations.
President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency released draft rules last week to create a vast new regulatory apparatus with no input from Congress — in other words, to govern in its accustomed highhanded, undemocratic manner. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants, in particular coal-fired plants, to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The rhetoric around the rules has involved self-congratulation about how they are the inexorable result of taking climate science and the reality of dangerous global warming seriously. “Science is science,” President Obama said in an open-and-shut tautology about global warming during an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. By the same token, math is math, and the new regulations make no sense.
While the regulations are stringent enough to impose real economic costs — especially in states that produce coal or heavily use coal power, or whose economies have grown relatively robustly since 2005 — they have almost no upside in fighting global warming. That’s because the U.S. is only part of the global carbon-emissions picture, and a diminishing one at that.
We account for roughly a sixth of global emissions, and our emissions have fallen the past few years more than those of any other major country. In fact, we’ve already achieved about half of the administration’s 30 percent goal, in part through the boom in natural gas, which produces half the carbon emissions of coal….
The regulatory fight against global warming runs up against this reality: Anything we do on our own short of returning to a subsistence economy is largely meaningless, while we can’t force other countries to kneecap their economies based on a fashionable cause with no immediate bearing on the well-being of their often desperately impoverished citizens.
In an attempt to square this circle, supporters of the new EPA rules say they are an exercise of American leadership that will encourage other countries to crimp their economies, especially the world’s biggest emitter, China.
How has the power of example worked so far? We are a liberal democracy. We allow a robustly free press. We don’t imprison dissenters. We don’t steal the industrial secrets of other countries and give them to companies owned by government insiders. In all these things, we provide a model for Beijing, and have done so for a long time. Yet the Chinese Politburo stubbornly pursues what it believes is in its best interest.
Why will China be shamed by our pointlessly self-flagellating new policy on power plants into adopting economically harmful regulations of its own based on speculative models showing a far-off threat of higher temperatures?
The best policy for the U.S. is not command-and-control regulation, as economics writer Jim Manzi points out, but maintaining an environment favorable to technological innovation. No one would have predicted the fracking revolution of the past few years that has both displaced coal and benefited the broader economy. But the self-declared adherents of “science” prefer the satisfaction of pointlessly self-defeating gestures.
Assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo surprises Professor Andrei Linde with evidence that supports cosmic inflation theory. The discovery, made by Kuo and his colleagues at the BICEP2 experiment, represents the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time. These waves have been described as the “first tremors of the Big Bang.”
In ancient times, the notion of a flat Earth was the scientific consensus, and it was only a minority who dared question this belief. We are among today’s scientists who are skeptical about the so-called consensus on climate change. Does that make us modern-day Flat Earthers, as Mr. Kerry suggests, or are we among those who defy the prevailing wisdom to declare that the world is round?
Most of us who are skeptical about the dangers of climate change actually embrace many of the facts that people like Bill Nye, the ubiquitous TV “science guy,” say we ignore. The two fundamental facts are that carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased due to the burning of fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas, trapping heat before it can escape into space.
What is not a known fact is by how much the Earth’s atmosphere will warm in response to this added carbon dioxide. The warming numbers most commonly advanced are created by climate computer models built almost entirely by scientists who believe in catastrophic global warming. The rate of warming forecast by these models depends on many assumptions and engineering to replicate a complex world in tractable terms, such as how water vapor and clouds will react to the direct heat added by carbon dioxide or the rate of heat uptake, or absorption, by the oceans.
We might forgive these modelers if their forecasts had not been so consistently and spectacularly wrong. From the beginning of climate modeling in the 1980s, these forecasts have, on average, always overstated the degree to which the Earth is warming compared with what we see in the real climate.
For instance, in 1994 we published an article in the journal Nature showing that the actual global temperature trend was “one-quarter of the magnitude of climate model results.” As the nearby graph shows, the disparity between the predicted temperature increases and real-world evidence has only grown in the past 20 years.
When the failure of its predictions become clear, the modeling industry always comes back with new models that soften their previous warming forecasts, claiming, for instance, that an unexpected increase in the human use of aerosols had skewed the results. After these changes, the models tended to agree better with the actual numbers that came in—but the forecasts for future temperatures have continued to be too warm.
The modelers insist that they are unlucky because natural temperature variability is masking the real warming. They might be right, but when a batter goes 0 for 10, he’s better off questioning his swing than blaming the umpire.
The dinosaurs, birds, and early mammals found in the fossil beds of northern China are famous—both for their exceptional preservation and for their incredible diversity. But no one knew how they died or why hundreds of creatures from different habitats were buried together on ancient lake floors.
Now researchers say they were likely killed by a series of volcanic eruptions more than 120 million years ago. The ash entombed and preserved them, much like the doomed victims of Pompeii.
After analyzing fossils and sediment, Baoyu Jiang of China’s Nanjing University and his team concluded that lethal, sudden pyroclastic volcanic eruptions marked by air blasts, hot gas, and ground-hogging clouds of fine ash likely smothered, charred, and then carried forward everything in their path to create these bone beds, according to the study published in Nature Communications.
The finding explains why so many creatures would come to be buried on lake floors, and how they remained well preserved enough to retain signs of soft tissue features, such as feathers, tens of millions of years later.
Throughout much of the 20th century, the academic community had little patience with alchemists and their vain efforts to transmute base metals into gold. Any contemporary scholar who even dared to write about alchemy, historian Herbert Butterfield warned, would “become tinctured with the kind of lunacy they set out to describe.”
But, in the 1980s, some revisionist scholars began arguing that alchemists actually made significant contributions to the development of science. Historians of science began deciphering alchemical texts—which wasn’t easy. The alchemists, obsessed with secrecy, deliberately described their experiments in metaphorical terms laden with obscure references to mythology and history. For instance, text that describes a “cold dragon” who “creeps in and out of the caves” was code for saltpeter (potassium nitrate)—a crystalline substance found on cave walls that tastes cool on the tongue.
This painstaking process of decoding allowed researchers, for the first time, to attempt ambitious alchemical experiments. Lawrence Principe, a chemist and science historian at Johns Hopkins University, cobbled together obscure texts and scraps of 17th-century laboratory notebooks to reconstruct a recipe to grow a “Philosophers’ Tree” from a seed of gold. Supposedly this tree was a precursor to the more celebrated and elusive Philosopher’s Stone, which would be able to transmute metals into gold. The use of gold to make more gold would have seemed entirely logical to alchemists, Principe explains, like using germs of wheat to grow an entire field of wheat.
Principe mixed specially prepared mercury and gold into a buttery lump at the bottom of a flask. Then he buried the sealed flask in a heated sand bath in his laboratory.
One morning, Principe came into the lab to discover to his “utter disbelief” that the flask was filled with “a glittering and fully formed tree” of gold. The mixture of metals had grown upward into a structure resembling coral or the branching canopy of a tree minus the leaves.
Changing the agricultural game is what Monsanto does. The company whose name is synonymous with Big Ag has revolutionized the way we grow food—for better or worse. Activists revile it for such mustache-twirling practices as suing farmers who regrow licensed seeds or filling the world with Roundup-resistant superweeds. Then there’s Monsanto’s reputation—scorned by some, celebrated by others—as the foremost purveyor of genetically modified commodity crops like corn and soybeans with DNA edited in from elsewhere, designed to have qualities nature didn’t quite think of.
So it’s not particularly surprising that the company is introducing novel strains of familiar food crops, invented at Monsanto and endowed by their creators with powers and abilities far beyond what you usually see in the produce section. The lettuce is sweeter and crunchier than romaine and has the stay-fresh quality of iceberg. The peppers come in miniature, single-serving sizes to reduce leftovers. The broccoli has three times the usual amount of glucoraphanin, a compound that helps boost antioxidant levels. Stark’s department, the global trade division, came up with all of them.
“Grocery stores are looking in the produce aisle for something that pops, that feels different,” Avery says. “And consumers are looking for the same thing.” If the team is right, they’ll know soon enough. Frescada lettuce, BellaFina peppers, and Beneforté broccoli—cheery brand names trademarked to an all-but-anonymous Monsanto subsidiary called Seminis—are rolling out at supermarkets across the US.
But here’s the twist: The lettuce, peppers, and broccoli—plus a melon and an onion, with a watermelon soon to follow—aren’t genetically modified at all. Monsanto created all these veggies using good old-fashioned crossbreeding, the same technology that farmers have been using to optimize crops for millennia. That doesn’t mean they are low tech, exactly. Stark’s division is drawing on Monsanto’s accumulated scientific know-how to create vegetables that have all the advantages of genetically modified organisms without any of the Frankenfoods ick factor….
[G]enetically modifying consumer crops proved to be inefficient and expensive. Stark estimates that adding a new gene takes roughly 10 years and $100 million to go from a product concept to regulatory approval. And inserting genes one at a time doesn’t necessarily produce the kinds of traits that rely on the interactions of several genes. Well before their veggie business went kaput, Monsanto knew it couldn’t just genetically modify its way to better produce; it had to breed great vegetables to begin with. As Stark phrases a company mantra: “The best gene in the world doesn’t fix dogshit germplasm.”
What does? Crossbreeding. Stark had an advantage here: In the process of learning how to engineer chemical and pest resistance into corn, researchers at Monsanto had learned to read and understand plant genomes—to tell the difference between the dogshit germplasm and the gold. And they had some nifty technology that allowed them to predict whether a given cross would yield the traits they wanted.
The key was a technique called genetic marking. It maps the parts of a genome that might be associated with a given trait, even if that trait arises from multiple genes working in concert. Researchers identify and cross plants with traits they like and then run millions of samples from the hybrid—just bits of leaf, really—through a machine that can read more than 200,000 samples per week and map all the genes in a particular region of the plant’s chromosomes.
They had more toys too. In 2006, Monsanto developed a machine called a seed chipper that quickly sorts and shaves off widely varying samples of soybean germplasm from seeds. The seed chipper lets researchers scan tiny genetic variations, just a single nucleotide, to figure out if they’ll result in plants with the traits they want—without having to take the time to let a seed grow into a plant. Monsanto computer models can actually predict inheritance patterns, meaning they can tell which desired traits will successfully be passed on. It’s breeding without breeding, plant sex in silico. In the real world, the odds of stacking 20 different characteristics into a single plant are one in 2 trillion. In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years.
And this all happens without any genetic engineering. Nobody inserts a single gene into a single genome.