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Nuclear Holy Grail

Our last nuclear topic:

Fusion

How it works:

Nuclear plants use fission to produce energy. Basically, fission is splitting apart atoms. You break a bit of matter, which gets converted into energy through Einstein’s e = mc2 and presto! you have a bunch of energy.

Fusion, however, is when you combine atoms. You still get a bit of matter getting converted into energy, it just comes from a slightly different place.

Benefits:

Fusion is a proven energy source. Earth gets all of its energy from it; life wouldn’t be able to exist without fusion. Stars use fusion. In the Sun, gazillions (not a real number, but you get the point) of little hydrogen atoms are constantly smashed together into the twice as big helium atom. This nuclear fusion is what makes the sun produce light and heat. Earth captures a tiny bit of this streaming energy, and powers life.

Also, hydrogen atoms are the most common atom in the universe, not to mention on our planet. If we could harness fusion, we would have a virtually unlimited supply of energy. Including if we ever start going out into space.

Drawbacks:

If fusion is so hot (grin), why don’t we use it? Well, fusion doesn’t really work on Earth (at least not yet). What is the main difference between Earth and the Sun?

Temperature.

Fusion needs to get to a certain temperature to get going. Once it hits this temperature, fusion can keep going indefinitely as long as it is supplied with hydrogen atoms. The problem is, this temperature is several million degrees (using any temperature scale). At that temperature, the hydrogen atoms are no longer a gas–they are in the fourth state of matter, plasma. It is rather difficult to contain plasma at several million degrees–most containers melt at such temperatures.

Additionally, an enormous amount of energy is needed to heat anything to several million degrees. The reactor is useless if you produce less energy than it takes to start it up, so a fusion reactor would need to have enormous reactions to produce more energy than it uses. The reactor would basically have atomic bombs blowing up constantly inside of it. How many containers can control an atomic bomb? How about an atomic bomb every second constantly for 50 years? You can see the problems with controlling a fusion reactor. Either you have small reactions that cost more to start up than they produce, or else you have large reactions that blow up your power plant.

It seems the useful versions of nuclear energy are all impossible to use. Nuclear energy has such enormous potential, but so little research. But it doesn’t hurt to hope. If international relations could be smoothed out, and money actually spent towards research, perhaps one day nuclear energy will fix our energy crisis once and for all (or at least a few thousand years).

This wraps up nuclear energy (for now). Tomorrow I’ll talk about something else. Maybe wind energy. I heard Germany is having some problems, and it triggered a memory of something interesting I read a year ago.

Nik

FYI: You may have heard of the term “cold fusion”. This refers to nuclear fusion that occurs at room temperature, as opposed to the millions of degrees in normal fusion. Cold fusion would solve the energy crisis instantly, with abundant energy with nearly no start up cost, except for the fact that cold fusion is generally regarded as a pathological science: a science that is fake but wishful thinking among a few people keeps it alive. Cold fusion has no substantial evidence supporting it.

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Nuclear Energy Recycling

Coming soon to power plants near you.

As long as your definition of soon extends a few decades or centuries.

Yesterday I talked about how today’s version of nuclear energy is a sorry replacement for coal. It’s the devil you don’t know.

But nuclear energy is not fully understood yet. There are other forms of nuclear energy that we don’t use for some reason or another. If we can work out the kinks, these alternate forms of nuclear energy could be the long sought after quick fix to the growing global energy crisis. Here is one example:

  • Radioactive recycling:

How it works:

Nuclear waste contains large amounts of uranium, which is what is used to produce energy in nuclear plants. The problem is that the uranium is slightly different from the standard stuff. Several processes are needed to convert this uranium to usable uranium or plutonium.

Benefits:

Just like how recycling bottles and paper can multiply certain material supplies by tenfold, recycling (aka reprocessing) radioactive waste can vastly increase our nuclear material supply. In fact, recycling processes already worked out could increase our nuclear material supply by 100. That means our 200 year supply of nuclear material could be increased to 20,000 years or more. If we converted all of our coal and gas plants to nuclear energy, our supplies could last 2000 years (possibly up to 6000). Not to mention further discoveries in radioactive recycling.

Additionally, the waste produced at the end of several reprocessing cycles is much less dangerous than conventional nuclear plant waste. Conventional nuclear waste decays over years measured in the millions. Reprocessed waste can decay to harmless matter in a few centuries. This saves a lot of money, and you don’t have to worry about accidentally digging up radioactive waste a few hundred thousand years from now.

Drawbacks:

The main problem with building a nuclear plant with recycling capabilities is that it is EXPENSIVE. A recycling nuclear plant could cost upwards of $50 billion, compared with a conventional nuclear plant at $15 billion.

Politics is also holding nuclear recycling back. If nuclear recycling processes are developed and improved, more countries could have access to nuclear weapon grade material. Because of this, the U.S. is strongly against researching nuclear recycling. We have nukes and we don’t want other people to get them.

Nuclear recycling is a defined, researched way to vastly increase nuclear energy supplies. If only international relations could be improved, then perhaps developed countries will invest in this technology. I personally think this is our most promising solution to the global energy crisis.

Tomorrow I’ll take a look at our last nuclear topic: fusion.

Nik

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Why Nuclear Energy = Coal

If I asked you to name alternate energy sources, you’d probably name nuclear energy (along with wind, sun, and water). Many countries are heavily investing in nuclear energy as an alternate energy source. It seems great–you can make tons and tons of energy from just a few molecules. But there are a few problems.

Nuclear meltdowns occur, as I’m sure you know, when something in a nuclear reactor goes wrong, BIG things happen. Chernobyl is the most famous instance, but Japan’s recent Fukushima disaster might be more famous now. Sorry Chernobyl. The U.S. had a few meltdowns too, most notably Three Mile Island. This partial meltdown occured in 1979, and 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste were released into the Susquehanna River. While a lengthy investigation reported no impact on the nearby population, I spoke with someone who thought differently. An Advanced Placement Chemistry teacher at a well-ranked high school remembers,

“I still hold a grudge against the nuclear industry. They didn’t inform people that they had released radioactive iodine gas. They were scared. When people are scared they are reluctant to say anything until they are forced to. Fear makes people silent. My mother died of thyroid cancer, which she got soon after that melt down. They reported no significant impact. Tell that to my mother.”

The source wanted to remain anonymous.

Fortunately, though, regulations and emergency procedures have been improved since then. A nuclear reactor meltdown is extremely unlikely in the U.S. today. So why isn’t everyone using nuclear energy?

Well,  a nuclear plant is relatively cheap to construct. While it costs considerably more than an equivalent coal plant, it is still affordable, considering how much electricity a nuclear plant can produce.

The expensive part is taking it down. Nuclear plants only last about 40 years. Newer ones can last up to 60. Decommissioning a nuclear plant costs, on average, $325 million. That is a really expensive trash can.

But the biggest reason people aren’t investing too much in nuclear energy is simpler than that. Let’s take a look at coal. At current rates, global coal supplies will last at most 200 years. Oil and natural gas, probably less (though fracking may give us more). Nuclear energy? Also only 200 years. And that is at current rates. Nuclear energy supplies about 14% of the worlds electricity right now. Coal, in comparison, supplies 42% of the worlds electricity. Nuclear energy is non-renewable, and the supplies of uranium are extremely limited. If we don’t increase our nuclear energy demand, it will still run out when coal will. So clearly our current nuclear energy is not the solution to the global energy crisis.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at alternate nuclear energies. Maybe there is a way nuclear energy can solve our crisis.

Nik

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Teaching Our Future Doctors False Science

When DNA was discovered in 1953, its discoverers called it the “secret of life”. DNA instructs each cell in our bodies what to do and when to do it. DNA is the recipe to every living organism on planet Earth. Delving into DNA has revealed an enormous amount of information on humans and how we work.

Any young aspiring doctor spends months, possibly years learning about DNA and everything it does. DNA is covered in nearly any class relating to living things: biology, organic chemistry, neuroscience–classes that an aspiring doctor takes. Many of America’s best aspiring doctors are going above and beyond (as we would hope they would) and taking Advanced Placement level classes. These classes have nation-wide standards, and at the end of the course, the students take a nationally administered Advanced Placement test. Nearly 175,000 students took the AP Biology exam in 2010. Based on the past couple of years, I’d hazard a guess that about 200,000 hardworking students will take the AP Biology exam at the end of this year.

For the last four decades, scientists have thought a vast majority of DNA was junk–95% or more. This DNA has no function. When the DNA is “read” and used as instructions, this junk DNA gets edited out and only the 5% or less actually is used. That was how it worked.

Until this month. Over 400 scientists working on the ENCODE project for the last five years have discovered that over 80% of DNA has a specific biological function. At least 4 million “switches” that are vital to cell function are encoded throughout much of which was previously considered “junk” DNA. This amazing discovery will have far reaching impacts throughout scientific research, and of course, how DNA is being taught in our schools.

Unfortunately, the AP Biology test has already been finalized for this year. Even thought this huge discovery is coming out at the very beginning of the school year, 200,000 students will be forced to learn outdated, false information.

If this discovery had been published a few months before the exam, I would understand not changing the exam. The students would have learned about junk DNA already anyway.

But 7 months in advance? Surely in 7 months they can change a few questions on the exam and tell teachers that DNA isn’t mostly junk anymore. In fact, most teachers have probably already heard of this. All they have to do is change the questions. They have 7 months. But 200,000 of our brightest students will study non-existent junk DNA this year.

I hope you young aspiring doctors are following this discovery. Just remember that science is always changing.

Nik

The ENCODE project was published in over 30 different papers. Four hundred scientists can’t fit all their data into just one paper. You can check it out at http://www.encodeproject.org/ENCODE/

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Guilt of Americans

On September 11, 2012, an angry mob stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed Chris Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans.

This is the story that everyone has heard. Muslims saw a video on YouTube. Killed ambassador.

Some people stopped there. The anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States is at an all time high: Islam clearly promotes violence since Muslims killed our Ambassador over a video!  It is just plain sad to see so many people forming an opinion—judging a whole population with such little information. I hope that you learned more on this issue.

First fact: Stevens was one of the most popular (maybe I’m stretching the word) American ambassadors that had been in Libya for a long time. He spent a lot of time in the Middle East and his experience was recognized and respected. This makes his death even more inexplicable. Out of all the Americans in Libya, he was relatively liked, or at least respected.

Second fact: The video that started all of the protests in the Muslim world is titled Innocence of Muslims. It depicts the prophet Mohammed as a womanizer and pedophile.

Innocence of Muslims is an abominable video that breaches all ethical standards and any belief of religious tolerance that we have in the U.S. Obviously, we have been quick to disassociate ourselves with the video. When news of the protests reached America, reporters rushed to locate and identify the producer of the video.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula produced Innocence of Muslims using funds and materials from Media for Christ, a group devoted to using technology, especially DVDs, to further Christianity. Again some people judged immediately, sending hate mail to Media for Christ over the video. Yet if you research a little more, you will find that Nakoula claimed he was making a video about Christian persecution. If you listen to Innocence of Muslims carefully, the dubbing is obvious and badly done. Nakoula produced video that never even mentioned Islam or Mohammed, then hastily dubbed it before posting it to YouTube. The actors and Media for Christ had nothing to do with the religious loathing portrayed in the video.

This still doesn’t answer our question: why did Muslims kill the American ambassador over a video?

There’s a simple answer. It wasn’t about the video.

Stevens didn’t die in a protest by Muslim civilians. He was killed in a planned attack by an extremist militia.

In fact, Stevens may have known he was likely to be attacked on 9/11. A few days after the attack, CNN found a notebook in which Stevens had written a few pages of notes. In it, Stevens worried about the lack of security and rise of militia in the months leading up to his death. This confirmed what a source claiming to know Stevens mind had said earlier.

The mob that attacked the consulate fired a rocket propelled grenade at the consulate before storming it. This extremist militia had already planned to attack on 9/11—it just used the protests as a cover. Now we know that this is extremist militia is called Ansar al-Sharia, a terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, that planned and carried out the murder of Stevens.

We have this information. So does the newly formed Libyan government and its people. If they truly believed in making a free and just Libya, released from oppression and dictatorship, they would take action against Ansar al-Sharia and groups like it.

They have. Over the weekend (September 23-24), the crowds in Tripoli gathered in protests against militias and stormed several militia bases. The government ordered non-governmental forces to leave the city, and backed up this order and the protests with their army. Ansar al-Sharia officially disbanded, and many militias have been expelled from Tripoli. The people have spoken, and they clearly didn’t support the violence on 9/11. Even against threats from other militias, the new Libyan government has stood by its people. This may mark the beginning of the downfall of militias in Libya. And who knows—if Libya can rid itself of terrorists and extremists once and for all, then it could set an example for other Middle Eastern countries as well. One martyr in Tunisia caused major protests in 12 countries and the downfall of four regimes. In no way do I think Stevens death was a good event, but his martyrdom may bring about even greater change for the better.

Most Americans are guilty of passing judgment before knowing all of the facts—I know I did. We make decisions or form opinions with incomplete knowledge of the situation. Too often what we take to be cold hard facts is really propaganda or just partial truths. As a constantly-connected-to-the-Internet society, we have amazing access to information—I hope America uses it.

What do you think of the situation in Libya? Should people form opinions without the “full story”? Do we ever know if we have the “full story”?

My sincerest condolences go out to the Stevens family, his friends, and coworkers.

Nik

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