Wednesday, January 05, 2022

China leads in fusion research

China's 'artificial sun' nuclear fusion reactor in Hefei has set a new world record after running at 126 million°F (70 million°C) for 1,056 seconds – more than 17 minutes.

This record, set on December 30, marks the longest running duration for an experimental advanced superconducting tokamak (EAST) fusion energy reactor, Xinhua News Agency reports.

EAST already set a previous record in May by running for 101 seconds at a higher temperature – 216 million°F (120 million°C).

Nuclear fusion power works by colliding heavy hydrogen atoms to form helium, releasing vast amounts of energy, mimicking the process that occurs naturally in the centre of stars like our sun.

Fusion joins two light elements (with a low atomic mass number), forming a heavier element. For fusion to occur, hydrogen atoms are placed under high heat and pressure until they fuse together.

Meanwhile, fission splits a heavy element (with a high atomic mass number) into fragments.

In both cases, energy is freed because the mass of the remaining nucleus is smaller than the mass of the reacting nuclei. The reason why opposite processes release energy can be understood by examining the binding energy per nucleon curve. Both fusion and fission reactions shift the size of the reactant nuclei towards higher bounded nuclei.

The breakthrough was announced on Friday by Gong Xianzu, a researcher at the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is in charge of the experiment conducted in Hefei, capital of east China's Anhui Province.

'We achieved a plasma temperature of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds in an experiment in the first half of 2021,' said Xianzu, as quoted by Xinhua.

'This time, steady-state plasma operation was sustained for 1,056 seconds at a temperature close to 70 million degrees Celsius, laying a solid scientific and experimental foundation toward the running of a fusion reactor.'

At its heart of EAST and other fusion reactors is the tokamak, a device initially conceptualised in the 1950s by Soviet physicists.

A tokamak uses a powerful magnetic field to confine the hydrogen isotopes into a spherical shape, similar to a cored apple, as they are heated by microwaves into a plasma to produce fusion.

Plasma – often referred to the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid and gas – is produced when the atoms in a gas become ionised.

Plasma is superheated matter so hot that the electrons are ripped away from the atoms, forming an ionised gas.

China says its reactor is designed to replicate the nuclear fusion process that occurs naturally in the Sun and stars to provide almost infinite clean energy.

Located in China's eastern Anhui province and completed late 2020, the reactor is often called an 'artificial sun' on account of the enormous heat and power it produces.

Fusion power plants are set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power-generation sector, which is one of the major sources of these emissions globally.

Fusion could eventually combat climate change by replacing energy sources that emit greenhouse gases, such as coal and gas.

Chinese scientists plan to use the nuclear fusion reactor in collaboration with scientists in France working on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

The Provence-based ITER project is expected to begin delivering power in 2035, and will become the world's biggest reactor once completed.

In the UK, Boris Johnson's government is also planning to build a nuclear fusion power station as part of its 'green industrial revolution'.

Last month, the government shortlisted five sites as the potential home for the nuclear fusion reactor – Ardeer in North Ayrshire, Goole in Yorkshire, Moorside in Cumbria, Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire and Severn Edge in Gloucestershire.

Meanwhile, the SPARC nuclear fusion reactor, a US project involving MIT, is currently in development in Devens, Massachusetts.

South Korea also has its own 'artificial sun', the Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR), which has run at 180million°F (100million°C) for 20 seconds.

Fusion is considered the Holy Grail of energy and is what powers our Sun, which burns at roughly 27 million°F (15 million°C).

But achieving fusion is both extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive, with the total cost of ITER estimated at $22.5 billion (£15.9 billion).

This is because causing hydrogen isotope atoms to collide and fuse together to produce helium – the same way as the Sun creates energy – produces an enormous amount of waste heat.

However, in May last year, scientists in Oxfordshire said they'd found a way of dealing with these exhaust gases, cooling them from an extraordinary 150 million°C to just a few hundred degrees, temperatures similar to that of a car engine.

They developed an exhaust system – called the Super-X Divertor – that traps the helium, using a magnetic field, and then diverts it on a longer path until it is cool enough not to damage the reactor's walls.


Tesla rolled out nearly a million vehicles in 2021

The world's richest man started the new year richer, with Tesla founder Elon Mask adding $32.6 billion to his net worth bringing his fortune to $304.2 billion.

Musk's windfall once again took his worth over the $300 billion mark that he briefly passed in November, becoming the first person to ever do so.

According to Forbes, the controversial social-media savvy billionaire - who is also the founder behind the commercial space enterprise SpaceX - remained at the top of the world's rich list going into the new year.

In second place and $103.6 billion behind Musk is Bernard Arnault, the CEO of French fashion empire LVMH. Amazon founder and former-CEO Jeff Bezos sits in third place, Forbes said.

Tesla's soaring stock price has again been credited for the South African's growing wealth.

On Sunday, the electric car producer announced it had delivered more than 936,000 cars in 2021, surpassing projections by analysts, but also announced that the company had recalled 475,000 of its cars built between 2014 and 2021.

Forbes said Tesla shares increased by more than 13 percent by market close, with the company's market capitalisation again topping the $1 trillion mark, after dropping below that level last month.

As CEO of Tesla, Musk - who was named Time Magazine's 2021 Person of the Year - owns about 15.6 percent of the company's stock.

He has continued to sell shares, finishing the year having unloaded 3 million shares on the open market in order to cover the tax bills on around 5.7 million stock options that he exercised at the same time.

Tesla shares have fallen from their record highs, reached two days prior to Musk's infamous Twitter poll, but are still on pace to end the year up 54 percent from January 1.

The company has this week come under fire after it announced that it has opened a showroom in Xinjiang.

The move has attracted criticism from U.S. rights and trade groups, making it the latest foreign firm caught up in tensions related to the far-western Chinese region.


A European revelation on climate

Could this winter’s energy crisis be shocking Europe into climate realism? Believe it or not, the European Union is set to include nuclear and natural gas on the list of industries eligible for “green” investments. Someone please pass the smelling salts to the Sierra Club.

At issue is the so-called taxonomy for classifying environmentally sustainable investments. This new list is intended to create a uniform definition of activities that qualify as green for corporate disclosures, climate-oriented investing, and carbon-related government spending. The Brussels green list represents the largest regulatory effort to date to pin down what “sustainable” means in relation to finance.

Wonder of wonders, nuclear and natural gas make the cut. The draft taxonomy released late on New Year’s Eve deems investment in nuclear power sustainable as long as the investment is made before 2045 and a plan is in place to dispose of the waste. The draft also includes natural-gas power plants built by 2030, subject to emissions limits and as long as they replace heavier-emitting plants.

The usual suspects are furious for the usual reasons. Berlin lobbied hard against including nuclear energy on the permitted list. That’s the same Germany where households and businesses pay some of Europe’s highest power prices while the government shuts down the country’s remaining nuclear plants, pursues expensive renewable boondoggles, and burns more coal. Some greens bristle at including any fossil fuel on the list.

The critics are partly right that politics is at play. France, which relies heavily on nuclear energy and where the nuclear industry is an important employer, lobbied Brussels to include that power source. Other European countries lobbied Brussels so they could continue investing in natural-gas power.

This is that rarest of cases in climate policy where the politics aligns with energy reality. If environmentalists mean what they say about the urgency of cutting CO2 emissions, nuclear is the only widely available power source that’s zero-emitting and more reliable than wind or solar. In a world far from ready to wean itself off fossil fuels, natural gas stands out as much lower emitting than others. The growth in natural gas to account for about one-third of United States electricity generation in 2019 helps explain the roughly 14% decline in gross CO2 emissions since the mid-2000s.

In a smarter world, the market would have been allowed to figure this out. The new EU taxonomy still represents a destructive form of winner-picking industrial policy and has flaws. A big one is the arbitrary time limit on investments in nuclear and gas plants.

But at least Europe is correcting some of the errors of its last generation of green industrial policy. Ending the regulatory bias against natural gas in particular will balance the scales after subsidies and mandates for renewables made natural gas uneconomical and steered investment toward cheaper but dirtier coal.

All of this has implications for the U.S., where the Biden Administration is still fantasising that solar and wind power can soon replace all fossil fuels. If Europe can admit the truth, how about the White House?


Chile prepares to shoot itself in the foot

This could make electric cars more expensive

Chile has lots of lithium, which is essential to the world’s transition to green energy. But anger over powerful mining interests, a water crisis and inequality has driven Chile to rethink how it defines itself.

Rarely does a country get a chance to lay out its ideals as a nation and write a new constitution for itself. Almost never does the climate and ecological crisis play a central role.

That is, until now, in Chile, where a national reinvention is underway. After months of protests over social and environmental grievances, 155 Chileans have been elected to write a new constitution amid what they have declared a “climate and ecological emergency.”

Their work will not only shape how this country of 19 million is governed. It will also determine the future of a soft, lustrous metal, lithium, lurking in the salt waters beneath this vast ethereal desert beside the Andes Mountains.

Lithium is an essential component of batteries. And as the global economy seeks alternatives to fossil fuels to slow down climate change, lithium demand — and prices — are soaring.

Mining companies in Chile, the world’s second-largest lithium producer after Australia, are keen to increase production, as are politicians who see mining as crucial to national prosperity. They face mounting opposition, though, from Chileans who argue that the country’s very economic model, based on extraction of natural resources, has exacted too high an environmental cost and failed to spread the benefits to all citizens, including its Indigenous people.

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And so, it falls to the Constitutional Convention to decide what kind of country Chile wants to be. Convention members will decide many things, including: How should mining be regulated, and what voice should local communities have over mining? Should Chile retain a presidential system? Should nature have rights? How about future generations?

Around the world, nations face similar dilemmas — in the forests of central Africa, in Native American territories in the United States — as they try to tackle the climate crisis without repeating past mistakes. For Chile, the issue now stands to shape the national charter. “We have to assume that human activity causes damage, so how much damage do we want to cause?” said Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a microbiologist who studies the salt flats and is in the Constitutional Convention. “What is enough damage to live well?”

Then there’s water. Amid a crippling drought supercharged by climate change, the Convention will decide who owns Chile’s water. It will also weigh something more basic: What exactly is water?

Chile’s current constitution was written in 1980, by people handpicked by its then military ruler, Augusto Pinochet. It opened the country to mining investments and allowed water rights to be bought and sold.

Chile prospered by exploiting its natural riches: copper and coal, salmon and avocados. But even as it became one of Latin America’s richest nations, frustrations mounted over inequality. Mineral-rich areas became known as “sacrifice zones” of environmental degradation. Rivers began drying up.

Anger boiled over into huge protests starting in 2019. A national referendum followed, electing a diverse panel to rewrite the constitution.

On Dec. 19 came another turning point. Voters elected Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student activist, as president. He had campaigned to expand the social safety net, increase mining royalties and taxes, and create a national lithium company.

The morning after his victory, the stock price of the country’s biggest lithium producer, Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile, or SQM, fell 15 percent.

One fifth of the world’s lithium is produced by SQM, most of it in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile in the shadow of ancient volcanoes, including the oldest and still-active one, Lascar. The Lickanantay, the area’s Indigenous people, call Lascar the father of all volcanoes.

From above, the mine looks as though someone has spread a glistening blue and green quilt in the middle of this pale desert.

The riches lie in the brine underground. Day and night, SQM pumps out the brine, along with freshwater from five wells. Pipes carry brine to a series of ponds.

Then, the sun goes to work.

The Atacama has the highest solar radiation levels on Earth. Water evaporates astonishingly fast, leaving mineral deposits behind. Magnesium comes out of the ponds. Also potassium. Lithium remains in a viscous yellow green pool, which SQM converts into powdery white lithium carbonate for battery makers abroad.

SQM was a state-owned maker of fertilizer chemicals until Mr. Pinochet turned it over to his then son-in-law, Julio Ponce Lerou, in 1983. More recently, it has been fined by Chile’s stock market regulator and by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Mr. Ponce, no longer chairman, retains 30 percent ownership.

Today, SQM is riding a lithium bull market. Carlos Díaz, its vice president for lithium, said the company is seeking to increase capacity from 140,000 tons of lithium carbonate to 180,000 tons by 2022. Mr. Díaz said the firm wants to “produce lithium as green as possible,” including by reducing saltwater extraction by half by 2030 and by becoming “carbon neutral” by 2040.

There is good reason. Nearby, a copper mine, called Escondida, was fined $93 million for extracting water and causing what a Chilean court called “irreparable damage.”

The mining industry is bracing for change. A law to increase royalties is working through the legislature. And the Constitutional Convention is weighing provisions that could require more local decision-making.

Joaquin Villarino, president of the Mining Council, the industry lobby, said both could diminish Chile’s appeal to investors. He voiced particular worry that some of the Convention members appeared to be against mining altogether, though he didn’t name any. “I hope this is not what we will have in our Constitution,” he said, “because Chile is a mining country.”




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