Posts by: Michael Banks

The future of energy in Gothenburg

By Michael Banks

Nobel laureates Steven Chu (left) and David Gross talk energy in Gothenburg.

Nobel laureates Steven Chu (left) and David Gross talk energy in Gothenburg. (Courtesy: A Mahmoud)

Yesterday I joined more than 1000 people attending the day-long Nobel Week Dialogue event in Gothenburg, Sweden. The delegates battled the cold winter weather to make it to the Swedish Exhibition and Congress Centre, just south-east of the city centre (and next to a theme park, of all things).

This is the second such Nobel Week Dialogue and the first time it has been held in Gothenburg. Last year the theme for the event in Stockholm was the “genetic revolution” and this year it was on “exploring the future of energy”.

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A factor of two

By Michael Banks

“A factor of two is not a small thing, it is quite a challenge,” says Robert McCory from the University of Rochester in New York.

McCory was speaking about the latest in laser-based fusion research (known as inertial confinement fusion) at the 2013 AAAS conference.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF), which began full operation in 2009, is based at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US and is currently the world’s leading laser-based fusion device.

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A trip to MIT

By Michael Banks

It may have been the prospect of free pizza that led me to hop on a bus heading to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

But apart from a free lunch, we were also promised a tour of MIT’s fusion facilities, which are based at institute’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).

So after a few slices of pepperoni pizza, we donned the hard hats and moved on to the tour, which included a look at MIT’s main experimental fusion facility – the Alcator C-Mod fusion tokamak.

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The climate science rap

By Michael Banks, Physics World

Well it had to come didn’t it? There have been quite a few science raps over the last few years touching on nuclear physics, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble and even the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN particle-physics lab, so it seems about right there is now one about climate change.

The rap video for I’m a climate scientist was produced by the Australian current affairs television programme Hungry Beast.

Featuring lines such as “climate change is caused by people, Earth unlike Alien has no sequel”, the video features a raft of climate scientists doing their best Beastie Boys.

I will let you decide whether using rap as a means of communicating climate science is a worthwhile endeavour.

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Global challenges for science

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Chris Llewellyn Smith speaking to delegates.

By Michael Banks, Physics World,  in Washington, DC

The 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC had a slight winding-down feel to it today as the placards were being removed and the exhibitors packed their stalls.

But there was still a morning of talks to be had. So I headed to a session entitled “Can global science solve global challenges?” where Chris Llewellyn Smith spoke about past and future global science projects. He is an ideal speaker for the topic, given that he has been director-general of the CERN particle-physics lab and also served as chairman of the ITER council – the experimental fusion facility currently being constructed in Cadarache, France.

Llewellyn Smith went through some of the successes of global collaboration and consensus such as the eradication of smallpox in 1979 and the banning of CFCs in 1987, which successfully reduced the ozone hole.

The particle physicist also named a few examples of global collaborations that he felt had failed. This included scientists who were warning that a tsunami could occur in the Indian Ocean. The tsunami happened in 2004 killing 230,000 people and Llewellyn Smith says that lives could have been saved if warnings from scientists around the world had been heeded. He also adds communicating climate change as a challenging area that was damaged by scientists “not keeping objectivity and turning to advocacy”;.

Llewellyn Smith now calls for a global endeavour to be set up for the application of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to coal power stations that would include working out if the technique is at all possible and, if so, then the best way to store carbon dioxide underground. “CCS is going to be crucial if we don’t stop burning coal,” he says.

Indeed, Llewellyn Smith is involved with a Royal Society report into global science, which will be released on 29 March. He didn’t want to give the report’s conclusions away but says the report will concern “where science is happening and who is working with who”. There will be no specific recommendations made in the report but “we hope that it will start a debate” he says.

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Carbon concerns

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How much carbon is coming out?

By Michael Banks, Physics World, in Washington, DC

“Carbon is the most important element, but we are deeply ignorant of its effect on the Earth,” says Robert Hazen from the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Hazen is the principal investigator of the deep carbon observatory – a 10-year programme funded by the Alfred Sloan Foundation to better understand the Earth’s carbon cycle.

It’s a wide-ranging study and speaking at the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC, Hazen spelled out the many questions that remain unanswered about carbon. These include how much of the element is stored in the Earth, especially in the core, and how much of the material is released when a volcano erupts.

In the case of a volcanic eruption, Hazen says some scientists conclude carbon makes up around 2% of the material ejected, while others say it is more like 75% – a big discrepancy that the programme will hope to reduce.

The programme only started in 2009 so Hazen is issuing a call to arms for scientists of different backgrounds to come together and join the project.

You will have to be quick as proposals for research activities must be submitted by 11 March.

Read more about the programme here.

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