Monday, 18 August 2008

Nuclear Ambitions: Amateur Scientists Get a Reaction From Fusion

Homemade 'Fusors' Glow, But Don't Produce Power; Joining the 'Neutron Club'
By SAM SCHECHNERAugust 18, 2008;

PITTSBURGH -- In the garage of his house, Frank Sanns spends nights tinkering with one of his prized possessions: a working nuclear-fusion reactor.
Mr. Sanns, 51 years old, is part of a small subculture of gearheads, amateur physicists and science-fiction fans who are trying to build fusion reactors in their basements, backyards and home laboratories. Mr. Sanns, who owns a banquet hall here, believes he's on track to make fusion a viable power source.
"I'm a dreamer," he says.
In Richmond, Va., Richard and Kit Hull share a house with three cats, eight cars and a lab featuring a working nuclear fusion reactor. WSJ's Sam Schechner reports.
Many of these hobbyists call themselves "fusioneers," and have formed a loosely knit community that numbers more than 100 world-wide. Getting into their elite "Neutron Club" requires building a tabletop reactor that successfully fuses hydrogen isotopes and glows like a miniature star. Only 42 have qualified; some have T-shirts that read "Fusion -- been there...done that."
Called fusors and based on a 1960s design first developed by Philo T. Farnsworth, an inventor of television, the reactors are typically small steel spheres with wires and tubes sticking out and a glass window for looking inside. But they won't be powering homes anytime soon -- for now, fusors use far more energy than they produce.
Fusion, which releases energy by forcing two atoms close enough together that they join to become a heavier atom, is the process that powers the sun and stars. Replicating that on Earth requires enormous amounts of energy. For decades, scientists have been experimenting with various methods to fuse atoms, including using magnetic fields and lasers. Even a nearly $15 billion multinational project to build a fusion reactor in southern France is only intended to show that fusion power is technically feasible, not to actually tap it.
But the allure is strong. A fusion power plant would likely be fueled by deuterium and tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen that are in plentiful supply. Fusion advocates say reactors would be relatively clean, generating virtually no air pollution and little long-lived radioactive waste. Today's nuclear power plants, in contrast, are fission-based, meaning they split atoms and create a highly radioactive waste that can take millennia to decompose.
While some amateurs, like Mr. Sanns, think fusion power holds promise, others are less hopeful. "Basically, it's almost like, over the gates of hell, 'Abandon hope all ye who enter,'" says Richard Hull, who built his first working fusor nearly a decade ago.
Mr. Hull, a 62-year-old electronics engineer in Richmond, Va., where he lives with his wife, Kit, and three cats, has been obsessed with radioactivity since he was a boy. He has collected more than a dozen Geiger counters, built his own gamma-ray spectrometer, and accumulated hundreds of books, including many from the dawn of the Nuclear Age and mid-20th century, when he remembers ordering radioactive isotopes by mail.
He has uranium rods, old clocks with radium faces and samples of rock from the test site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. His bathroom is stocked with back issues of the hobbyist periodical Nuts and Volts. Every year, he hosts an amateur-science gathering that attracts dozens of hobbyists from across the country. "Most of these people like things that go bang, pop, sput, fizz," says Mr. Hull.
Electrocution Jitters
Mr. Hull started on his fusion path in late 1997, when science-fiction author and electrical-engineering technologist Tom Ligon visited Mr. Hull's home for the amateur-science event. Mr. Ligon brought with him a model of a fusor that he called "Dog and Pony Show I." Only a demo, the device didn't actually fuse atoms, but it did light up like a neon light in a plastic chamber -- and Mr. Hull was hooked. He built his own fusor in "literally 31 days," he says, and is now preparing to build his fifth.
Mr. Hull began posting about his reactor on a Web site dedicated to Mr. Farnsworth. Others joined him, asking questions, trading ideas, and eventually uploading photographs of their own reactors.
On the group's site, now at, Mr. Hull maintains a list of fusioneers, including Jon Rosenstiel, a 65-year-old retired mechanical engineer for motocross-racing teams, and Carl Willis, a 27-year-old doctoral student at Ohio State University, who keeps his fusor just a few feet from his bed.
Though fusors don't produce any significant amount of radioactive waste, fusioneers say there is a danger of electrocution. The reactors use extremely high voltage -- often more than 10,000 volts of electricity running through a hollow wire sphere -- to pull ions of deuterium toward the center of the device, where some of them collide and fuse into new atoms. They require special equipment to deliver that voltage, but because fusors run at a very low amperage, amateur devices can draw less power from the wall than a big plasma TV. The process does produce x-rays and, when fusion actually occurs, neutrons -- both of which are dangerous at sufficient dosages.
"People have to be very careful," says Gerald L. Kulcinski, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and director of the Fusion Technology Institute there. "I think it's great that we've got the enthusiasm of a lot of people. It's impressive. But I don't want anyone to get hurt."
There's another downside to building fusors, says Mr. Hull: "Many people have a knee-jerk reaction that if you've got anything nuclear, you're a possible terrorist."
A couple of years ago, when a Detroit-area high-school student named Thiago Olson built a fusor, the Michigan Department of Community Health contacted him to examine it. "I was a little worried," says Mr. Olson, now 19. The department determined that Mr. Olson's fusor wasn't a "registerable radiation machine" and posed no hazard, according to a spokeswoman.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates commercial x-ray emitters, says it doesn't regulate hobbyists, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it doesn't regulate domestic uses of deuterium. State rules vary.
Richard Hull
In his home lab, Richard Hull sits in front of his current fusor, the fourth he's built since 1997. He's already gathering parts for his fifth.
In Virginia, for example, the state Department of Health registers radiation-emitting imaging devices for commercial use, but a spokeswoman says it doesn't require registration of equipment for personal use. In Pennsylvania, any device that could potentially emit x-rays or other radiation must be registered, according to a spokesman for the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
Mr. Sanns says his fusor isn't registered, but he studiously monitors radiation emissions and doesn't run it at high enough levels to generate x-rays that can penetrate its steel shell. "I take x-rays very, very seriously," he says. "I'm not going to die because of stupid judgment."
Sparks of Innovation
On Mr. Hull's block, his next-door neighbor Robert Bauer is one of the few people who know the extent of what Mr. Hull does in his lab. In the early 1990s, Mr. Bauer and his wife noticed bright sparks coming off the Hulls' house and warned them -- only to learn the sparks were a side-effect of Mr. Hull's experimentation with Tesla coils, high-voltage devices developed by the inventor Nikola Tesla.
"I'm expecting there'll be a great big smoldering hole there one day," jokes Mr. Bauer, an electrician and motorcycle enthusiast with a thick beard, gesturing at the Hull's home with a laugh. Mrs. Hull, who ventures into her husband's lab from time to time, but prefers to spend her free time solving puzzle books, is similarly sanguine. "As long as he doesn't blow the place up, I'm OK," she says.
Robert L. Hirsch, 73, who helped develop the fusor's basic design with Mr. Farnsworth in the 1960s, before directing fusion research at what was then called the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in the early 1970s, says he's surprised and delighted that amateurs have picked up his old device.
"You can never tell where the sparks of innovation are going to come," says Mr. Hirsch.

Europe's pine may be wiped out, say experts

Barry Hatton, Associated Press
The Guardian,
Monday August 18 2008

Europe's pine forests are at risk from a killer bug that has already caused ecological catastrophes in east Asia, experts believe. Tens of thousands of trees have already died in Portugal and officials fear that pine wilt disease, which has become out of control in the south-west corner of the continent, could spread further.
Two species of pine are susceptible: maritime pine, which makes up almost a quarter of Portugal's forests, and Scots pine, the most widespread pine species in Europe, often used for Christmas trees.
The European commission has already imposed tight restrictions on the export of Portuguese pine, which must be disinfected and given a clean bill of health before leaving the country. But Roddie Burgess, the head of the Plant Health Service for the British government's Forestry Commission, who has been studying the disease for more than 20 years, fears the bug's spread across Portugal. "Given the scale of the problem ... it's going to be very difficult to get on top of this," he said.
The nematode bug swarms through a pine tree's innards and kills it within weeks by choking off the flow of sap. It is carried in the respiratory system of a flying beetle and was first detected in the Setúbal region, south of Lisbon, in 1999, when 340,000 trees died in two years. Experts think the beetle arrived in wooden crates at a nearby port.
The disease wiped out Japan's vast pine forests in the 1970s.

Return of the native oak helps birds to survive climate change

Lewis Smith, Environment Reporter

Garden birds are being protected from the effects of climate change by an alien tree, researchers have found.
Turkey oaks were introduced to Britain in the 18th century and have spread across the country, but unlike many invasive species they are thought to be benefiting the native wildlife. Researchers now believe that the species of oak, Quercus cerris, fits perfectly into the native ecosystem because it was a native tree until driven out by an ice age 120,000 years ago.
The tree has been identified as a boon to garden birds because gallwasps lay eggs on its buds early in the spring, and these provide an invaluable feast for species such as blue tits and great tits as they raise their young.
Galls form around the eggs because chemicals on them trick the trees into protecting them, but, being about the size of sesame seeds, they are easily picked off by the birds.

Tits and other types of bird have been driven to lay eggs earlier in spring because of warmer conditions brought on by climate change. Without the gallwasp eggs, few of the young would survive, because the caterpillars that the birds would usually depend on have yet to emerge.
Graham Stone, of the University of Edinburgh, believes that the tits are reverting to behaviour and a food source that was available to their ancestors more than 120,000 years ago. “British birds will flock to trees with lots of galls on and harvest them because they are hungry,” Dr Stone said after carrying out research with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. “It’s quite probable that blue tits and great tits are quite used to feeding on it because they have been around for a long time. They were certainly here 150,000 years ago.
“As the Turkey oak reasserts itself in its ancient home, it is helping to alleviate some of the effects of the very modern problem of climate change.”
A study of gall fossils conducted by Dr Stone with researchers at the Netherlands National Herbarium showed Turkey oaks to be present in northern Europe 120,000 years ago. An ice age drove the trees south, and they became trapped behind the Alps, but they were brought back into northern Europe in the 18th century.
The trees reached Britain in 1735, when it was hoped that they would provide the Royal Navy with building materials, but the timber proved inferior to English oak. They became popular in gardens, however. “Everyone who was trendy was having one put in. It quickly became naturalised,” Dr Stone said.
Some people were concerned that the spread of Turkey oaks would disrupt native oak woodland, but he was convinced the two species could complement each other.
Many types of gallwasp depend on the two oaks and at least 11 species have spread naturally to Britain.
Animals and plants could take a very long time to return to their native areas after being driven southwards by ice ages, Dr Stone said. So a proportion of the species reaching Britain to-day were doing so as part of a natural cycle, not man-made global warming.
Alien invaders
— The latest audit of nonnative species in England found 2,721 alien animals, fungi and plants, with a further 988 in Scotland
— The cost of the destruction by nonnative species is estimated at £2 billion each year
— Animals that have suffered because of the introduction of alien species include the red squirrel, muscled out by its grey cousin, and the water vole, which has declined because of the spread of American mink
— The cost of eradicating the plant Japanese knotweed nationwide is estimated at more than £1.5 billion
Source: GB Nonnative Species Programme Board/ Times Archive

Russia’s Arctic ambitions challenged

By Christopher Mason in Ottawa
Published: August 17 2008 18:27

Unexpected partnerships are forming among nations vying to extend their Arctic undersea territories as they join to counter Russia’s aggressive Arctic claims.
A United States coastguard icebreaker left port in Alaska last week to join a Canadian icebreaker to conduct a seismic survey of the Beaufort seabed north of the Yukon-Alaska border.

Both countries are gathering research to support their claim to Arctic territories that may hold vast natural resources and potential new shipping routes.
Canada and the US say a past land dispute over 12,000 sq km of seabed elsewhere in the Beaufort Sea is being put aside in the name of defending against Russia’s Arctic claims, which clash with those of the US, Canada, Denmark and Norway.
“The Russians know what they want the Arctic for, and under Putin and Medvedev they have been very aggressive,” said Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. “They are way ahead of everyone else.”
The issue of who owns the North Pole was a backburner issue while the region was encased in impenetrable ice.
But warmer temperatures suggest the region, which may hold up to one-quarter of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves, could soon be put into play as thinning ice makes it accessible.
Earlier this month, Canadian and Danish scientists jointly claimed the Lomonosov Ridge under the North Pole was connected to the North American and Greenland plates.
The two countries may disagree on where to divide the ridge among themselves, but they agree it is not an extension of the Russian continental shelf.
Countries are allowed to extend their control of the seabed beyond customary limits if they can demonstrate that it is part of their continental shelf.
Moscow first claimed the Lomonosov Ridge in 2001 and reasserted that last year when a Russian submarine planted a Russian flag in the seabed under the North Pole.
The US position on the Arctic is tricky because Congress has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which will ultimately govern the claims.
But US officials are moving forward in the hope that it is ratified before the UN deadline for territorial claims in 2013.
This month, Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary, toured the American coastguard’s operations in Alaska. In a radio interview before the tour, Thad Allen, coastguard commandant admiral, said increased interest in the Arctic might force the US to change tack.
“This will deal with more issues of sovereignty, security presence and things like that,” he said.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

RES to double workforce after landing Hungarian deal

From The Sunday Times
August 17, 2008
The renewables firm is linking with Budapest-based Thermo KFT
John Penman

A Stirling-based renewables company is to double its workforce after tying up an innovative collaboration agreement with a Hungarian-based design team
Renewable Energy Scotland — which designs, supplies and installs heating systems that convert low-level energy stored in the ground, air, and water into heating and hot water — is linking up with Budapest-based Thermo KFT to gain access to its team of designers.
RES, based in Stirling University’s Innovation Park, is close to completing a new round of investment funding. Thermo KFT already works with major European companies including Deutsche Telekom.
“They are one of the best in Europe, where these systems are much more common than in the UK,” said RES managing director Harry Burt.

The move will allow RES to sign larger commercial contracts. The company has so far mainly focused on installing systems for houses, although it is working on a hotel project in the east of Scotland.
Ground, air and water pumps are popular in Europe, especially in Scandinavia, because they can create three times the amount of energy it takes to run the machines and they have very little impact on the environment. They can also cut energy bills dramatically.

Irish energy group in carbon capture scheme

By Francesca Young
Last Updated: 11:07pm BST 17/08/2008

Providence Resources, the Irish oil and gas group headed by Tony O'Reilly, is launching a project that could lead to the first carbon capture scheme in the British Isles.
Mr O'Reilly, the son of the Irish media magnate Sir Tony O'Reilly, is working with Star Energy Group, a UK gas storage company owned by Petronas of Malaysia, on the Ulysses Project.

The scheme will evaluate the Kish Bank Basin in the Irish Sea to decide whether its underground saline reservoirs can be used for carbon sequestration and natural gas storage.
The viability study will take around one year and, if successful, will target use by two Dublin-based power plants called Poolbeg, together owned by Ireland's Electricity Supply Board. Neither of the Poolbeg plants currently captures carbon emissions.
The joint venture was recently given a three-year licensing option over seven blocks in the Kish Bank Basin by the Irish government's Department of Energy, Communications and Natural Resources.
Although that licence focuses on the oil and gas exploration potential of the basin, the project will examine whether the area can both reduce Ireland's carbon footprint and increase its natural gas storage capacity, a national objective for the Irish government.
The need for more natural gas storage has arisen because of an increase in energy consumption in Ireland. The potential storage site is around eight miles offshore from Dublin and one mile beneath the seabed.

Tourism industry to be challenged on green record

A NEW scheme is being launched to help transform the environmental record of hundreds of Scotland's tourism businesses.

Hotels, guest houses, restaurants and visitor attractions will be challenged by VisitScotland, the national tourism body, to change long-standing habits, adopt new energy-saving measures and promote eco-friendly initiatives.Guests will be urged to "go green" on holiday by ditching their cars, hiring a bike or going on a walking trip, and cutting down on the amount of water they use.Among the suggested measures to help businesses improve their environmental record are collecting rainwater for re-use, installing low-energy lighting systems, recycling all glass, cans and plastic, and installing water-efficient toilets. Businesses will be asked to sign up to a series of commitments over the next two years.Once businesses have signed up to the new "Going Green" initiative they will be coached throughout the year by experts at VisitScotland, with the aim of securing accreditation to the organisation's Green Tourism Business Scheme.

Ecuadorean president to meet with Chevron over environmental damage

Published: August 17, 2008

QUITO: President Rafael Correa of Ecuador says he plans to meet with officials and lawyers from Chevron on behalf of 30,000 jungle residents who are suing the U.S. oil giant for up to $16 billion over environmental damage.
Peasants and Indians are suing Chevron in an Ecuadorean court over charges its Texaco unit polluted the jungle and damaged their health by dumping 68 billion liters, or 18 billion gallons, of oil-laden water from 1972 to 1992.
"We will meet with the representatives of Chevron-Texaco who are asking for a meeting, but with our colleagues of the Amazon Defense Front present," Correa said during his weekly radio address on Saturday, referring to the plaintiffs' lawyers.
Chevron, which calls the case a "judicial farce" plagued by government interference, said on Friday it was open to reaching an amicable solution to resolve the suit after Ecuador said it was willing to mediate an out-of-court settlement.
The left-leaning Correa, who denies that the government has meddled in the case, said earlier this month that he had met with the plaintiffs' lawyers, who were worried that the government was already in talks with the company.

"Be confident that you have a patriotic and sovereign government that will never again bow to the interests of the big transnational" companies, said Correa, who did not give a date when a meeting with Chevron would take place.
Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, denies its operations affected the health of Amazon communities. The company has said it was released from liability because it paid $40 million for an environmental cleanup in the 1990s. Chevron blames the state oil company, Petroecuador, for much of the pollution.
"Our position hasn't changed; we are open to a meeting that could provide a solution," said Kent Robertson, a spokesman for Chevron in California.
"But if we sit down the government needs to discuss its unfulfilled contractual obligations," he said, referring to the liability release the company said was part of the earlier deal.
The plaintiffs' lawyers, who have not ruled out an out-of-court settlement, accuse Chevron of pressuring the Ecuadorean government to get involved in the case by asking Washington not to renew trade preference tariffs on the Andean country's products.
Steven Donziger, a U.S.-based lawyer advising the plaintiffs, said, "We are committed to a resolution that includes a comprehensive remediation of the environmental harm caused by Texaco, and for that to happen the Ecuadorean court needs to be allowed to finish the case."
Correa, who often scorns foreign oil companies and says they cheat his poor nation out of billions of dollars in revenue, has said Chevron has done irreversible damage to the Amazon.

MoD to require tally of environmental impact

David Robertson

It sounds faintly bonkers - indeed, industry executives have mocked it as pointless and absurd - but, under new rules being introduced by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), weapons manufacturers have been told to account for the environmental impact of making depleted uranium shells or the social consequences of assembling cruise missiles.
The Sustainable Procurement Charter, which has been sent to defence suppliers to the MoD and which all will have to sign, tells companies to minimise any adverse effects on society from their activities, which may be hard to establish for makers of nuclear submarines or weapons of mass destruction.
Sustainable procurement (SP) is a government-wide initiative to reduce the environmental and social effects of producing goods and services for the State. The charter says: “SP is a process whereby organisations meet their needs for goods, services ... and utilities in a way that achieves best value for money on a through life basis with minimal adverse impacts on the environment and society.”
There is also concern that the Government is adding further bureaucracy to MoD procurement. One industry executive said: “This is yet another example of civil servants living in a parallel universe. Everyone knows the MoD is broke and by its own admission is constipated with process, much of it pointless and counter-productive, so why has it launched another vacuous initiative that will consume resources?”

Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at BGC Partners, the brokerage firm, said: “These policies all sound nice but then it gets out of hand when the bureaucrats and academics get involved and the costs go up and up.”
The MoD said that it was introducing the charter as part of an effort to get suppliers to reduce energy use and carbon dioxide emissions and to limit their adverse effect on society.