Fusion and fission

Fusion and fission

As climate change becomes more and more of a reality, humanity must turn to alternative resources. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding nuclear power, especially after the Chernobyl series been released. It is crucial to understand, however, that not all nuclear energy source is the same, and we should consider this when determining whether it is a good alternative energy source, or not.

It won’t be a surprise if I say, that the very first working nuclear power plant was in Obninsk (Soviet Union back then). Its production of electricity did not last long. It was only grid-connected from 1954 to 1959. After that, it served as a research facility, until 2002 when it was finally shut down. But the most important factor in this is, that nuclear power started its journey at this point. But what is happening exactly in a nuclear power plant?

Nuclear fission

Conventional nuclear power plants produce energy today by nuclear fission. It is a truly amazing discovery, and the science behind it is mesmerising. In 1938 Lisa Meitner and Otto Frisch (both physicists) discovered that a Uranium nucleus can split in two, and also realised that the byproduct is energy. It didn’t just change the way we produce energy, but also lead to the atomic bomb later.

To better understand the process, we will need to touch the structure of an atom. But don’t worry, we won’t go into too much detail!

The atomic structure

As you can see, in the middle of an atom there is something called nucleus. The nucleus is made up of neutrons (no charge), and protons (positive charge). Around the nucleus electrons (negative charge) are “orbiting”. In nuclear fission, the nucleus is hit by neutrons, and the impact causes the nucleus to split in two. Two new atoms are formed in the process. Sometimes when the nucleus splits, additional neutrons are released in the fission. This will then cause a chain reaction by providing more neutrons that can hit the new atoms. Nuclear power plants today use Uranium atoms to produce energy. But why was this such an amazing discovery?

Nuclear fission isn’t just producing energy, it is producing a tremendous amount of energy! The energy produced by 1kg of Uranium equals to the energy produced by over 10000 litres of oil, or almost 20000 kg of coal. In the nucleus protons and neutrons are held together by a force called ‘strong interaction/nuclear force`. That is why they stay together. The neutron hitting the nucleus breaks this interaction or force, and all the energy that was used to keep the nucleus together is now released.

Nuclear fusion

In nuclear fusion, the exact opposite happens. While fission requires the atom nucleus to be split in two, during fusion they combine the nucleus. This, however, only work with small atoms, such as Hydrogen isotopes. The problem is, that due to the same charge in their nucleus protons repel each other. That is what we call the Coulomb force.

Fusion is something that we see very often, but having difficulty so far to recreate. How is that? The fusion of Hydrogen atoms creates helium. This is the energy source, that powers the Sun. Fusion reactors today use Hydrogen isotopes (such as tritium or deuterium), as these atoms require less temperature to fuse than the Hydrogen isotope itself. Only 1 g of these isotopes can produce as much energy as over 10000 kg of coal.

However the problem with fusion is, and the reason why we still cannot grid-connect a fusion plant is a temperature issue. To break the above-mentioned force, that makes protons repel each other in Hydrogen atoms, an enormous amount of temperature is required (as previously said, the Sun gains its energy from fusion as well). How can we recreate the environment the Sun provides for fusion, and how could we possibly build anything that withstands that heat? Fusion has been on the horizon for a very long time, but I believe that one day we will harness this power.

The not so beneficial side of nuclear power

As an environmentalist nuclear power is rather concerning. Although there are various methods to manage the radioactive waste produced by the power plants, none of them is totally risk-free. There is a very interesting statement on the Stanford University website. It says: ” 1 tonne of fresh fuel rod waste from a nuclear reactor would give you a fatal dose of radiation in 10 seconds if placed 3 meters away.”. This is rather alarming. Although the fission process itself does not emit carbon dioxide, the mining of uranium surely does!

Another important factor to consider the existence and evolution of nuclear weapons. In 1945, more than 75000 people died in Nagasaki as a result of a nuclear explosion. A few days earlier more than 130000 in Hiroshima for the same reason. This was exactly 74 years ago. The soviets then tested the Tsar bomb, in 1961. This was over 3000 times more powerful then the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Today we have even more powerful weapons, and the number of them grew dramatically.

The destruction that nuclear power can cause and environmental concerns due to uranium mining and radioactive waste makes this alternative source rather controversial. What do you think?

Read more in the Endangered Species series:

Or read about the Keeling Curve:

Hiral’s story

Hiral’s story

When you’re as passionate about nature and wildlife as I am, people can’t help but ask where that passion stems from. Truth be told, I can’t really pinpoint exactly where it came from but I’m pretty sure growing up in Zimbabwe and being exposed to nature so freely, probably had something to do with it. My early migrations from Zimbabwe to India and then to South Africa also made me more receptive to what the world could offer. From a really young age, I was very curious and adventurous and that led me to be completely fascinated with the sciences. I was fortunate enough to have a family that encouraged that curiosity which ultimately allowed me to pursue a science degree.

From astronomy to climatology and geology to evolution, I remember wanting to learn about it all. Eventually, in university, I decided I wanted to stick with geography and ecology as my two majors. Fast forward seven years and I graduated with a Master of Science with a distinction and my research focused on evolutionary ecology in snakes. One of my proudest moments in life. As an Indian female working in herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) in the developing world, comes with a certain amount of challenges. First off, there aren’t many women in herpetology and rarely any Indian females in this field outside of India, that we know of! However, when you are as passionate and determined as I am and willing to go after what you want, the world presents you with many opportunities.

After I finished my masters two years ago I decided not to jump into a PhD straight away and that was one of the best decisions I made. In the past two years, I’ve exposed myself to other means of learning both online through videos and media and offline through networking events. I have learnt about the collaboration of science, technology and arts which has opened my mind up to ideas that I might not have been able to harness before. I now look at combining artificial intelligence in wildlife research, using technology and art for conservation communication and combining all STEM subjects to fit my niche. In my spare time, I am invested in learning about astronomy, machine learning, biology and everything that will increase my knowledge of the world and how it works. I am learning to train neural networks and I am using marketing as a means to communicate the importance of wildlife. I certainly have my plate full and continue to want to do more.

Next year I hope to start a PhD in Australia working with reptiles and using my combined skills and passions that form the epitome of STEM. What my science degrees taught me is this: A curious mind and a willingness to learn will give an edge but an ability to think with an open mind and be able to apply the scientific method in all aspects of life, will give you the ability to profoundly influence your problem solving and creative capabilities. Your mind is your only limitation and just a tip, never underestimate the value of a good encyclopaedia to a child.

To read more about women in STEM

More in Endangered species

Fay’s story

Fay’s story

A post recently popped up on my facebook feed of a fantastic photo shoot a mum had taken of her daughter’s softball team. The girls wore both pretty dresses, and their trainer. They wore crowns, and war paint, high heels and catcher’s mits, they were both ‘pretty’ and ‘sporty’. The idea of the shoot- why can’t girls be beautiful and like sports?

This idea of each of us being ‘one true thing’ in life can sometimes be inspiring, when we see a dancer so dedicated they get through three pairs of point shoes a day or an environmentalist who lives in the wild, eating nothing but insects! But the truth is most of us don’t fit into one box nicely, we are far too complex for that!

When I think back to things that could have stopped me going into STEM, and the thing that still makes me feel like an imposter, this idea of ‘you can only be one thing’ is probably the biggest barrier.

My story

I was very lucky in that I went to an all-girls high school, so the idea of male/female subjects was unheard of, they were just subjects. However, the idea that you were either sporty OR smart OR artistic was rife. I was sporty when I started high school. I was a gymnast, who competed in the national team, I went on training camps and excelled at PE. That was until I quit the sport due to health issues, and suddenly I didn’t excel at anything. I was average or as the saying goes ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. I wasn’t needy enough to require extra help, not intelligent enough to receive accolade, so I just sort of existed in the middle- ‘master of none’.

If you had asked me then, in high school who of my peers would most likely be working in STEM, I probably would have pointed to those at the ‘top of the class’, because that is what we are conditioned to think, to follow a path, you have to be the best. The best at that, and nothing else. If you aren’t a math genius, don’t bother with physics. If you can’t label all the parts of the plant off by heart, don’t bother with biology, if you aren’t ‘academic’ you won’t survive in science.

Yet all of this is a lie because none of us are one dimensional. That girl I would have pointed to as most likely to end up in STEM? She went to do Physics at university, but now is a lighting designer for theatres. And me? The ex-sporty ‘master of none’, I’m completing a PhD in Biomedical Physics and last month gave a keynote talk at a surgical conference!

Labcoat and barbell

But even now, I look at those around me and think ‘look at him, he is a real physicist. I’m not as good as him, because he has the brain for maths’. And I forget that the reason I have got where I am now is precisely because I am a jack of all trades.

 An enjoyment of drama taught me how to speak and captivate an audience. Literature and books taught me to write. Exercise and Sport gave me an appreciation for the very physiology I am investigation and art helped me to be able to draw my own schematics for my research.

More than this, with science and academia being a very stressful environment to work in, those other parts of ‘you’, allow you to thrive in life and in work. They give you ways to let off steam, socialise and be mentally and physically healthy. I work with a physicist who runs marathons, a biologist who knits, an engineer who bakes like Mary Berry and a chemist who cycles. And me? Well, if I was to star today in a photoshoot like the softball girls, I would be wearing a lab coat and safety goggles, while lifting a 150kg+ barbell. The only thing getting me through the mind-numbing pain of writing my doctoral thesis is training for a strong woman competition!

Picture source

More in Women in STEM

Fancy something else? Read about the Eastern gorilla in the Endangered Species series!

Team oUFO – Inspiration to all of us

Team oUFO – Inspiration to all of us

I had the luck to be invited to the Women in Engineering conference in Birmingham this weekend. It was a brilliant experience for many reasons, but certainly outstanding in terms of speakers. I am a science student, and mostly interested in climate and environmental science. Engineering is similar in many aspects. Most importantly it is also a STEM subject. On the other hand, they have the kind of analytical approach that us, scientists have.

This event showed me how big is the STEM family, and what an amazing thing is to belong to it. I am proud to be a woman in STEM! Out of all the speakers however, two of them scored a touch down for me. Faye Banks, who is today on the UK energy policy committee delivered an incredible speech. I won’t go into too much detail this time. After the conference, I contacted her and asked her if she would be interested in featuring an article on Beyond Science. I can happily confirm that she said yes. I honestly couldn’t find words, and I am very grateful.

Team oUFO, however, was an absolutely unique speaker. The team was undoubtedly a great success. The audience, as well as myself, loved them. I would love to tell you why.

The challenge Team oUFO faces

On a nice and sunny day, a bunch of engineer students from The Open University decided that they want to participate in an engineering competition. They had 4-5 alternatives as to which competition they choose. Ultimately they decided to enter the Imeche UAS challenge. The competition is strong, the participants are familiar with it years and years ago. But The Open University has never entered a team before. In the challenge engineer students have to build an unmanned aircraft. Naturally, they have several milestones to hit before the fly-off event.

They need funds and they need to find sponsors. They will also need to outreach and promote STEM. The aircraft has to satisfy an immense amount of requirements. In October 2019 they will register on the event, but they spent the last year working on essential tasks, in order to be able to enter at all. The team has to decide on aircraft design and proceed with planning and drawings. Once the detailed designs are complete, they have to submit a bill of materials and costs and produce final design document.

After the design is complete, they will have to start to assemble parts, complete build and test all systems. A test flight then have to be carried out. By all means, this is a very, very simple description of the task. When the aircraft is complete, they are officially ready for fly-off and to complete the competition.

What’s the fuss about?

All team members are on different level in their engineering journey. Some of them are first-year, some of them second and third. Some of them part-time student, some of them full-time. Due to the nature of The Open University they all lead busy lives, studying whilst being a mother/father, working extreme hours, et cetera. To make it even more challenging, they are all living in different cities of the UK and some of them aren’t in the UK currently.

Other universities have the advantage of having their students on campus, at least roughly within the same location. They also have facilities they can use to build the aircraft, such as workshops, labs and so on. On the other hand, they are familiar with the challenge, as they are regular participants.

Team oUFO took on an immense challenge. They will have to tackle challenges that no other team has to. I have to admit, they are the bravest, and smartest people I know, and wherever they finish in the competition, we will be extremely proud of them. They have received a great deal of support from The Open University as well as from the public. They have already secured a 2/3 of their targeted funding, and it is not even registration time yet.

The team is made up 40% female student, and that is incredible compared to the 12% industry average! What people possibly don’t realize that the team is us. They are from amongst us. Studying, working, taking care of a family/household. But still fighting, and always wanting more. Humanity is developed and improved by people like them, and if all engineers of the future are like them, we stand a very good chance to thrive. They are an inspiration to us all. I have absolute faith in you, and I know, all those late nights, meetings, brainstorming and tiring challenges will pay off.

You are the people the next generation can look up to and you are the people that can lead us to a brighter future. I cannot thank you enough for being able to hear your speech this weekend. It was exciting, motivating, ambitious but humble, and truly outstanding!

Gorillas of Africa

Gorillas of Africa

I have no doubt that gorillas are beyond worthy to take the first place in the Endangered Species series. Even though their numbers increased in the past, the species is still critically endangered. Their population was last assessed by IUCN in August 2018. The number of mature individuals was 2600 back then.

Conservation of this majestic species has received a great deal of attention. It is of paramount importance to protect their habitat. Similarly, it is also crucial to recognize, how important is gorilla tourism in the area. Gorillas typically live in lowland tropical forests and transitional forests. The Eastern gorilla in particular lives in the area of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

They are not aggressive in nature, but adult males do go above and beyond to protect their families. Hence there are certain groups that have been habituated to get used to the presence of humans. This was important to build tourism around the species bringing a considerable income to these African countries.

Daily routine

Gorillas don’t migrate, but as the vast majority of the animals, they do follow food. As they tend to feed on the ground level, they are very careful and shy, and certainly not easy to find. They rest in very dense vegetation, which protects them from invaders, whether it is other animals or humans. Sometimes they rest on trees on well-made nests. The silverback male leads its group and safeguarding them ceaselessly.

You might be already familiar with their signature move when gorillas beat their chest. This can be a sign of various things. It can be a display of power, as well as a form of aggression. Likewise, it can be also just simply a release of tension.

Most of their day is surprisingly spent on eating. Due to their low energy diet (mostly vegetation) they have to feed a lot to achieve appropriate nutrition levels. Their muscly body has got no problem to tear a banana tree into particles in less than an hour. They eat all kind of plants, fruits, occasionally ants or termites as well. Another shocking fact: gorillas can eat up to 40-50 pounds of food a day. Can you imagine eating 20 kgs of iceberg lettuce? Well, it is quite a challenge I suppose.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

The area surrounding the national park is heavily populated. Most of the people in the area make a living from farming. There are ancient, highly spiritual groups that live nearby, such as the Batwa. In the past they used to live in the forest, hunting for bushmeat and harvesting. They have a very strong culture and they are still cherishing their ancestors. The Batwa has an otherworldly connection with the forest.

In 1993 gorilla tourism started in Uganda, and local people’s access to the forest has been denied. Some communities received more profit from the revenue, some received less and some nothing. Rangers still to this day guarding the forest with guns to keep communities out. Those people that were denied access to the forest resisted and lit fires as a form of rebellion. Today they are trained to lead tours into the forest and guide tourist groups around. They also take part in maintaining souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants in the area.

At Bwindi, over a 100 villages share a boundary with the park, and the income is now sent to the district authorities and divided equally. This profit can be used to improve their lives, such as schools, hospitals, or agriculture.

However, as we all know, all magic comes with a price. Letting tourists into the forest to visit gorillas present an ultimate threat to the species. Due to their DNA being so similar to ours, it is very easy to transmit diseases. A simple cough can wipe out an entire group of gorillas, and possibly even a population. Tourists sometimes don’t take the threat seriously. It is indeed tempting to let a gorilla touch you, or pet a baby gorilla.

Threats gorillas are facing

Today there are very strict rules to visit each habituated gorilla groups. Tourists have to maintain at least 7 m distance from the individuals. Smoking, eating and drinking are not permitted on the tour, and visits are limited to one hour per gorilla group a day. Is this enough to protect the gorillas, and conserve their habitat?

Unfortunately, it is not just the human touch that threatens these highly intelligent creatures. Due to climate change, their habitat is shifting and continuously alters. Urban developments and the building of tourism areas were the main cause of deforestation. For the same reason to improve transportation networks, local authorities paid a great deal of attention for building roads and railroads. To produce energy for the country oil and gas drilling started in the area, as well as mining. Naturally, the issue that occurs in most forests occurs here as well. Hunting for bushmeat and logging for wood disturbing their natural habitat.

Can we protect gorillas? Will the next generation know gorillas?

Please do not hesitate to donate to help a great cause. You can also adopt a gorilla for as little as £3/month. Help to protect their habitat, and support research and local authorities.

If you want to know how a surf trip lead to 4.5 million pounds of rubbish to be cleaned from the ocean:

Or if you want to read about Catharina and her love of amphibians