ASEE First Bell – Breaking news in the engineering and technology field

Leading the News

Lockheed Announces Plans For New Compact Fusion Reactor Concept.

Coverage of the Lockheed Martin announcement that its “Skunk Works” lab planned to unveil a new concept nuclear fusion reactor in 10 years received significant attention from business, energy and technology news outlets. Much of the coverage emphasized the Skunk Works connection with its storied history and the fact that nuclear fusion has been the “Holy Grail” of energy science. Greenwire  (10/15, Ling) reports Lockheed’s new technology will not only “shorten the infamous ‘30-years-away’ timeline for commercial fusion but also will shrink the size of its reactor from the size of a building to the size of a large truck – about 33 feet by 23 feet – or 10 times smaller than current models,” Lockheed said. Tom McGuire, compact fusion lead for Skunk Works’ Revolutionary Technology Programs, said, “Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts.” McGuire added “The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the [compact fusion reactor] in less than a year.”

Lockheed says its Compact Fusion Reactor is “conceptually safer, cleaner and more powerful than much larger, current nuclear systems that rely on fission,” Aviation Week  (10/16, Norris) reports. Lockheed believes that by being “compact,” the CFR as a “scalable concept will also be small and practical enough for applications ranging from interplanetary spacecraft and commercial ships to city power stations. It may even revive the concept of large, nuclear-powered aircraft that virtually never require refueling—ideas of which were largely abandoned more than 50 years ago because of the dangers and complexities involved with nuclear fission reactors.”

Bloomberg News  (10/15, Johnsson) reports that the “secretive Skunk Works unit, which designed the U-2 spy plane and F-117 stealth fighter jet, is developing a reactor to harness nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun.” Lockheed said the CFR “reactor would burn less than 20 kilograms of fuel in a year, producing waste that’s ‘orders of magnitudes less’ than the ash and sludge spewed from coal plants.” The company is building on “60 years of research into fusion, a technology that promises to release more energy than current commercial units using nuclear fission, without the risk of Fukushima-style meltdowns.” The “technology could be deployed within a decade and would be smaller and easier to make than competing concepts,” Lockheed said.

Forbes  (10/15, Pentland) adds that in the “simplest terms, nuclear fission breaks a single atom into two whereas nuclear fusion combines two atoms into one.” Fusion creates “three to four times as much energy as fission” and does not “produce cancer-causing radioactive waste.” The “key breakthrough” involves using a “magnetic bottle” to “contain the vast amount of heat, which rises into the hundreds of millions of degrees, created by the nuclear reaction.” Forbes adds, “Containing and controlling the staggering levels of heat and pressure involved has hampered countless previous efforts to use fusion for generating electricity.”

The Business Insider  (10/16, Orwig) notes that the “main obstacle keeping us from emission-free and nuclear waste-free fusion power is the amount of energy it takes to produce the conditions for nuclear fusion in the first place.” Currently, “most facilities put in as much or more energy into their nuclear fusion systems than what they get out.” As Lockheed moves forward, “other laboratories across the country are not far behind.” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory “houses the world’s most powerful laser capable of generating nuclear fusion reactions.” Last March, “researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, located in Middlesex County, New Jersey, ran large-scale simulations of nuclear fusion reactions at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility.”

Additional coverage was provided by Reuters  (10/16, Shalal),

Some Scientists Skeptical Of Lockheed’s Fusion Announcement. In a piece generally skeptical of the announcement, the Register (UK)  (10/16, Thomson) reports that while Lockheed’s McGuire “certainly talks a mean game,” experts are “skeptical, not just about the technology but about the manner in which it is being promoted.” Professor Edward Morse from UC Berkeley’s School of Nuclear Engineering in California said, “I think it’s very overplayed; they are being very cagey about divulging details.” Morse added, “An isolated group working in skunkworks is great at developing stealth aircraft, but it doesn’t fit for this kind of research.” Prof. Morse said that the reactor “looks very like the small devices he makes for plasma physics experiments.” He added, “The search for fusion has been long and painful and a lot of people embarrassed about it.”

The Business Insider  (10/16, Orwig) adds that “most scientists and science communicators we talked to are skeptical of the claim. ‘The nuclear engineering clearly fails to be cost effective,’ Tom Jarboe told Business Insider in an email.” Jarboe is a “professor of aeronautics and astronautics, an adjunct professor in physics, and a researcher with the University of Washington’s nuclear fusion experiment.” The CFR would generate power “from nuclear fusion by extracting energy through the extremely hot plasma contained inside it.” This “plasma consists of hydrogen atoms that, when heated to billions of degrees, fuse together,” releasing energy, “which the CFR then extracts and can eventually transfer into electricity.”

Higher Education

Great Lakes Higher Education Gives $9 Million To UW-Madison For STEM Diversity.

The Madison (WI) Capital Times  (10/16, Schneider) reports the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning is receiving $9 million in grants and scholarships from Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation to increase STEM diversity. The article features several comments attesting to the need to answer growing STEM demand before listing the breakdown of the funding: $3.2 million will go toward professional development for STEM teachers, $4 million will support academic research STEM financial aid, and $1.857 million in scholarships will go to low-income STEM majors. The funds will supplement a 2013 National Science Foundation grant to benefit diversity efforts at 22 universities in the national CIRTL network.

University of Chicago Business To Partner With University Of Illinois Engineering.

The Crain’s Chicago Business  (10/15, Pletz) reports students at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business will partner with seniors from the University of Illinois College of Engineering in Urbana-Champaign to foster student startups in the New Venture Challenge program. Booth forged the partnership due to the University of Chicago’s lack of an engineering school. The program has room for 25 companies and 130 people in its new Hyde Park campus coworking space, the Innovation Exchange. The piece closes on Booth’s competition against rival Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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Research and Development

Clemson Research Team Awarded DOE Grant To Develop Nuclear Waste Storage Project.

The Greenville (SC) News  (10/15, Barnett) reports that Clemson University’s Kyle Brinkman, “associate professor of materials science and engineering, and graduate student Ashley Hearing, are trying out different recipes, heating various concoctions of minerals to temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees F. to come up with a new crystal that will be able to safely incarcerate the lethal radioactive waste that’s left over from generating electricity from the power of the atom.” With spent nuclear fuel piling up at Oconee Nuclear Station and every other plant around the country, and “no place to put it,” the material will remain dangerous “for the quarter of a million years.” As “policy-makers squabble” over “long-term” alternatives to storing spent nuclear fuel, “Brinkman’s team is moving to develop a material that will keep radioactive super [villains] locked away for eons.”

GSA Business  (10/15, Boncimino) reports according to a Clemson news release, the team’s “research uses naturally occurring minerals to develop crystalline ceramic that will last for millions of years.” Team leader, Kyle Brinkman, said, “Our project is to learn from these naturally occurring, naturally stable minerals and design crystal structures that mimic them to incorporate waste elements we want to store.” The project “also strengthen ties between Clemson and the Savannah River National Laboratory, which is an applied research and development organization at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in Jackson, S.C.”

Researchers Find KBO New Horizons Spacecraft Can Reach.

SPACE  (10/15, Wall) reports that the Hubble telescope discovered a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) that is “definitely reachable” by the New Horizons spacecraft once it flies past the Pluto system. Another two KBOs have been discovered, but scientists have yet to confirm they can be reached by the spacecraft. New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said that it was “great” that the Hubble telescope could help the mission in this manner. New Horizons science team member John Spencer said that the team is “over the moon” by the news.

Chu, Cech, Call For Steady Funding For Science Research.

Science Nobel Prize winners Thomas R. Cech and Steven Chu, former energy secretary in the Obama Administration, write in the Wall Street Journal  (10/16, Cech, Chu, Subscription Publication) about the importance of having consistent funding for scientific research from the Federal government for researchers to rely on.

Engineering and Public Policy

Some States Fear ‘2020 Cliff’ Under EPA Clean Power Plan.

In an article that originally appeared at Generation Hub  (10/14, Barber), Power Engineering  (10/16, Barber) reports that at a seminar in Washington DC that was sponsored by the Resources for the Future and the Electric Power Research Institute, state officials discussing the proposed EPA Clean Power Plan “said it appears to them that the EPA CO2 interim compliance timetable is very front-loaded, at least as far as their states are concerned.” The article notes, “Michigan Air Quality Division Chief Vinson Hellwig and Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection Assistant Secretary for Climate Policy John Lyons both expect their states must attain the bulk of the required CO2 reductions by 2020.” Lyons also “thinks a RGGI-style regional trading approach would be an easy fit for Kentucky,” and the article notes, “Kentucky is also split between various transmission grid systems, including as the PJM Interconnection, the Midcontinent ISO (MISO) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).” The article is also posted at Utility Products  (10/16, Barber).

Dominion Gives $10,000 To Fund “Girls In Science” Program.

It’s Relevant, Westport (CT)  (10/15, Croffie) reports that Dominion Resources gave a $10,000 grant to the Maritime Aquarium to fund a “Girls in Science” after-school program for 100 girls in three Bridgeport schools chosen by need. Director of Federal, State and Local Affairs for Dominion Resources Kevin Hennessy stressed the importance of educating young girls in the sciences and said, “It is fabulous for us to get anyone engaged in the science. Anything with science, engineering, technology and math is really, it’s our business. It is what we do in the energy world and we are happy to give kids the opportunity to pursue those endeavors hands on.”

Scientists Say Natural Gas From Fracking Won’t Slow Climate Change.

Bloomberg News  (10/15, Nicola) reports that according to a study in the journal Nature, “increased use of natural gas from a fracking boom won’t slow climate change as the fuel will simply replace cleaner energy sources.” The study says “a range of scenarios, including the possibility of gas use rising as much as 170 percent by mid-century, would lead to anything from a 2 percent cut to an 11 percent jump in carbon emissions. … Cheaper gas may not replace coal but rather crowd out clean-energy and boost polluting economic activity, they said.” Co-author of the study Nico Bauer said, “The high hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of technical superiority to coal turn out to be misguided because market effects are dominating.”

The AP  (10/15, Borenstein) reports that “five teams of experts from around the world, using five different sets of computer model simulations, looked at what would happen if natural gas — also known as methane — remains cheap and plentiful and nothing else changes, such as policy mandates” and “they all came to the same conclusion.” Pacific Northwest National Laboratory economist and lead author of the study Haewon McJeon said, “It doesn’t reduce climate change.” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at a town hall last year “credited the natural gas boom with helping the United States decrease its carbon dioxide emissions over the last few years.” He stated, “The way to look at it is as kind of a bridge to a very low-carbon future.”

US News & World Report  (10/15, Neuhauser) reports the Energy Department “has made natural gas development the foundation of its ‘all of the above’ strategy to produce energy and reduce emissions. A spokesman who called U.S. News about the study declined to talk on the record, instead referring to a statement from another spokesman that focused on the department’s support for new renewable energy technology.” The statement by Bill Gibbons said, “The report released today reinforces the point that a strategy to develop all of our abundant energy resources, paired with effective climate policies, will move us toward a low-carbon energy future. … The Department of Energy is aggressively advancing energy technologies that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change risks.”

The Vancouver (CAN) Sun  (10/16, Munro) and the National Journal  (10/16, Geman, Subscription Publication) also provide coverage of this story.

New Mexico To Offer State Land For New Solar Power Plants.

The AP  (10/16) reports the State Land Office in New Mexico “is accepting bids from companies interested in developing what would be New Mexico’s largest solar power plant.” Ray Powell, the land commissioner, “wants to lease four square miles of state trust land in southern New Mexico for the development of a 150-megawatt solar plant.” According to Powell “the plant would be three times bigger than the state’s largest existing plant.”

Elementary/Secondary Education

Pennsylvania School District Renovation Gives Rise To Interdisciplinary STEM Program.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review  (10/16, Santoni) reports a new interdisciplinary STEM program would utilize $109.65 million in renovations to Mt. Lebanon School District high schools’ science labs, computer labs, and tech shops by adjusting curricula to work with material across subject areas, such as analyzing lab data in math classes. The school will work with private industries and universities to develop a database of professors and professionals who can guest lecture and organize externships. Similar to this STEM Academy, a Global Studies Academy is underway to promote cooperation between history, social studies, and foreign language classes. An informational meeting will be held October 22 to begin the registration process.

High School Teachers Attend STEM Professional Development At Cornell.

A piece by Lora Hine, director of the Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-Based Sciences and Education (CLASSE) outreach program, writes in the Cornell Chronicle (NY)  (10/16, Hine) that two dozen high school teachers attended the Xraise Science Teachers Workshop, hosted at Cornell University’s eXploration station, part of a series of professional development opportunities offered by the CLASSE outreach program. The program featured keynotes by various Cornell research directors and professors, as well as facility tours. The program was a collaboration between Dundee Central School District and Cornell, facilitated by a New York state 2014-16 Title II Mathematics and Science Partnership Grant to aid high-needs school districts in New York. Dundee science teachers will work with Xraise outreach teams for a total of 90 hours over the next two years.

Wednesday’s Lead Stories

 

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