Monthly Archives: June 2016

A Slice of The Sun

Energy – limitless, abundant and clean. That is the goal of scientists trying to create new energy sources.

Nuclear power has for a long time been the centre of much controversy. Although it doesn’t create the pollution associated with fossil fuels, it does leave us with an almost unimaginable period of radioactive waste, Radioactive isotopes eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.[1]

So whilst nuclear power might provide a short term fix to pollution problems it can also create other problems which might last longer than modern man has existed. That’s why so many people are so worried about it.

But a tantalising possibility has been raised by nuclear scientists to create a form of nuclear power that provides almost limitless power with few side effects. This nuclear power is based on fusion. Traditional nuclear power stations are based on fission. The difference may sound little more than the replacement of a few vowels – but that is very misleading.

Fusion nuclear power is a world away from the fission power we know today and it involves creating a bit of the sun right here on earth.

The race is now on to design a fusion reactor. In France, they’re building one of the largest machines the world has ever seen. .

Burn one kilo of fusion fuel, it will generate the same amount of energy as ten million kilos of fossil fuel.

The problem is that nuclear fusion has for years been held up as a possible solution to our energy problem. It has always been the next big thing, but it’s never been the thing. However, there now does appear to be a critical mass of scientists, a new generation of brains determined to crack the problem.

So here is how it works. At the moment all of our nuclear reactors rely on nuclear fission. This process relies on the ability to split atoms to produce lots of power, but also, lots of radioactive waste.

A fusion reactor will join atoms together. It’s likely to be Hydrogen to form helium, like our sun. Any radioactive waste, they say will be relatively short-lived.

And the fuel? Well hydrogen is found readily in water, abundant the world over.

The proponents of fusion power have for years been promising us a plentiful and relatively safe form of new energy – well here at ITER in France they are starting to make good on that promise.

Over 200 experimental reactors have been built worldwide. But to date they’ve all consumed more energy than they produce. In other words they can make fusion happen but it takes so much energy to make it happen, that its pointless. You put in more energy than you get out.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, hopes to turn this situation around.

It is an enormous project. It’s going to cost at least 15 billion euros. It involves 35 nations and when it’s done they say it will be the largest experiment ever conducted by man.

It will be a 23-thousand tonne nuclear laboratory. Three times heavier than the Eiffel Tower.

The man heading up this remarkable scientific test bed is Bernard Bigot, ITER’s director general.

I asked him on the grand scheme of human innovation and science, how significant he thought this project was? His answer was unequivocal. “It is one of the most striking change in the history of technologies.”

That’s quite a claim. He and the other supporters of this project believe it could transform the world’s relationship with energy. He believes it will happen within the next 40 – 60 years. It’s not quick but science that might change the world never is.

The journey to a new energy source – is our Horizons programme this week. Do watch it and tell me what you think on Twitter at @adamshawbiz

 

[1] http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html

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A Hug and A Shot

We experience the world through our senses. Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.  A problem with any one of them and you need help – a pair of glasses for instance. Or even a hearing aid. Well, we’re about to enter a new world of sense technology aided by Virtual Reality.IMG_0950.jpg

The sense of touch doesn’t really get the attention that the other senses get like sight and sound and yet it’s incredibly sophisticated. It enables us to tell between wet and dry, hard and soft, it gives us pleasure and pain – so could we create a second skin which creates sensations through electrical impulses? Well I’m about to find out.

I’ve arranged to meet the people behind a Tesla Suit. It looks like a wet suit but enables users to interact with the virtual environment and actually “feel” what’s going on inside a computer. It’s been designed by a group from Belarus who are now based in the UK.

The Tesla Suit uses something called haptic feedback – which is the mechanical stimulation to recreate the sense of touch and mimic sensations we experience in the real world so that we can feel them in the virtual world. At present the technology is, in the main, being advanced by the gaming industry, but there are potentially other far-reaching applications.

Before we started filming, there was much talk of my chest measurements and arm lengths so the team could ensure the suit fitted. I was under the impression there might be a range of them for me to try. As it turned out – there was only one. It was so tight it took three men to push me into it and do it up. Amazingly, once inside, I was so held together by the rubber – it did make me look rather buff – definitely worth the pain of forcing myself into it.

Dimitree Marozau is one of the founders of the Tesla Studios. He says it’s taken three years to create the suit and he let me put it through its paces.

I put on some virtual reality glasses and started a shooting video game. The different was that when my character in the game was shot, I actually felt a pain in my real body – delivered by the suit I was wearing.

It works – you don’t like being shot in the virtual world – because it delivers real pain in the real world.

But it’s not just for gamers. Dimnitri says it could deliver a virtual hug to you from your family – if you are abroad. He demonstrated by hugging the empty space in front of me – saying I would now feel a real hug through my suit.

In reality I just felt lots of small electric shocks. It wasn’t like any hug I’ve ever had. But the fact that it works at all is a small miracle.

The company says that the technology is just opening up a range of possibilities.  Dimitri says “Our vision was to send it over to space, because muscular atrophy is the biggest problem in space because people are not working out as much or they have to forcefully work out. Electrical signals conveyed by the smart fabric could be used to make the muscles of astronauts contract, compensating for the lack of gravity, and giving them a work out.”

There is research going on at the moment with people who have strokes. The recovery process involves electrical stimulation in certain parts to help the muscles to regain their memory, how they work, and to stimulate different parts of the body. And probably this one could take it to a next level.

This sensory technology may have started in the world of gaming but it’s already slowly moving into the world of medicine. Now that kind of science really does have the possibility to change the world and our experience of it.

 

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Me – The Great American Quarterback

 

IMG_0866Adam Shaw – the new High School Quarterback in Training.                                                                     Who said shoulder pads had gone out of fashion.

At school I played in the rugby team. But at my school you only played rugby if you were rubbish at football. We were so bad – at one point my captain got so confused he ran the wrong way down the pitch. I saw him run past me and delicately put the ball down across our own line, thus scoring points for the other side. This may have been the first time in the history of rugby that such a feat has been achieved. In fact it wasn’t a feat so much as an anti-feat.

I tell you this only to explain that I am not used to the triumphs and kudos that come from sporting achievements or the all-round adoration that attaches to the macho stars of sports.

However rather later in life than it comes to most, in this programme I was to become the quarter back star of an all-American football team.

I was there to test a new safety device which is supposed to reduce head injuries. It comes in the unlikely and rather underwhelming format of a sticker.

The lab behind the invention is based at the Simon Fraser University  Mechatronics Department – which is mechanical and electrical engineering combined.  Daniel Abram has been busy carrying out research to see if it’s possible to reduce injury to that fragile organ, the brain, which is made up of multi-billion neurons.

Adam and Daniel Abram, CEO BrainshieldDaniel Abram – leading the team to invent a sticker to help protect against brain injuries

I have to say when I was told we were visiting the lab – to see a company that has invented a sticker that you put onto a helmet that improves its safety, I was very, very sceptical that it would work.

Daniel told me there’s no magic to his team’s invention which is called the Brainshield sticker. It is all, he says, based on science.

To test the device, we put an American football helmet in a clamp and dropped a heavy block on it to see what happened. It was imitating the effect that a far too cool American teenager might have on my when he jumped on me to wrest a football from my hands.

In the lab under test conditions, we could see what happened with the impact on a dummy head inside a helmet without the Brainshield sticker. The head itself rotated causing potential damage to the brain. However once we put an ordinary sticker on the helmet and repeated the experiment, much to my surprise there was a lot less rotation of the dummy head. That reduced the sharp twisting to the brain that leads to injury.  The spread of force also means there’s also much less compression to the brain.

The sticker is made of microengineered layers. The layers are stacked on each other. And once it receives an impact, the layers move across each other. And by moving, the sticker doesn’t allow the phenomenon that causes that sharp twisting of the brain. Lots of layers within the sticker all shear apart absorbing the twisting motion –so the sticker takes the pain and your brain doesn’t. At least that’s the claim.

There are currently no independent research results for Brainshield, but they’re on the way.

So having tested it in the lab, in the spirit of Horizons, my producer thought it would be a wonderful idea for me to put the sticker to the test on the field. We headed to Handsworth High and their head coach Jay Prepchuk – who was about to put me through my paces as the teams newest yet oldest Quarterback.

He helped me into my kit and then much to my surprise – he started hitting me around the head  with the words ” This last test is just to kinda smack you. How does that feel?”

“Well, you’re hitting me in the head! Stop doing that, it’ll be fine!” I replied in what I hoped was a suitable sense of British reserve.

Adam and Jay Prepchuk, Football Coach

Coach Jay Prepchuk and his new Quarterback for the Wandsworth School team

Jay says the stickers have helped reduce the number of head injuries the team has had. That itself is not enough to prove the value of them – but the evidence we saw was certainly intriguing and looked like it would help.

One thing is for sure, the stickers might save your brain, they don’t make a middle aged Englishman a great American footballer.

 

 

 

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