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The World’s Biggest Science Project: An Artificial Star in France

Let’s say you want to solve the world’s energy crisis. You decide to use hydrogen, a fuel source that is unlimited in quantity and inexpensive to obtain. You subject the hydrogen to a process that creates so much energy that we can close down our polluting coal mines forever and forget about the geopolitical consequences of fossil fuels. Best of all, your process generates no pollutants. Say goodbye to smog, acid rain, and greenhouse gas emissions. Before you book your flight to Oslo to accept your Nobel Peace Prize, however, consider that that a bunch of scientists have already beat you to it. The technique in question is nuclear fusion,and for years it has eluded scientists, who could not create plasma hot and dense enough to produce a net gain of energy. But that is close to changing.

Isotopes of hydrogen collide during fusion to create helium and energy.

Isotopes of hydrogen collide during fusion to create helium and energy.


Fusion is the physical process that powers the stars, and creating a machine to do the same thing on Earth is the goal of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is currently under construction in the South of France and is the largest scientific endeavor the world has ever known. Scientists from 35 countries have devoted decades of research to the project, and if all goes well within 10 years or so they’ll flip the switch and the particles inside the giant tokamak, a ringed-doughnut-shaped device, will ramp up to 200 million degrees Celsius and be contained by magnets cooled to -269 degrees Celsius. The plasma will be hotter than the surface of the sun, resulting in the first sustained power-producing fusion reactor in the world, which could pave the way for further reactors that could produce terawatts of power with no radioactive waste for the next 30 million years, give or take.

A cut-away schematic of the ITER tokamak.

A cut-away schematic of the ITER tokamak.


Why had I never heard of this? I asked myself as I read Raffi Khatchadourian’s profile of ITER in the March 3, 2014 issue of the New Yorker. You’d think that such a spectacular endeavor would be common knowledge, since it operates under no special Manhattan Project-like veil of secrecy. You’d think that skeptical activists would be taking their protests to social media, convinced that the project was either a waste of money or that it will blow up the world. But the reality is much more mundane, and possibly more insidious. As Khatchadourian explains, the real culprit is politics:

ITER was first proposed in 1985, during a tense summit in Geneva between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. . . . Since then, the cooperation has expanded to include the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea, and India. . . . No partner has full control, and there is no over-all central budget. Each country makes its primary contribution in the form of finished components, which the ITER organization will assemble in France. The arrangement could serve as a model for future collaboration—or as one to avoid.

Because there are so many cooks in the kitchen, ITER’s progress will be fraught with power plays and controversies. In a February 28, 2014 article for Science, Daniel Clery reported on the assessment of ITER that “found serious problems with the project’s leadership, management, and governance. . . . ITER leaders fear that the damning assessment . . . could cause backers to pull their funding.” It was literally easier to land a man on the moon than it will be to create a sun on Earth. But not necessarily more expensive. The lowest estimate for ITER is $20 billion, and the  Apollo program came in around $109 billion—all of which was paid for by U.S. taxpayers, which is not the case for ITER, whose costs will be spread throughout the 35 participating nations. Optimists will consider this a small price to pay for the sheer knowledge the program produces.

The United States’ portion of ITER is based in Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the original “secret city” of the Manhattan Project. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the Savannah River National Laboratory are also partners in the US portion of the project. The tasks they have taken on include the design of the tokamak shield, the cooling water systems, electron cyclotron heating transmission lines, and exhaust processing systems.

You can find lots of great animated videos that explain how ITER and the tokamak will work, and in these cases a picture is worth way more than 1,000 words. Try these:

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: March 11, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , ,

Climate Change and Chocolate

If melting polar ice doesn’t make you take climate change seriously, then how about the rising cost of chocolate? Those in the candy biz are forecasting a global chocolate shortage, brought on by rising consumption in developing countries, a decline in cocoa output due to adverse growing conditions, and the clamor for cocoa-intense dark chocolate among discerning consumers. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

According to a study by Euromonitor International cited in the Boston Globe, chocolate prices in the United States are forecasted to rise 45 percent in 2014 over 2012 prices. In September 2013 chocolate reached an all-time high of $12.25 a kilogram, itself a 45 percent increase over 2007 prices. While consumers can expect to pay more for their candy bars, manufacturers may also change their ingredients to keep costs down. They may substitute less expensive—and more problematic—ingredients for those that are hard to come by. Palm oil instead of cocoa butter may be a common solution. The problem with this is that palm oil is high in saturated fats, the kind that’s bad for you and raises your cholesterol. Artificial additives and fillers are likely to make up a larger percentage of the ingredients of lower-quality chocolate products. Caveat emptor, purists.

Theobroma cacao plant with mature seed pods.

What’s Behind the Low Production?

Cacao trees, i.e., Theobroma cacao, like the Coffea plant responsible for our favorite caffeinated beverage, are grown in monoculture situations, mostly by subsistence farmers who don’t have the resources to invest in the fertilizers and other crop enhancements that will protect their crops and raise their yields. Impoverished Ivory Coast produces 40 percent of the world’s cocoa, with Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, and Indonesia bringing up the rear. In Ivory Coast specifically, lack of rain in the past several seasons has led to a lower than normal harvest and thus higher prices.

Even under optimal growing conditions, many cacao farmers also lack the knowledge of sustainable growing practices and pest management techniques that are common to monoculture elsewhere. Thus, their cacao beans are susceptible to pests and disease, including a nasty condition called witches’ broom.

Cacao beans in the pod, before being roasted and processed into cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and cocoa liquor and delivered to your mouth to satisfying your craving.

Though recent price hikes are due to demand and short-term bad weather, the big picture remains grim. Farmers in Indonesia have been clear-cutting forests to grow palm trees and harvest palm oil which has led to the habitat destruction of the orangutan (among other species of plants and animals), and many farmers in Ivory Coast have switched from cacao to rubber farming because it provides higher and more stable returns. In the long run, however, climate change may wreak havoc on the industry. The ideal conditions for growing the cacao plant are narrow, which explains why most of the world’s cacao comes from a few countries. Moving production to other areas isn’t the greatest idea, says Rachel Cernansky of Treehugger:  “the ideal conditions for cocoa-growing will shift to higher altitudes—but most of West Africa is relatively flat, so there is not a lot of land at higher elevation to move to. But even where there is higher land, establishing new cocoa-producing areas could trigger the clearing of forests and important habitats for flora and fauna. Which means, yes, exacerbating climate change even further.”

Enter Science

But beleaguered cacao farmers aren’t entirely on their own. Researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), led by Peter Laderach, have assessed likely future scenarios using conservative climate models and summarized their findings in their 2011 report Predicting the Impact of Climate Change on the Cocoa-Growing Regions in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

Here’s the color-coded version of what they found:

Map of Ghana and Ivory Coast showing suitability for cocoa production in 2011.

Same map showing climate suitability for cocoa production in 2050 according to the researchers' climate prediction modeling.

The resolution on these maps is poor, but you get the idea: The amount of green from the first image to the second declines drastically. That’s a warning cry for action to prevent the decline of an important commodity. Doing nothing would be bad for business, and hardly an option for corporations like Nestle, Mars, and Hershey, whose continued success depends on a robust cocoa industry.

The report’s recommendations are hardly earth-shattering: It suggests that farmers adopt drought-resistant varieties of plants and install irrigation systems; provide shade to plants; actively prevent bushfires; and diversify their crops with plants that will adapt to the changing environment, including oranges, cashews, and the dreaded oil palm. The researchers also recommend that scientists concentrate on developing drought-tolerant cocoa and become active in helping nations develop sound agricultural policy. Finally, the researchers suggest that governments extend credit to cocoa farmers that will enable them to implement changes in their practices to promote sustainability.

As usual, the headlines are eye-catching—”Global Chocolate Crisis Looms“—but the solution is much more mundane. Just about every commodity these days has entered a “crisis” phase, which in the end is nothing more than the enactment of the law of supply and demand.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: February 25, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Mycoremediation: Fighting Pollution with Morsels of Morels

Plastics. Ever since a young Dustin Hoffman received that one-word pearl of wisdom in The Graduate, we’ve been paying for it environmentally. Our landfills are bursting at the seams with discarded plastic. Nothing—not even herculean recycling efforts—has been able to stem the tide of these no longer useful petroleum-based products.

Enter mycoremediation, which is the practice of using fungi—specifically the mycelia, or vegetative part of fungi—to biodegrade the formerly unbiodegradable, including plastics. Mycoremediation is a subspecialty of bioremediation, which is the practice of using natural organisms to break down hazardous substances into nonhazardous substances.

Mycelia from a fungus.

In one interesting experiment conducted by a group known as the Radical Mycology Collective, fungi was used to bioremediate cigarette butts, which are made from cellulose acetate, a simple form of plastic. Given that cigarette butts are one of the most common waste products in the world and that when buried in a landfill they may take 10 to 15 years to break down, this is mighty practical science. The experiment demonstrated that fungi can be trained to use their enzymes to break down cellulose acetate, readily found in nature as the walls of plant cells, into simple sugars. These sugars then become part of the natural food chain, and voila—no more nasty nicotine-soaked butts.

But mycoremediation hasn’t stopped at plastics. Mycologists have proven that fungi can undo even more serious environmental damage. Early studies regarding the use of fungi to clean up oil spills, DDT contamination, and Agent Orange dump sites are promising, although large scale projects using mycoremediation are still a ways off.

Oyster mushroom mycelia growing on coffee grounds.

All of this is because of fungi’s role in the environment. They are organisms uniquely suited to play the essential role of helping organic matter decompose, thus creating soil and dispersing nutrients to other organisms. According to the Radical Mycology website:

Through their co-evolution with plants and animals over millions of years, the fungi have come to fill several roles in nature, one being as primary decomposers, responsible for 90% of all decomposition on the planet. The decomposing, or saprotrophic, fungi survive by excreting powerful enzymes to breakdown the molecules of organic matter into simple sugars that they use as food. Similar to how a fly eats, the fungi digest externally and then ingest their food as a liquid. The connection between death and new life is made literal by the fungi in this nutrient cycling that enables new plants to grow from the byproducts produced by the decomposition of dead organisms.

The public face of mycoremediation is Paul Stamets, a researcher, activist, author, and entrepreneur who has worked for 30 years to understand the essential role fungi plays in the biome. He runs  You can find Stamets’s TED talk, “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World” right here. But here’s the short version:

  • Burlap sacks embedded with mycelia could be planted downstream from farms and digest coliform bacteria such as E. coli before it gets into our water and food supply. Here’s a study of how the process worked in the Dungeness Watershed in Washington.
  • Mycelia can be cultivated as a biodefense against pox viruses.
  • Mycelia can be cultivated as a biodefense against flu viruses.
  • Fungi can transform the pesticide industry through the large-scale development of mycelia that kill termites and carpenter ants and makes an area permanently immune to them.
  • The Life Box, a cardboard box infused with mycelia, can become a large-scale form of carbon sequestration in which shipping materials become part of the biome rather than part of the waste stream.
  • The energy crisis can be partly solved by the creation of Econol, a form of ethanol created from mycelia.

Mycoremediation is a growing field (heh), and welcomes the citizen scientist as much as the pedigreed scientist. Toward that end, the annual Radical Mycology Convergence gathers together those seeking to integrate mycology with the deep ecology movement; the 2014 conference will take place in the Midwest, with the date TBD. This is your best chance to rub shoulders with the individuals interested in harnessing fungi’s powers of decomposition in an effort to undo some of what modern industrialization has wrought.

Mushrooms: Once a tasty topping for your pizza, now a cutting-edge weapon in the fight to save the planet.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: February 4, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , ,

The Five-Year-Old’s Guide to the Polar Vortex

I have never gazed out at a beautiful sunset on the horizon and thought, “what a magnificent high pressure system!” I experience weather, not pressure systems, so I tend to zone out when the meteorologist is all “a high pressure system is stalling cold air over the plains . . . .” But my interest in weather perked up a few weeks ago when the polar vortex came to visit. A catchy name, a whiff of danger, three days off school for the kids—it was hard not to get caught up in the hoopla. And better yet—the polar vortex turned out to be a real thing, not some made-up, sexy headline term, like Snowmaggedon. I needed to learn more about this polar vortex phenomenon, but in terms that a five-year-old could understand. You see, over the holidays, I’d spent way too much time on the subreddit ELI5 (“explain like I’m five”). Kindergarten is now my default.

So here goes. The Earth has two major polar vortices, also known as polar cyclones, one near the North Pole and one near the South Pole. They are a permanent and integral part of the planet’s weather patterns. They get stronger in the winter due to the temperature differential between the poles and the equator and are weaker in the summer. Their average temperature is about -130 degrees F. If you’re a meteorologist, you learned all about them at meteorology school.

Here’s a polar cyclone near Iceland on September 3, 2003. Photo by NASA. We may not be able to land a man on the moon anymore, but we can sure take nice photos of Earth.

Although this photo makes the vortex look like a standalone hurricane, it is actually an elongated system with two separate spiraling centers—one usually hangs around Baffin Island in Canada, the other lives over Siberia. In this image, the Baffin Island cyclone had moved east.

Normally, the polar vortex at the North Pole stays where it belongs. The problems in January began when it decided to take a vacation down south—right on top of millions of unsuspecting Americans and Canadians who were just going about their business. But why did it venture south? ELI5 answer: It was pushed by the jet stream, that undulating halo of westerly winds that encircles the globe at the northern latitudes:

The undulating meanders in the polar jet stream are called Rossby waves. As you can see in image (c), a rogue Rossby wave can push the polar air way down where it doesn’t belong; in this case the polar vortex was jammed right down over the Great Lakes:

To add to the Midwest’s misery, a huge snowstorm just prior to the visitation from the polar vortex exacerbated the cold. The thick layer of snow reflected all heat back up into the atmosphere.

But here’s what’s weird. It’s when the polar vortex is weak that cold air is likely to escape to lower latitudes. That’s right, what we got was a weak vortex that couldn’t defend itself against the jet stream (the explanation involves high pressure and low pressure, so we’ll skip it).

You may not remember, but a similar polar vortex event took place in January, 1985, in that hallowed era before we were tethered to our electronic devices telling us the sky was falling. In Chicago, temperatures with wind chill reached -60 degrees F. Florida’s citrus crop was a total loss and President Reagan’s second inaugural took place in the Capitol Rotunda instead of outside and the inaugural parade was cancelled. In that event, the vortex was centered over Quebec and Maine:

Polar Vortices and Climate Change

The effect of polar vortices on climate change or as the result of climate change are difficult to isolate. Weather systems are just that—systems—and they are the result of many interrelated factors. The polar vortices and the jet stream operate hand-in-hand, and they both operate in the tropopause, which is the transition between the troposphere (the portion of the atmosphere closest to Earth’s surface) and the stratosphere (um, higher up). The tropopause is characterized by a temperature inversion, where the layers of temperature of the troposphere, which go from warm to cool the higher you go, meet the stratosphere, which is characterized by layers of air that go from cooler to warmer the higher you go.

Linking events like the January polar vortex to climate change will take time—like, decades of time. But right now scientists are leaning toward the idea of extreme weather events being part of the feedback loop in which reduced snow and ice near the poles (due to rising global temperatures) results in less sunlight reflecting back up into space. This means more sunlight is absorbed, which further increases evaporation of snow and ice. In turn, the polar vortex weakens, allowing the jet stream to meander further south, bringing with it lower temperatures and blocked weather systems. A Cornell professor presented a convincing case that Hurricane Sandy was the result of one of these blocked weather systems. So in winter time, it seems, some evidence points to on-the-move polar vortices being instrumental in bringing colder weather to a region.

This is just another reason why we all have to get used to saying global climate change instead of global warming. Scientists have been telling us for years that climate change means wild swings in weather patterns and more destructive storms. Anyone forced to spend a couple hours shoveling after one of our recent blizzards is bound to agree, especially if they live in a place where there aren’t supposed to be blizzards.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.


Posted on: January 22, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

Geoengineering: Fighting Climate Change by Outsmarting the Sun

In 1946, Kurt Vonnegut’s brother, renowned atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut, pioneered the use of silver iodide for seeding clouds to produce rain, becoming the first in a long line of scientists intent on tinkering with the weather. However, a spring shower or two isn’t going to mitigate the oncoming freight train of anthropogenic climate change. Rising global temperatures, melting polar ice, and acidifying oceans—they’re no match for a few chemical pellets dispersed by a Cessna.

Enter geoengineering, the latest hope for eradicating the worst effects of climate change. All the treaties and Earth summits in the world haven’t done much to get even one minivan off the road, so it doesn’t look like we’re going to save the planet by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. That leaves finding creative ways to cool the planet. Like dimming the sun by shooting particulates into the upper atmosphere to mimic the effects of a major volcano eruption, which would reflect the sun’s rays and cool the Earth. Sounds . . . dicey.

Edward Teller, that scion of the early atomic age commonly known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” was an early commenter on geoengineering, authoring a paper for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 1998 called Sunscreen for Planet Earth. In it, he credits Freeman Dyson for being the first scientist to consider blocking the sun’s rays by creating a filter of particles in the atmosphere—a concept Dyson first outlined in 1979, back when Carl Sagan was still talking about a nuclear winter and the coming ice age.

More recently, geoengineering has been a favorite topic in Popular Science. They’ve run pieces on the plan to coat rooftops with reflective paint, the plan to manufacture artificial trees that would capture excess carbon, and the plan to place biofuel algae tanks on rooftops. Then there’s the plan to create a bunch of wind-powered cloud ships to sail the seas and spray enough water into the atmosphere to envelop the planet in puffy white clouds that will reflect sunlight and presumably lead to the collapse of the sunglasses industry. Then there’s a really far out plan to pump desalinated seawater into the Sahara Desert to turn it into a lush oasis.

Of course, one of science’s jobs is to tell us that we’ll all have driverless cars by 2020. Science’s other job is to keep it real. Toward that end, the National Academy of Sciences is collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and the Department of Energy for a 21-month study to evaluate two of the most commonly cited geoengineering techniques: solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). The final report will provide a risk-benefit analysis of implementing the techniques, take a stab at projecting their costs, and outline other techniques in development that may prove useful. The final report is due in the fall of 2014, so sit tight.

Meanwhile, several worthwhile books have been written on the ramifications of geoengineering. One of the most highly esteemed is Harvard professor David Keith’s A Case for Climate Engineering. The upshot is this: We’ve known about the dangers of climate change for years and all our expensive efforts to combat it have delivered very slim results. That means that climate engineering technology must be considered at least as a component of the solution, which entails continued research to understand what it can and can’t feasibly do.

Presumably, Keith argues against the type of rogue geoengineering perpetrated by the Haida people, an indigenous group in British Columbia, led by the controversial geoengineer Russ George in 2012. Faced with the disappearance of the salmon that is a mainstay of their diet, the Haida paid George $1 million to disperse 100 tons of iron dust in the ocean in an effort to generate an algal bloom that would soak up excess carbon dioxide in the water and allow their fish to return. What George had really done was violate the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. It’s safe to say that whatever your opinion on geoengineering, taking matters into your own hands—or boat, as the case may be—is almost certainly more dangerous than driving your kids to a soccer game on an ozone action day.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: January 7, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , ,