Hopeful Energy Future Clouded by Fungi
CHAPTER 25 - Fusion and Fungi
North Carolina can be proud. It has found a way to solve the global warming problem - just pass a law. Without the Governor's signature, the bill that I mentioned in an earlier column became law. According to an item in the August 10 issue of Science, North Carolina agencies involved in coastal planning cannot consider accelerated sea level rise in their deliberations until July 1, 2016. They must base their predictions on a linear rate of increase in sea level based on "historical" data! So, for four years, planners cannot take into account the growing sense in the scientific community that, thanks to polar ice cap melting and other factors, the sea level rise is accelerating. Surely the North Carolina legislators should be in line for a Nobel Prize for their finding that science can be legislated!
Interesting. I began last month's column with a mention of a discovery that truly will result in a Nobel Prize at CERN, the same institution that also was involved in a discredited claim that neutrinos traveled faster than the speed of light. In the August 12 New York Times, there was a long obituary marking the death on August 3 of Martin Fleischmann, one of the proponents of another discredited claim, "cold fusion". On March 23,1989 , Fleischmann and B. Stanley Pons announced they had achieved nuclear fusion in a jar at the University of Utah. As noted in my column of 1/4/2000, the very next day I got a call from Albuquerque from my former colleague and boss at Bell Labs, Carl Thurmond, saying the claim was a fraud and that Pons and Fleischmann should be run out of town. While the two scientists thought their claim was true, it was not cold fusion and, 23 years later, there have been no confirmations of their claim despite perhaps hundreds of attempts at labs all over the world. Cold fusion sparked a very interesting book titled "Bad Science" by Gary Taubes.
The death of Fleischmann prompted me to follow up on another nuclear fusion claim, namely, so-called "bubble fusion". It appears that, as with cold fusion, bubble fusion also does not have legs. The claims of bubble fusion involved collapsing bubbles generating very high temperatures, sufficiently high to initiate fusion of deuterium in an organic solvent. Were it true that bubble fusion was real, it would be a monumental step towards solving the energy problem and also cutting carbon emissions. The main proponent of bubble fusion was a fellow named Rusi Taleyarkhan. On perusing the Web, I find that Taleyarkhan has been accused misconduct and has been barred from receiving any federal funding for his research. Nuclear fusion looks as though it's never going to come to fruition in the sense that it will become the solution to providing clean energy.
Or is there hope? One approach I've discussed in these columns is to induce fusion by using powerful lasers to heat deuterium and/or tritium to a high enough temperature under sufficient pressure that fusion occurs and gives off more energy than was used to start the fusion. Recently, a major step towards achieving that goal was taken at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. On July 5, 192 powerful lasers were all fired within trillionths of a second of each other to deliver to a tiny 2-millimeter target a 500 terawatt beam of light with an energy of 1.85 megajoules. OK, you might ask, is that a lot of power and energy? Well, 500 terawatts is 500 trillion watts, more power than is used in the whole USA at any given time! The energy of 1.85 megajoules (million joules) is about a hundred times the energy delivered by any other lasers operating today, according to NIF's press release.
As a former battery person, I like to think of power and energy in terms of watts and watt-hours, respectively. Take a 100-watt light bulb turned on for 10 hours. That 100-watt bulb burns 100 watts times 10 hours = 1,000 watt-hours of energy. Depending on where you live, that 1 kilowatt-hour of energy costs you somewhere in the neighborhood of ten cents, give or take a few pennies. If my math is correct, the 1.85 megajoules corresponds to about 514 watt-hours, enough energy to keep that 100-watt bulb burning for 5 hours. So, what's the big deal? All the fuss is about only enough energy to light a bulb for 5 hours.
The answer is that the energy from those 192 lasers is delivered to this little 2-millimeter sphere in pulses lasting just billionths of a second! All that energy concentrated in a very small space for a very short period of time means that the temperature and pressure rises to extremely high values, hopefully high enough to initiate fusion of the deuterium. The NIF Web site likens the delivery of the 192 beams to arrive within trillionths of a second of one another at the small target to a pitcher in AT&T Park in San Francisco having to throw a strike to a catcher in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles 350 miles away. As best I can determine, the cost of building NIF was somewhere in the $4 billion range.
As I write this, I'm looking forward to having a couple slices of mushroom pizza at our monthly gathering of a group of former Bell Labs colleagues associated with the battery effort I was engaged in for some 17 years. In that August 10 issue of Science there was an alarming News Focus article by Kai Kupferschmidt on fungi. I wasn't alarmed by the statement in the article that those mushrooms I'm about to ingest are more closely related to me than to the lettuce in the salad that may accompany the pizza. It seems that, unlike the prevailing view years ago that fungi were related closely to plants, fungi actually had a more recent common ancestor with us animals. The fact that I'm related to the mushroom doesn't bother me insofar as enjoying my mushroom pizza is concerned. Not being a vegan, I enjoy eating much closer relatives such as chickens, cows and pigs.
What is alarming is the discussion in the article of the apparent increasing prevalence of fungal diseases that threaten amphibians (notably frogs) and bats. Concerning the latter, the fungal disease known as white nose syndrome has devastated bat populations in certain areas of this country and this isn't good. Bats are voracious insect eaters and I'm guessing the recent rise in West Nile virus cases may be due in part to fewer bats eating the offending mosquitoes - just a guess. And the demise of amphibians all over the world has long been a problem that has baffled scientists. Now that at least one major cause of the deaths of bats and frogs has been determined, the problem remains - how do we control the deadly fungi?
Oh, I almost forgot. The article notes that fungi are also a major cause of crop losses for farmers. I believe I've noted in an earlier column that the Cavendish banana, the type we typically buy in our supermarkets, is in danger of being wiped out by a fungus known as Tropical Race Four, which arose in Asia. Banana growers are praying Tropical Race four doesn't hit Latin America or there go our bananas! Almost every day for the past 40 or 50 years, I have my banana and orange juice I've beaten together in my blender.
Kupferschmidt ends his article with an even more frightening suggestion. We humans and the animals we most care about such as dogs, cats, pigs, cows, etc. are not generally affected by fungi. The reason for our apparent resistance to fungal problems is that most fungi cannot grow at the body temperatures of warm-blooded animals. However, with the advent of AIDS, millions of people have compromised immune systems and an estimated million people a year come down with a cryptococcal meningitis, a fungal infection of the membranes covering the brain. This fungal infection is apparently fatal in most cases!
The article raises the possibility that with global warming fungi, with a genetic makeup that makes fungi flexible and open to change, may adapt to higher temperatures. This would not bode well for us and our animal friends or food sources. Hey, I'm suddenly looking forward to the cooler temps of autumn and even the icy winter! Maybe North Carolina can pass a law specifically banning global warming ?
Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about October 1.
Allen F. Bortrum