The Higgs bang

Did the mass-giving particle make the universe too, asks Jon Cartwright

THEY say it started with a bang, but in truth it misfired. The universe began as
a hot speck of energy and, for an instant, remained just that. Then it blew up: from this initial seed, trillions upon trillions of times smaller than an atom, everything suddenly ballooned into the gargantuan proportions of a Tic Tac. In a mere fraction of a second, the universe expanded by nearly as many orders of magnitude as it would in the following 13.8 billion years.

Believe it or not, this burst of cosmological inflation, followed by a slower, tamer expansion, is the most sensible way to explain how the universe looks today. But there’s something missing: what did the inflating?

The answer could be everywhere, and right under our noses. When a long-sought particle finally appeared a few years back, it seemed to close a chapter in physics without giving any clue about what happens next. Read between the lines, though, as some theorists recently have, and you see that the famous Higgs boson – the particle that gives mass, or inertia, to all other particles – might have an explosive secret. “If the Higgs gives inertia to particles,” says Juan García-Bellido at the Autonomous University of Madrid, “can it give inertia to the entire universe?” […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Continue Reading

We need action on the low-carbon technology targets – Tor Ivar Eikaas

It is critical that we deliver on the targets for low-carbon technologies in the 2020s, 2030s and beyond which have been set as part of the EU’s Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan, according to Tor Ivar Eikaas, a special adviser at the Research Council of Norway and a long-standing representative of the SET-Plan steering group.

The SET-Plan began 10 years ago with the aim of accelerating the development and deployment of low-carbon technologies. Are we on our way?

‘You do see continuous improvements and rollout of new technology. You see it for photovoltaics and offshore wind, you see smart cities and energy storage. These are all good examples.

‘Hopefully what we are now seeing is a clear change from planning to action, and from technology development towards more innovation. We are also seeing a more holistic view of the whole energy system where the whole system (is) interacting in a much stronger way. Like computer systems – in the past they were small and isolated, then we got the internet and they all became connected. It’s a similar shift.’ […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Continue Reading

Surface water could refill Californian groundwater supplies

California’s groundwater “overdraft” could be paid off by redirecting high levels of flow in streams, rivers, reservoirs and other water channels, according to researchers in the US.

“There is enough water physically available to mitigate long-term groundwater overdraft,” said Helen Dahlke of the University of California, Davis. “We just have to manage it more efficiently.”

In years of high streamflow, the team’s analysis shows, over three cubic kilometres of excess surface water is exported from California’s Central Valley to the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, often when the required flows of the delta and its major rivers are exceeded. That’s potentially enough to boost or even replenish groundwater levels, over time. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Continue Reading

Opposite stuff

A weird, self-destructive blend of opposite stuffs briefly reigned at the birth of the universe. Recreating it could crack the nut of nuclear fusion

A FRACTION of a second after the big bang, a new type of stuff flooded the universe. It was hot, it was self-destructive and it was weird. It wasn’t matter. It wasn’t antimatter. It was both.

This was the electron-positron plasma, a perfect balance of electrons and their antimatter equivalent. Within seconds, it had blinked itself out of existence: electrons and positrons annihilate on contact, their mass converting entirely into energy.

In some of the universe’s biggest explosions, that process can be reversed, as pure energy spawns matter and antimatter. So we don’t have to go all the way back to the big bang to understand the plasma – its hallmarks are all around us in these mysterious flashes lighting up the night sky.

Just recently, too, we’ve gone one better, replicating in the lab what normally takes place in an exploding star. That’s no trivial undertaking, and raises the question of why we would want to. The reason is that the unique qualities of an electron-positron plasma makes it the ideal test bed for understanding the fundamental workings of more readily available plasmas. And if we can do that, there might be nothing stopping us from unlocking nuclear fusion, a theoretically limitless source of clean, safe power that could solve all our climate woes. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Continue Reading

Mystery of crucial first moments of Chernobyl disaster solved

Saturday 26 April 1986 was a day that shook the world. At 1.23 am, the number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, leapt to more than 100 times its usual operating power. As a result, high pressure steam in the reactor vessel exploded and parts of the reactor shot through the roof of the building, igniting fires that ejected highly radioactive nuclides over much of the western Soviet Union and Europe.

At least, that’s the sequence of events many experts have agreed on. Now, scientists in Sweden have reanalysed data from the event, and concluded that the first explosion in the Chernobyl disaster was due not to steam, but to a runaway nuclear reaction.

The new conclusions do not revise the underlying cause of the disaster. That is widely believed to be the operators’ decision, less than an hour earlier, to proceed with a long-awaited experiment to see how the reactor would cope under a power outage, despite a series of operational failures leaving it in a potentially unstable state. After the recovery did not go to plan, witnesses reported two major explosions just a few seconds apart. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Continue Reading

Arctic routes are seasonally predictable

It’s possible to predict the existence of viable shipping routes through the Arctic several months in advance, according to scientists in the UK.

The ability is a boon for shipping companies hoping to exploit Arctic routes, which are becoming more accessible due to declining sea ice in the region.

In principle, predictions of the opening and closing of the Arctic shipping season can be made as early as January, the researchers found, although there is a step-change to much higher predictability after May. By July, two months before the usual sea-ice minimum, it should be possible to predict the fastest open-water route through the Arctic to within 200 kilometres, the scientists believe.

“Skilful predictions at seasonal timescales are rare in the climate and meteorology world,” said Nathanael Melia of the University of Reading. “This study establishes that skilful seasonal predictions for the availability of Arctic shipping routes are potentially possible.” […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Continue Reading

The tide is turning for underwater turbines

A scale-up of tidal energy projects aims to expand capacity, improve reliability and prove their worth to investors as a renewable energy source.

It’s clean, doesn’t spoil the landscape and is totally predictable, yet tidal power is one of the least exploited forms of renewable energy.

The challenge of building out at sea, the toll the salt water can take on equipment and the huge strain the currents can put on components has meant that it is seen as an expensive endeavour.

‘The sea is one of the world’s most challenging environments,’ said Simon Forrest, chief executive of Nova Innovation, a tidal power company based in Edinburgh, UK. ‘However, technical innovation and learnings from the wind sector are being used to make the dream of harnessing energy from the tide a reality.’

Last year, Nova Innovation deployed the world’s first array of tidal turbines, which were connected to the electricity grid in Shetland, UK. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Continue Reading

Show us your metal

One of the rarest metals in the universe, metallic hydrogen could solve many energy problems – but has it finally been isolated in the lab? Jon Cartwright tries to sort out claim from counter-claim

Scientists aren’t immune to the allure of rare metals. Isaac Newton’s interest in alchemy is well documented: when the natural philosopher wasn’t laying the groundwork for much of modern physics he was often secretively, obsessively, attempting to turn lead into gold. These days, physicists are hoping to turn a humble element into something yet more precious.

Hydrogen is the lightest of all atoms, not to mention the most abundant, accounting for three-quarters of all the universe’s normal matter. As we commonly know it, hydrogen is a molecular gas – colourless, odourless, mostly harmless and, some might say, rather dull. But under extreme pressure, hydrogen will supposedly turn into one of the rarest metals in the universe, one that is naturally non-existent here on Earth and perhaps only present in the underworlds of gas giants, such as Jupiter. The metal is coveted not just for its rarity, but also because it could turn out to be a stable room-temperature superconductor, and therefore go a great way to solving the world’s energy problems. For over a century physicists have sought metallic hydrogen. Within the past year, however, physicists Isaac Silvera and Ranga Dias (pictured above) at Harvard University in Massachusetts, US, claim they have finally made it, by squeezing hydrogen inside a diamond anvil cell to pressures of nearly five million atmospheres. Is it for real? “If it is true, it is a great achievement, fulfilling a long search for the atomic phase of hydrogen,” says David Ceperley, a theorist at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign in the US. “However, there is deep scepticism in the community about their experiment.”

To read this article, please contact Jon Cartwright for a pdf.

Continue Reading

Cleaner engines and spinning sails propel emissions reductions in big ships

A major overhaul of ship propulsion is underway to make global shipping cleaner and more energy-efficient.

By redesigning ship engines to accommodate different fuels, or by doing away with fuel altogether, engineers are hoping to slash the billion tonnes of carbon dioxide that is estimated to be released currently by the maritime transport industry.

‘Shipping accounts for about 2.5 % of global greenhouse gas emissions,’ said Professor Nikolaos Kyrtatos, a marine engineer at the National Technical University of Athens, Greece. ‘We’re looking at every aspect of marine engines to make them cleaner, more efficient and more reliable.’

Prof. Kyrtatos is the coordinator of HERCULES-2, an EU-backed project that has brought together Europe’s two major engine manufacturing groups, MAN Diesel & Turbo and Wärtsilä, which hold 90 % of the world market.

Such manufacturers would not have considered working together in the 1990s, but after a downturn in the marine engine industry in the early 2000s, along with the tightening of emission standards, the two companies decided to cooperate on research and development. […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Continue Reading

New York City was some 10°C hotter than local countryside during 2016 heatwaves

A study revealing the intensity of the “urban heat island” effect has prompted its US-based authors to say that more should be done to improve our understanding of coastal urban climates.

In heatwaves in July 2016, temperatures in New York City sometimes soared 10°C higher than the local countryside, according to the study by Prathap Ramamurthy and others at the City College of New York. Their research also revealed that New York’s heat island has internal boundary layers, which current weather models are unable to predict, according to the authors.

The study “challenges our current models that are overwhelmingly used to predict environmental flows in complex coastal urban areas,” said Ramamurthy. “Secondly, it shows that megacities like New York are highly vulnerable to extreme heat.” […]

The rest of this article is available here.

Continue Reading