To stay innovative, it helps to stay curious about the trends in science and what may be on the horizon. Today we talk about breakthroughs in Nuclear Fusion energy, Graphene’s amazing new conductivity and programmes to grow biofuels in the desert.

Laser-sparked fusion power passes key milestone

mg22129562.400-1_300The dream of a completely clean, high powered and almost limitless renewable energy source is getting closer. Nuclear Fusion is the process by which atoms are compressed to such a degree that their nuclei fuse, releasing a huge amount of energy. Essentially it is the opposite of current Nuclear Power, based on fission whereby large nuclei are torn apart to release energy. This is the process which happens in stars, turning Hydrogen into the heavier Helium, and all other natural elements.

The National Ignition Facility in California began experimenting in 2009 to slow progress. They are using lasers and X-rays to compress a fuel pellet with a frozen Hydrogen Istotope, but it takes significantly more energy to start the fusion reaction than the process actually produced, making it currently ineffective as a fuel source.

However, an article in Nature this week confirmed that a milestone had been passed, whereby of the amount of energy actually delivered to the pellet, the reaction released a surplus of energy. The next step is to improve the efficiency of how the lasers deliver energy to the pellet. However, this is still a long way away, perhaps decades, but once that has been refined, mankind will essentially be able to build miniature stars to produce nearly unlimited energy.

Biofuels being grown in the desert… with saltwater

halophytes-by-Tony-RoddWhile we are waiting for Fusion to be perfected, there could be another untapped fuel resource much closer to being ready. Darrin L. Morgan, Director Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Environmental Strategy at Boeing, reveals that researchers at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, funded by Boeing, Honeywell and Etihad Airways, may have achieved “the biggest breakthrough in biofuels ever”.

Alarmed by the poor quality of fuel made from shale oil and tar sands and frustrated by the blunt refusal of oil companies to provide fuel of better quality, Boeing and its partners have over the past 4 years funded research into alternative fuels that has led to spectacular results. They found a class of plants that can grow in deserts on salt water and has superb biomass potential.

Nobody knew this”, says Morgan. “It is a huge discovery. A game-changer for the biofuels market.

These plants, known as halophytes, are adapted to growing in arid conditions on saltwater, and can be readily turned into sugars, which in turn can be converted into high-quality biofuel usable in today’s engines. Deserts have always had the space on which to potentially grow biofuels, but the lack of freshwater in these regions prevented the agriculture being possible. These new plants could mean that huge stretches of currently barren coastline could be converted into fuel-producing areas, without using up arable land or grain crops which would otherwise be used for food. This truly could change world economies.

Graphene conducts electricity ten times better than expected

1.14676A lot has been written about Graphene’s amazing properties. This 1-atom-thick lattice of carbon atoms has amazing physical properties, from its theoretically being 100 times stronger than steel, to its unparalleled conductivity.

Experiments this week published in Nature in fact indicated that Graphene’s conductivity was 10 times better than was predicted by theory. This has huge implications for the future of electronics.

Current microchips based on Silicon transistors are reaching their fundamental microscopic limits. As Silicon semiconductors are made ever-smaller, their electron pathways cause higher levels of resistance, making it harder to transport electrons as more energy is lost as heat, and electrons are more difficult to control.

Graphene experimentation is still less than a decade old (it was only discovered in 2004), but experiments like this indicate there could be a future of Graphene-based microchips, enabling smaller, more powerful processors which require less energy to run and lose less as heat. Think of having a mobile phone with a charge that could last for days and you see the reason to get excited.

How do you think these discoveries may affect your business, your customers, or the world? Which scientific breakthroughs should we cover in the next Snapshot? Let us know in the comments below.

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