April 17, 2024

Playing with Fire

By Stephen Tuttle | Jan. 6, 2024

Science is always trying to stay at least one step ahead of our needs and sometimes ahead of things we likely don’t need at all. Let’s see what 2024 has in store for us.

There is now such a thing as a micro nuclear power plant. Small enough to be moved by truck and able to fit inside a standard shipping container, they could generate enough power for a neighborhood or a small community. Their portability might be useful in the aftermath of a natural disaster or for an isolated off-grid settlement. Additionally, the uranium they use, U-235, is less enriched than that used in full-size reactors and would be far more difficult to weaponize.

On the significant downside, these small reactors are, at least thus far, much less efficient than their full-sized relatives, and they produce significant amounts of waste. We’ve made strides in developing ways to repurpose and recycle nuclear waste, but not enough.

Maybe the solution is fusion, the so-called Holy Grail of energy research. According to our Department of Energy, fusion occurs when the nuclei of atoms of light elements, usually hydrogen and helium, are forced to combine under extreme pressure or heat, creating a massive energy release. The byproduct of this reaction is not radioactive waste but helium, which dissipates into the atmosphere without much incident.

American scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have successfully created a fusion reaction in which they produced more energy than was used in developing the experiment, a first now duplicated at least three additional times.

Not much energy was created and not for very long—fractions of a second and then a few seconds—but that it could be done at all is considered a significant breakthrough. And according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, while fusion does not create radioactive waste or used fuel cells, it does create radiation of the sort that isn’t good for living things in the immediate vicinity. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says current technologies and materials will not withstand the heat required to produce useful amounts of fusion energy, and cold fusion is still an unproven theory.

When not trying evermore creative ways to use nuclear energy, the scientific community is discovering new animal species and trying to reanimate old ones.

According to the Natural History Museum, a stunning 815 new animal species were researched last year, including 619 new wasp species. It is not abnormal for new insect species to be found annually, but the treasure trove of new wasps was pretty unusual. In addition, biologists discovered a giant crab spider in Ecuador—legs 2-3 inches long and it can move sideways, like a crab—and a snail-eating snake that hangs out in southern Panama and northern Colombia.

(As is always the case, these “new discoveries” were neither new nor a discovery to the indigenous people living in the areas where all the new animals were found.)

Then there was this; a somewhat new field of science now being called “resurrection biology,” and it’s hard to see how this is a good idea.

These are folks who want to resurrect extinct species using their DNA. Among their favorite targets are the wooly mammoth, a giant relative of our elephant that last existed around 1650 BCE; the quagga, a kind of horse/zebra combination that disappeared in 1883; a massive bovine creature called the auroch which vanished in 1627; the passenger pigeon, which we managed to wipe out with commercial hunting and just-for-fun slaughter in the early 20th century; and the Tasmanian tiger, a predatory marsupial, the last of which died in captivity in 1936.

While there is a certain appeal in bringing back that which we’ve destroyed, the notion raises some troubling questions and realities. Some of these are large animals requiring significant habitat that no longer exists. Additionally, the air they breathed, the water they drank, and the food they ate have all changed significantly. It is not clear they could survive now or how they would compete with or out-compete existing species.

We may be resurrecting real trouble in another area. As the Siberian permafrost continues to melt, really old viruses are coming back to life, and scientists are extracting deeper and deeper samples and discovering truly ancient potential trouble. Our National Institutes of Health says viruses up to 65,000 years old have reawakened from their long slumber. These are ancient tiny critters just waiting to come back to life we may not recognize, understand, or have a defense against.

As climate change softens and melts additional layers of permafrost, more and more of our ancient viral and bacterial history will emerge. It won’t all be harmless.

So, we’re playing with the literal fire of nuclear reactions and the figurative fire of resurrecting species and viruses…all without knowing where either will lead.


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