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Useable materials from waste
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The waste in your body might not be as much of a waste as you think. At a meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers have announced that they are working on a way to extract tons of valuable metals from sewage.

A study published in Environmental Science and Technology earlier this year found that the waste from 1 million Americans might contain metal (including gold, silver, titanium, lead, and zinc) worth up to $13 million. With nearly 320 million people living in the United States, that's a substantial goldmine--if scientists can figure out how sift the valuables from the sludge.

Kathleen Smith from the U.S. Geological Survey is working with several cities to analyze the solid waste for precious metals, to see exactly how much and what kinds of metals might be found at wastewater treatment plants. In some places, the concentration of gold is about the same as the amount found in a natural mineral deposit.

How does gold get into solid waste to begin with? "There are metals everywhere," Smith says in a press release, "in your hair care products, detergents, even nanoparticles that are put in socks to prevent bad odors."

Getting them back out again will be the tricky part. Smith and her colleagues are looking into leachates, chemicals that can draw metal out of rock. Leachates are generally terrible for the environment, but Smith and other researchers hope that if they are only used in wastewater treatment plants that those dangerous side effects might be contained.

"In the other part of the project, we're interested in collecting valuable metals that could be sold, including some of the more technologically important metals, such as vanadium and copper that are in cell phones, computers and alloys," Smith said.

So sometime in the future, if you say "my cellphone is a piece of crap," you might be more accurate than you care to know.

 
Graphene the new dimension
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The Nobel Prize winners for graphene research, Andre Geim of Manchester University and colleagues, have revealed a new application for the ultra-thin, ultra-strong material that could revolutionize fuel cell technology and open new doors for generating clean energy, reports Reuters.
 
Graphene, which was first isolated in 2004, is the thinnest material on Earth at just one atom thick, and is 200 times stronger than steel. It is impermeable to all gases and liquids, making it extremely useful, and its discovery paved the way for everything from corrosion-proof coating to super-thin condoms. 
 
In their latest research, Geim and his team have also shown that this super-material could potentially be used for "sieving" hydrogen gas from the atmosphere, for the purpose of generating electricity. The finding could make hydrogen fuel cells more viable than ever before, and even make it possible to collect fuel right out of the air.
 
"We are very excited about this result because it opens a whole new area of promising applications for graphene in clean energy harvesting and hydrogen-based technologies," said Geim's co-researcher on the study, Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo.
 
Though graphene is impermeable to even the smallest of atoms, Geim and his team found that protons, or hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons, were nevertheless capable of passing through the material. This was especially the case when the graphene was heated and when graphene films were covered with platinum nanoparticles, which act as catalysts.
 
Basically, this means that graphene could potentially be used in proton-conducting membranes, which are essential components of fuel cell technology. Graphene would be a superior material for these components because it does not leak — a common problem with membranes made of other materials — which would greatly improve efficiency.
 
Perhaps even more remarkable, however, is that this latest breakthrough means graphene membranes could be used to extract hydrogen straight from the atmosphere. When combined with fuel cells, this technology could make it possible to make mobile electric generators powered just by the tiny amounts of hydrogen in the air.
 
"Essentially, you pump your fuel from the atmosphere and get electricity out of it," Geim said. "Our (study) provides proof that this kind of device is possible."
 
Nuclear fusion progress
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Nuclear fusion has been described as the 'holy grail' of energy, a source of power that could solve the world's impending fuel crisis.

Now we may be a step closer to achieving it after Lockheed Martin announced a 'breakthrough' in developing a power source based on the technology.

The Maryland-based company said the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Nuclear fission breaks a single atom into two, while nuclear fusion combines two atoms into one. The latter process creates three to four times as much energy as fission. 

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works for about four years,

This is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, Mr McGuire told reporters at a recent press conference.

Fusion works by using two kinds of hydrogen atoms — deuterium and tritium — and injecting that gas into a containment vessel.

Scientist then add energy that removes the electrons from their host atoms, forming what is described as an ion plasma. 

The key to Lockheed's system is their tube-like design, which allows them to get around one of the limitations of traditional fusion reactor designs, that are limited by the amount plasma they can hold.

Lockheed has found a way to constrain the plasma, using what is called a compact fusion reactor (CFR) with a specifically shaped magnetic field inside.

When the plasma tries to expand the magnetic field fights back to contain it. In effect, this means the plasma works to contain itself.

The company, the Pentagon's largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years.

In recent years, Lockheed has become increasingly involved in a variety of alternate energy projects, including several ocean energy projects, as it looks to offset a decline in U.S. and European military spending.

Lockheed's work on fusion energy could help in developing new power sources amid increasing global conflicts over energy, and as projections show there will be a 40 per cent to 50 per cent increase in energy use over the next generation, Mr McGuire said.

If it proves feasible, Lockheed's work would mark a key breakthrough in a field that scientists have long eyed as promising, but which has not yet yielded viable power systems. 

The effort seeks to harness the energy released during nuclear fusion, when atoms combine into more stable forms.

'We can make a big difference on the energy front,' Mr McGuire added, noting Lockheed's 60 years of research on nuclear fusion as a potential energy source. 

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.

Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the Earth's oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.

RECREATING THE SUN'S CORE 

Nuclear fusion is a process by which the nuclei of deuterium and tritium, both isotopes obtained from hydrogen, are fused together to create heavier particles.

In theory, energy generated through fusion would leave no dangerous waste or pollute the atmosphere.

And the fuel is found in abundance in seawater, which covers more than two-thirds of the planet.

The process requires extreme temperatures and pressure equivalent to those found on our Sun and other active stars. 

It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.

Mr McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.

Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years.

A small reactor could power a U.S. Navy warship, and eliminate the need for other fuel sources that pose logistical challenges.

U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers run on nuclear power, but they have large fission reactors on board that have to be replaced on a regular cycle.

'What makes our project really interesting and feasible is that timeline as a potential solution,' Mr McGuire added.

However, there was some skepticism over the viability of the design. Dr Joel Gilmore is Principal - Renewable Energy & Climate Policy at Roam Consulting said: 

'Certainly, I'd welcome fusion as part of the world's energy mix, but this announcement is a long way from a working prototype, let alone a commercially viable power generator.

'Fusion requires incredibly high temperatures and pressures, which is challenging, and a lot of people have been working on fusion for a long time. So I won't get too excited yet.'

Professor Roger Dargaville is a research fellow and leader of the MEI Energy Futures Group at the University of Melbourne said the technology was necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

'Nuclear energy is low carbon, and will be an important part of the electricity generation fleet in various countries around the world where other low carbon alternatives are not viable,' he said.

'The potential for the use of fusion reactors over fission is exciting news as the dangerous by-products of fission reactors are a major disadvantage of the technology.


 
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