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Lasers could cut lifespan of nuclear waste from "a million years to 30 minutes," says Nobel laureate

Physicist plans to karate-chop them with super-fast blasts of light.

(Oleksiy Mark/Borys Magierowski/Shutterstock/Big Think)
  • Gérard Mourou has already won a Nobel for his work with fast laser pulses.
  • If he gets pulses 10,000 times faster, he says he can modify waste on an atomic level.
  • If no solution is found, we're already stuck with some 22,000 cubic meters of long-lasting hazardous waste.

Whatever one thinks of nuclear energy, the process results in tons of radioactive, toxic waste no one quite knows what to do with. As a result, it's tucked away as safely as possible in underground storage areas where it's meant to remain a long, long time: The worst of it, uranium 235 and plutonium 239, have a half life of 24,000 years. That's the reason eyebrows were raised in Europe — where more countries depend on nuclear energy than anywhere else — when physicist Gérard Mourou mentioned in his wide-ranging Nobel acceptance speech that lasers could cut the lifespan of nuclear waste from "a million years to 30 minutes," as he put it in a followup interview with The Conversation.

Who is Gérard Mourou?

Mourou was the co-recipient of his Nobel with Donna Strickland for their development of Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA) at the University of Rochester. In his speech, he referred to his "passion for extreme light."

CPA produces high-intensity, super-short optical pulses that pack a tremendous amount of power. Mourou's and Strickland's goal was to develop a means of making highly accurate cuts useful in medical and industrial settings.

It turns out CPA has another benefit, too, that's just as important. Its attosecond pulses are so quick that they shine a light on otherwise non-observable, ultra-fast events such as those inside individual atoms and in chemical reactions. This capability is what Mourou hopes give CPA a chance of neutralizing nuclear waste, and he's actively working out a way to make this happen in conjunction with Toshiki Tajima of UC Irvine. As Mourou explains to The Conversation:

"Take the nucleus of an atom. It is made up of protons and neutrons. If we add or take away a neutron, it changes absolutely everything. It is no longer the same atom, and its properties will completely change. The lifespan of nuclear waste is fundamentally changed, and we could cut this from a million years to 30 minutes!

We are already able to irradiate large quantities of material in one go with a high-power laser, so the technique is perfectly applicable and, in theory, nothing prevents us from scaling it up to an industrial level. This is the project that I am launching in partnership with the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, or CEA, in France. We think that in 10 or 15 years' time we will have something we can demonstrate. This is what really allows me to dream, thinking of all the future applications of our invention."

While 15 years may seem a long time, when you're dealing with the half-life of nuclear waste, it's a blink of an eye.

Nuclear waste in Europe

Although nuclear energy struggles for acceptance as an energy source in the U.S. after a series of disturbing incidents and the emergence of alternative sources such as solar and wind energy, many European nations have embraced it. France is chief among them, relying on nuclear energy for 71% of its energy needs. Ukraine is the next most dependent on it, for 56% of its power, followed closely by Slovakia, then Belgium, Hungary, Sweden, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, according to Bloomberg. None of them have a good plan for nuclear waste, other than storing it somewhere in hopes of an eventual solution or thousands of trouble-fee years during which it stays put and doesn't escape into water supplies or the air.

And there's a lot of this stuff. Greenpeace estimates there are roughly 250,000 tons of it in 14 countries across the world. Of that, about 22,000 cube meters is hazardous. The cost of storing it all, according to GE-Hitachi, is more than $100 billion, (discounting China, Russia, and India).

Transmuting the nuclear waste problem

([general-fmv]/Shutterstock)

The process Mourou is investigating is called "transmutation." "Nuclear energy is maybe the best candidate for the future," he told the Nobel audience, "but we are still left with a lot of dangerous junk. The idea is to transmute this nuclear waste into new forms of atoms which don't have the problem of radioactivity. What you have to do is to change the makeup of the nucleus." After his speech he phrase his plans for lasers and waste more plainly: "It's like karate — you deliver a very strong force in a very, very brief moment."

The idea of transmutation's not new. It's been under investigation for 30 years in the U.K., Belgium, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. Some of these efforts are ongoing. Others have been given up. Rodney C. Ewing of Stanford tells Bloomberg, "I can imagine that the physics might work, but the transmutation of high-level nuclear waste requires a number of challenging steps, such as the separation of individual radionuclides, the fabrication of targets on a large scale, and finally, their irradiation and disposal."

Mourou and Tajima hope to be able to shrink the distance a light beam has to travel to transmute atoms by a further 10,000 times. "I think about what it could mean all the time," Mourou says at Ecole Polytechnique, where he teaches. "I don't overlook the difficulties that lie ahead. I dream of the idea, but we will have to wait and see what happens in the years to come."

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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