Scientists announce a fusion breakthrough with big implications for clean energy

by Robert Zullo, Kansas Reflector

Scientists at a U.S. national laboratory announced Tuesday that they achieved fusion ignition, a breakthrough decades in the making that could have major implications for clean energy.

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco said that on Dec. 5, for the first time anywhere in the world, they managed to produce more energy from a nuclear fusion reaction than was needed to produce it.

“This is what it looks like for America to lead. And we’re just getting started,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

However, at the announcement, officials said it would be years before a commercial application, such as a fusion power plant, might emerge.

“There are very significant hurdles, not just in the science but in technology,” said Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“Probably decades. Not six decades I don’t think. Not five decades, which is what we used to say. I think it’s moving into the foreground and probably with concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant.”

Granholm said the Biden administration has a goal of getting to a commercial fusion reactor in a decade.

“We’ve got to get to work and this shows that it can be done, which has been a question,” she said, adding that now researchers can begin improving the technology necessary to bring a commercial project to fruition.

Fusion, the same scientific process by which the sun and other stars are powered, involves the merging of two light atomic nuclei to form a single, heavier nucleus, a reaction that releases “massive amounts of energy,” according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Scientists have been attempting to harness fusion power since the 1930s because of its potential to provide vast amounts of clean energy, since fusion produces little waste and poses none of the hazards of nuclear fission, which splits atoms to generate heat. The challenge, however, has been recreating the conditions that allow fusion to occur, including extreme pressures and temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.

“In this experiment we used the world’s most energetic laser, the National Ignition Facility, to create X-rays that cause a tiny capsule to implode and create a very hot, very high pressure plasma,” said Mark Herrmann, the lab’s program director for weapon physics and design.

“And that plasma wants to immediately lose its energy. It wants to blow apart, it wants to radiate. It’s looking for ways to cool down. But the fusion reactions are depositing heat in that plasma. … So there’s a race between heating and cooling. And if the plasma gets a little bit hotter, the fusion reaction rate goes up, creating even more fusions … which gets even more heating. And so the question is can we win the race? And for many many decades we lost the race. … But last Monday that all changed.”

Herrmann and other officials said the fusion breakthrough will also help ensure the safety and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile, which is also part of Lawrence Livermore’s mission, without underground weapons testing, since fusion ignition is a component of thermonuclear weapons.

Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, recalled the summer she spent at Livermore as a student in 1978 working on lasers related to fusion experiments.

“They never lost sight of this goal,” she said. “And last week lo and behold, indeed they shot a bunch of lasers at a pellet of fuel and more energy was released from that fusion ignition than the energy of the lasers going in. … I just think this is such a tremendous example of what perseverance really can achieve.”

Andrew Holland, CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, a nonprofit working to commercialize fusion power that calls itself “the unified voice of the fusion industry,” said in a statement that the announcement is “an important milestone” and evidence that fusion “is not science fiction.”

“This will give governments around the world further incentive to support the development of commercial fusion energy,” Holland said. “It also shows that now is the time to establish regulatory regimes which both protect the public and encourage innovation. The FIA and our member companies will continue to meet milestones and drive rapid increases in fusion investment, while supporting efforts to increase interest from governments around the world.”

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Kansas lands deal for construction of $650 million, 500-job biomanufacturing facility

Gov. Kelly views economic development project as game changer

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Manhattan, Kansas — Gov. Laura Kelly spearheaded the announcement Monday of an agreement for construction of a $650 million, 500-employee manufacturing facility supporting development of vaccines to counter global biological threats.

The 500,000-square-foot Scorpion Biological Services facility in proximity to Kansas State University and the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility represented significant expansion of biopharmaceutical operations through parent company Heat Biologics of Morrisville, North Carolina. Manhattan and Kansas State beat out the other prominent bidder for the commercial plant — Iowa City and the University of Iowa.

“There is a strong demand for world-class biomanufacturing, which we expect will continue well into the future,” said David Halverson, president of Scorpion Biological. “Powered by an excellent Kansas workforce, we’re looking forward to rapidly growing and expanding Scorpion.”

Scorpion Biological, based in San Antonio, Texas, is expected to grow employment at the Manhattan facility to 500 within seven years. The company is finishing construction of a smaller clinical scale biologic manufacturing facility in San Antonio.

Gov. Kelly, who has touted her record in office in terms of economic development, said the Scorpion Biological project was a “game-changing facility that will have a massive positive impact in our state.”

“Being in the center of the country with quick access to either coast, there is no better state for Scorpion to locate in order to address potential threats to public health,” the governor said.

Scorpion Biological supports drug development from conception through clinical trials and commercial production in an effort to bring products to market faster and more reliably. A point of emphasis at Scorpion Biological is expanding reach of precision medicine for untreatable or treatment-resistant ailments.

The Kansas Department of Commerce said Scorpion Biological qualified for a package of state economic development incentives used to attract large employers the state.

“It’s absolutely critical that we, as a nation, increase our capacity for domestic production of these types of vaccines and we are extremely proud to see this work happen here in Kansas,” said David Toland, secretary of the Department of Commerce and the state’s lieutenant governor.

The project was a partnership with K-State, Kansas State University Innovation Partners, the city of Manhattan, Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, Pottawatomie County and the county’s economic development arm, Manhattan Area Technical College and several private companies.

The combination of a public research university and private-sector partners was important to the site selection decision, officials said.

“This facility represents the next stage in our evolution, enabling us to combine speed and agility with the full integration of discovery, development and manufacturing,” said Jeff Wolf, founder and chief executive officer of Heat Biologics.

Wolf also founded Seed-One Ventures, a firm focused on the formation and management of new biomedical companies; co-founder of Avigen, a NASDAQ-listed gene therapy company; co-founder of TyRx Pharma, focused on the development of biocompatible polymers; and co-founder of EluSys Therapeutics, a biodefense company concentrating on a medical countermeasure to anthrax exposure after a natural incident or intentional attack.

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If you thought vaping was safe, Kansas researchers have bad news

A robot at KU’s School of Medicine takes the vapor from e-cigarettes to test it on human cells from lung donors. (Photo by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Kansas News Service)

by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Kansas News Service

Many people figure vaping spares their health because it lets them inhale nicotine in aerosols instead of sucking in smoke from burning cigarettes.

New research from the University of Kansas casts doubt on that, raising the specter that vaping nicotine may cause some of the same respiratory problems that plague and even kill smokers today.

“Vaping is just considered not harmful, even though there are no data to support that statement,” researcher Matthias Salathe said. “There are more and more data to actually oppose that statement.”

Salathe chairs the Department of Internal Medicine at KU’s School of Medicine, where his lab uses a robot that vapes to test the effects on human cells obtained from deceased lung donors.

The team’s latest research, published last month by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, found vaping nicotine damaged the natural ability of those cells to clear out mucus.

That dysfunction leads to chronic bronchitis — and the coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue that come with it. Scientists such as Salathe worry that means the vaping trend sweeping the U.S. could eventually translate into more people developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Commonly caused by smoking, COPD is already a leading cause of death in the United States.

The KU researchers found that the aerosols from nicotine e-cigarettes hurt mucus-clearing abilities in sheep, too. (Sheep were used because of similarities between their respiratory system and that of humans.)

Yet the KU research remains at the pre-clinical phase, meaning scientists have more work ahead to answer the question with greater certainty.

Taken in context with other research, though, Salathe sees reason for worry. His lab’s results add to a mounting body of evidence that vaping causes such problems, including evidence from studies on living people who vape.

Getting more definitive answers, though, takes time. Rigorous scientific research can’t move as fast as the vaping craze that now has millions of U.S. teenagersinhaling nicotine. And diseases like COPD play out over years.

“To really know, we need to wait 10 to 20 years, right? To see whether these humans are actually developing the diseases that we predict,” Salathe said. “The question is, now from a policy point of view, is that an acceptable experiment to actually do in the population?”

Tobacco use remains the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the U.S.

More than 20 cities and counties across Kansas have banned the sale of tobacco-related products to people under the age of 21 in hopes of preventing them from becoming hooked.

That’s based on studies that show most people who become addicted long-term begin using nicotine in their teens.

Last month the Kansas Supreme Court upheld local bans on sales to people under 21 in a case brought by vape and tobacco shops against the city of Topeka. Wyandotte County has had an ordinance since November 2015 raising the age for sale of tobacco-related products to 21.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celialj_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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