Ebook discount

From March 1 – March 7, my ebooks at Smashwords will be significantly discounted, and one will be offered free. The fictional ebooks include”

Puppeteer:  (Free!) A technothriller where governance is breaking down due to government debt, and where a terrorist attack threatens to kill tens to hundreds of millions of people and destroy billions of dollars worth of infrastructure.


‘Bot War:  A technothriller set about 8 years later, a more concerted series of terrorist attacks made by stolen drones lead to partial governance breaking down.


Troubles. Dystopian, set about 10 years later still, the world is emerging from anarchy, and there is a scramble to control the assets. Some are just plain greedy, some think corporate efficiency should rule, some think the individual should have the right to thrive, some think democracy should prevail as long as they can rig it, while the gun is the final arbiter.


There is also the non-fictional “Biofuels”. This gives an overview of the issues involved in biofuels having an impact on climate change. Given that electric vehicles, over their lifetime probably have an environmental impact equivalent to or greater than the combustion motor, given that we might want to continue to fly, and given that the carbon from a combustion exhaust offers no increase in atmospheric carbon levels if it came from biofuel, you might be interested to see what potential this has. The author was involved in research on this intermittently (i.e. when there was a crisis and funding was available) for over thirty years. https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/454344

Nuclear Waste Management

It is now generally recognized (apart from a few recidivists and those with deep investment in the fossil fuel industries) that we have to find alternatives to fossil fuels as energy sources. There is great enthusiasm for solar and wind power, despite the obvious shortcomings for total replacement that are generally overlooked, but one of the obvious replacements, nuclear power, is shunned. There are two reasons: the danger of reactor explosions, such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima, both of which were caused by stupidity, which, unfortunately, is never in short supply, and the hazard of nuclear waste. Whether we can get around stupidity is debatable, but we should be able to design so that the effects are minimal. In this post I want to think about nuclear waste, and I am going to mainly consider the current standard reactor process. However, I argue the main problem is social: people are so against nuclear power it is difficult to get the required programs implemented.

The usual waste is extremely dangerous, and comprises two subsets: fissioned products, which tend to have shorter half-lives, e.g. strontium ninety has a half-life of 29.1 years, and actinides, which have longer half-lives, the plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. Because of the latter, very long storage is required, and the usual thought is it has to be stored for a minimum of 100,000 years. My personal view is that is far too short if plutonium is present. If we are going to bury this, we need geological structures that will remain unchanged for that length of time. The amount of waste is fortunately not excessive; a plant that produces 1 GW (and earns more than $1 million/day) apparently produces 20 t/day. The good news is that there are plenty of rock formations that have not changed in 100 million years, so the problem now is to put the waste down in a form that will stay where you put it.

The waste comes out in small ceramic pellets that have been heated at several hundred degrees Centigrade for a number of years. They are tough and can be dumped right then. The usual next step is to encase the radioactive nuclides in molten glass, which is then put into a stainless steel container, which is then put into a copper container. Provided there is no oxygen or sulphur-containing gas, copper simply does not react with anything found naturally in rock. The container then goes into a repository at a depth of several hundred meters in a hard rock, and that is further surrounded by bentonite clay, which is water-tight. 

That is the ideal. Unfortunately, so far there appear to be no such operational depositories, so the waste is buried in somewhat less desirable ways. There is a further problem in that a clay cannot be water-tight forever, and water-tightness may be a problem. A recent report (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41563-019-0579-x) has indicated a possible flaw that may make it necessary to revisit the current storage. When the glass or ceramic is placed in the steel cannister, as it cools a thin gap is created. If water gets into this gap, corrosion might occur, and if it does, the water gets progressively more acid, and that acid might start leaching waste. This is possible because when the waste is vitrified, it is distributed through the glass and some is at the glass surface. In my opinion there are various ways around this. The most obvious is to have only glass on the surface following vitrification, and that may mean two processes, the gap can be enclosed with silicone, and perhaps the steel could be enclosed in molten basalt. I do not know the answers, but I am reasonably convinced there is an answer.

We can do more. Reprocessing recovers plutonium and unburnt uranium, and it is possible to recover more fuel than you started with. This is because the initial fuel is uranium 235, but it would be surrounded by much more uranium 238; this is what absorbs a neutron and converts to plutonium 239. There will also be other useful radioactive isotopes there, such as americium for fire alarms, cobalt sixty for medical use, but of course there will remain a lot of rather noxious material. Most of the rest can be transmuted into more harmless material by irradiating them. Simple, so why don’t we do it? The basic reason is that most of the reactors currently used are of the light-water kind, and these cannot easily be so used. 

Different reactor designs can help the problem. Most current ones use a moderator to slow the neutrons. The advantages of this are stated to be that the required enrichment of uranium is much lower, and the plants are cheaper. The alternative of using fast neutrons (and no moderator) produce much less transuranic waste because the actinides are fissionable with fast neutrons. Paradoxically, Iran’s higher enrichment program could be used in fast neutron reactors and it would be much harder for them to produce bombs, but this seems not to be considered by the anti-Iran brigade. Molten salt reactors are claimed to produce less than one thousandth of the actinides. The actinides are the longest living waste, and they tend to be highly poisonous as well. So why are moderated reactors the predominant reactor? Possibly because they yield far more plutonium, and that is needed for bombs by the nuclear powers. It is alleged they are also cheaper. However, burning off these nuclides economically and safely is some distance away. It would involve a lot of money to set things up, and it would be preferable to develop much better robotic technology because you do not want to expose workers to the radiation while doing the processing. There is a further problem. If you have a large number of countries with nuclear power plants, using current technology, you have a large number of countries producing plutonium. The prospect of rogue countries developing bombs to blast out their neighbours is a deep problem, but there are ways around that. Unfortunately, that involves a somewhat radical change in the way some countries play politics.

E-Book discount

From February 20 – 27, Athene’s Prophecy, the first in a series, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. Science fiction with some science you can try your hand at. The story is based around Gaius Claudius Scaevola, who is asked by Pallas Athene to do three things before he will be transported to another planet, where he must get help to save humanity from total destruction well in the future. The scientific problem is to prove the Earth goes around the Sun with what was known and was available in the first century. Can you do it? Try your luck. I suspect you will fail, and to stop cheating, the answer is in the following ebook. Meanwhile, the story.  Scaevola is in Egypt for the anti-Jewish riots, then to Syria as Tribunis laticlavius in the Fulminata, then he has the problem of stopping a rebellion when Caligulae orders a statue of himself in the temple of Jerusalem. You will get a different picture of Caligulae than what you normally see, supported by a transcription of a report of the critical meeting regarding the statue by Philo of Alexandria. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GYL4HGW

Conspiracies and Fake News

Heard any good conspiracies lately? Global warming is a plot by scientists to get more funding and have an easy life?  2019-nCoV was developed in Wuhan as a bioweapon? NASA beat the Russians to the Moon by faking it all in Arizona? The US government is hiding evidence of aliens? President Kennedy was shot by someone else? Vaccines are designed to infect and are just outright dangerous. Conspiracy theories come in all sorts of forms, some just plain ridiculous, some are sufficiently possible that they cannot be put to sleep as they should. The Kennedy assassination comes to mind. Oswald was that good of a shot? A top-grade sniper with a top-grade weapon, yes, quite plausible, but Oswald? Then, just to add to the confusion, every now and again such a conspiracy theory will be shown to be a fair representation of the truth. Oops! So why do these theories emerge and spread so widely? The simplest reason is people do not trust the government to tell the truth.

Sophia Rosenfeld, a Professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a book called “Democracy and Truth. A short history.” According to Rosenfeld, the occurrence of “fake news” has a long history, and the democratic ideal of truth never lived up to its promise. Gaius Julius Caesar was a master at promoting what he needed to get to the fore, and possibly the first to report about himself in the third person. The net result was the end of the Res Publica

However, things are getting worse, through technology.  Photos that have had serious adjustments, or are just plain fake, lies asserted to be true, truth “shown” to be lies, and the problem is, no single person can wade through this morass, yet the concept of representative democracy requires people to analyse and vote. What is supposed to happen is the wisdom of the crowd prevails, but what actually has happened for a very long time is information has been vetted and evaluated by an elite that controls what they do not want you to “know”.

Deterioration has got worse recently, and Rosenfeld argues this is because there is an increasing distance between the governed and governing classes. Because there has been clear evidence of the governing being less than truthful at times, the governed simply do not believe them. Sometimes those governing have been just outright clumsy. An example, in my opinion, is the Roswell wreckage. To assert it was a weather balloon was stupid when locals who saw the wreckage could clearly see it was not. Had they come out straight away and said it was a failed experiment from the nearby Defense weapons development site, everything would have been forgotten. “The military made something that did not work,” would have ended everything right then because it would be believable. Mind you, I gather it was not exactly a failure as Roswell is an otherwise unlikely tourist attraction.

Rosenfeld apparently believes science is part of the problem since science has “experts” and these are out of touch with the people. Maybe that is true. Whatever, the problem then is that people embrace emotions, intuition and “truths of the heart” over dry scientific evidence. Of course science can also be wrong, because it is based on the interpretation of observed evidence. The fact that scientists often resort to complicated mathematics does not help, and sometimes their explanations remind me of that TV show “Sledge Hammer”: trust me, I know what I am doing! Intuition will tell many people that if scientists did know what they were doing, they could explain everything in reasonably simple terms. The ordinary person can accept that he or she has to take “how they worked it out” on faith and a broad statement of the evidence behind a conclusion should be adequate. If the conclusion is wrong, other experts will clear that up. 

Conspiracy theories tend to arise in part from attempts by ordinary people to make sense of often overwhelming information, based on personal values, and they do not wish to make the effort to sort out the truth. As an example, “Chemicals are bad!” Yes, some are, and here comes a problem: if the governing can be shown to be lying at some other time, then it is not a problem to assume they are lying now. Now, it is easier to spread distrust than make the effort to use logic. In my example, the statement is simply deficient. If we amend it to “Some chemicals are bad” most people would agree and there would be no problem, except that the conspirator would have to do some work and find evidence for the particular chemical. The bad news here is that many are at fault. The evidence is often either unobtainable or so widely scattered as to have the same effect; the government often wants to keep unpalatable news away from the voters; officials often conceal for no particularly good reason. So the governing tend to remain simply by spending more money on remaining., and that means those governing are even more separated from the governed. Positive feedback that makes the problem worse!

A New Coronavirus

2019-nCoV is having an effect that most will have heard of. It is apparently milder than some related viruses, such as SARS, which had a mortality rate of 10%, but that might be premature because the new virus has caused a very large number of seriously ill people, and nobody knows what will happen to them. So far, the probability of death appears to be around 3%, although a number of those are through people who had poor health anyway. Unfortunately, it appears to spread at a dizzying rate, and so far the number of patients appears to double every six days. It appears to have a period of about 12 days when it is asymptomatic, but it remains contagious. Most people will know about the effects of mild contagious coronaviruses. The common cold is caused by over 90 different viruses, the majority of which belong to the rhinovirus family, but coronaviruses participate in a good percentage.

This virus almost certainly came from animals, probably a bat, but when and how are uncertain. The genomic sequence of 2019-nCoV is 96.2% that of a bat coronavirus, and 79.5% is identical to sequences found in SARS. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, which also sells animals as well as fish, may be the origin of the outbreak as the earliest patients had visited it, and 33 environmental samples from the Western end of the market, which is where the animals were sold, contained the coronavirus. However, the first patient apparently had no contact with this market, so it is possible it started elsewhere and infected the market. Genomic sequencing, which involves counting mutations since entering the human population, suggests the virus began spreading in mid November, 2019.

So, what can be done? At present, the best approach is containment, but whether this is possible when it takes two weeks for symptoms to appear is another matter. If it works, in a few months everybody will wonder what the fuss was all about. If containment fails, it appears to be as contagious as the common cold, and who hasn’t had one of those? One calculation has suggested there could be up to fifty million dead through it. Most would say that is unduly pessimistic, but is it? If there is any good news, it is that the number of reported cases in Wuhan have had about three days of falling. We hope the decline is real and not a consequence of poor reporting.

For current patients and those over the next year, we need something ready to go, and fully approved for use. That suggests trying drugs with antiviral properties. At this point we do not know whether any will work, but if used on patients with the virus, the argument is it is preferable to attempt to do good. In Wuhan, they are already trying a randomized controlled trial of two drugs that target the protease enzyme used by HIV to copy itself. These drugs apparently gave beneficial results against SARS, which is promising. The drug remdesivir, made by Gilead Pharmaceuticals, is a possibility. It interferes with the viral polymerase enzyme, and it has shown activity against every coronavirus tested so far. When combined with interferon it slowed viral replication in MERS-infected mice. (MERS is another coronavirus.) Another US biotech Regeneron is trying to develop monoclonal antibodies; it has previously managed to develop them that were effective against ebola and MERS. 

The next most obvious approach is to develop a vaccine, but historically there has never been a vaccine developed fast enough to have a significant impact on an emerging virus. Historically, vaccines were based on the concept of injecting dead virus into the body to stimulate the immune system, but this is not the current approach. The Chinese got proceedings started by publishing the genetic code of the virus, which was truly impressive work given how quickly they did it. One approach is to convert viral sequences into messenger RNA, which causes the body to produce a viral protein that triggers immune responses. Another approach, at the University of Queensland, is to try to develop a vaccine made of viral proteins grown in cell cultures. Another approach is to make a string of RNA that corresponds to a section of the coronavirus. Thus there are a variety of approaches, and the question then is, will they work?There is also the question, will they work fast enough? Suppose we developed one? It is inconceivable this could be done in less than three months, at which time there would need to be clinical trials. These would take several weeks, and that would have to be followed by a period of six months where it was determined whether there were any adverse effects. That would have to be followed by an extended period where it was examined whether the vaccine actually works, and the net result of this is that it would take over a year at the very least to decide whether we had a working vaccine. Then it has to be manufactured. A vaccine is our only defence if we cannot contain it and it becomes endemic. In the meantime, the scientific community is working; apparently there are at least 77 scientific papers made public on it since the outbreak became declared.

Forests versus Fossil Fuels – a Debate on Effectiveness

The use of biomass for fuel has been advocated as a means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but some have argued it does nothing of the sort. There was a recent article in Physics World that discusses this issue, and here is a summary. First, the logic behind the case is simple. The carbon in trees all comes from the air. When the plant dies, it rots, releasing energy to the rotting agents, and much of the carbon is released back into the air. Burning it merely intercepts that cycle and gives the use of the energy to us as opposed to the microbes. A thermal power station in North Yorkshire is now burning enough biomass to generate 12% of the UK’s renewable energy. The power station claims it has changed from being one of the largest CO2 emitters in Europe to supporting the largest decarbonization project in Europe. So what could be wrong? 

My first response is that other than a short-term fix, burning it in a thermal power station is wrong because the biomass is more valuable for generating liquid fuels, for which there is no alternative. There are many alternative ways of generating electricity, and the electricity demand is so high that alternatives are going to be needed. There is no obvious replacement for liquid fuels in air transport, although the technology to make such fuels is yet to be developed properly. 

So, what can the critics carp on about? There were two criticisms about the calculated savings being based on the assumptions: (a) the CO2 released is immediately captured by growing plants, and (b) the biomass would have rotted and put its carbon back into the atmosphere anyway. The first is patently wrong, but so what? The critics claim it takes time for the CO2 to be reabsorbed, and that depends on fresh forest, or regrowth of the current forest. So replanting is obviously important, but equally there is quite some time used up in carbon reabsorption. According to the critics, this takes between 40 and a hundred years, then it is found that because biomass is a less energy-dense material during combustion, compared with coal you actually increase the CO2 emissions in the short-term. The reabsorption requires new forest to replace the old.

The next counter-argument was that the block should not be counted, but rather the landscape – if you only harvest 1% of the forest, the remaining 99% is busily absorbing carbon dioxide. The counter to that is that it would have been doing that anyway. The next objection is that older forests absorb carbon over a much longer period, and sequester more carbon than younger stands. Further, the wood that rots in the soil feeds microbes that otherwise will be eating their way through stored carbon in the soil. The problem is not so much that regrowth does not absorb carbon dioxide, but rather it does not reabsorb it fast enough to be meaningful for climate change.

Let us consider the options where we either do it or we do not. If we do, assume we replant the same area, and fresh vegetation is sufficient to maintain the soil carbon. In year 1 we release x t CO2. After year 40, say, it has been all absorbed, but we burn again and release x t CO2. By year 80, it is all reabsorbed, so we burn again. There is a net x t CO2 in the air. Had we not done this, in each of years 1, 40 and 80 we burn kx t CO2, giving us now 3kx t CO2, where k is some number <1 to counter the greater efficiency of burning coal. Within this scenario eventually the biofuel must save CO2. That we could burn coal and plant fresh forests is irrelevant because in the above scenario we only replace what was there. We can always plant fresh forest.

Planting more works in both options. This is a bit oversimplified, but it is aimed to show that you have to integrate what happens over sufficient time to eliminate the effect of non-smoothness in the functions, and count everything. In my example above it could be argued I do not know whether there will be a reduction in soil carbon, but if that is troublesome, at least we have focused attention on what we need to know. It is putting numbers on a closed system, even if idealized, that shows the key facts in their proper light.