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The race to give nuclear fusion a role in the climate emergency | Energy

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On 8 August 2021, a laser-initiated experiment at the United States National Ignition Facility (NIF), based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, made a significant breakthrough in reproducing the power source of the stars, smashing its own 2018 record for energy released from nuclear fusion reactions 23 times over. This advance saw 70% of the laser energy put in released as nuclear energy. A pulse of light, focused to tiny spots within a 10-metre diameter vacuum chamber, triggered the collapse of a capsule of fuel from roughly the size of the pupil in your eye to the diameter of a human hair. This implosion created the extreme conditions of temperature and pressure needed for atoms of hydrogen to combine into new atoms and release, kilogram for kilogram, 10m times the energy that would result from burning coal.

The result is tantalisingly close to a demonstration of “net energy gain”, the long sought-after goal of fusion scientists in which an amount greater than 100% of the energy put into a fusion experiment comes out as nuclear energy. The aim of these experiments is – for now – to show proof of principle only: that energy can be generated. The team behind the success are very close to achieving this: they have managed a more than 1,000-fold improvement in energy release between 2011 and today. Prof Jeremy Chittenden, co-director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies at Imperial College London, said last month that “The pace of improvement in energy output has been rapid, suggesting we may soon reach more energy milestones, such as exceeding the energy input from the lasers used to kickstart the process.”

If you’re not familiar with nuclear fusion, it’s different from its cousin, nuclear fission, which powers today’s nuclear plants by taking big, unstable atoms and splitting them. Fusion takes small atoms and combines them to forge larger atoms. It is the universe’s ubiquitous power source: it’s what causes the sun and stars to shine, and it’s the reaction that created most of the atoms we are made of.

Scientists have long been excited about fusion because it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide or long-lived radioactive waste, since the fuel it requires – two types of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium – is plentiful enough to last for at least thousands of years, and because there is zero chance of meltdown. Unlike renewables such as wind and solar power, plants based on fusion would also take up little space compared with the power they would be able to generate.

The Tokamak of the Joint European Torus (Jet) at the Culham Science Centre – which will soon to attempt to produce the largest amount of fusion energy so far.
The Tokamak of the Joint European Torus (Jet) at the Culham Science Centre – which will soon to attempt to produce the largest amount of fusion energy so far. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

However, because the NIF’s breakthrough is about demonstrating the principle only, the total amount of energy generated is not very impressive; it’s only just enough to boil a kettle. Nor does the gain measurement account for the energy used to run the facility, just what’s in the laser pulse. Despite this, it is nevertheless a landmark moment in the decades-long quest to produce fusion energy and use it to power the planet – which is, perhaps, the greatest scientific and technological challenge humanity has ever undertaken.

Although the experiment may have happened in a vacuum, NIF’s advance has not, and the pace of progress in fusion may surprise some long-time sceptics. Even Dr Mark Herrmann, head of the NIF’s fusion programme, says the latest development was “a surprise to everyone”. Many recent advances have been made with a different type of fusion device, the tokamak: a doughnut-shaped machine that uses a tube of magnetic fields to confine its fuel for as long as possible. China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (East) set another world record in May by keeping fuel stable for 100 seconds at a temperature of 120m degrees celsius – eight times hotter than the sun’s core. The world’s largest ever magnetic fusion machine, Iter, is under construction in the south of France and many experts think it will have the scale needed to reach net energy gain. The UK-based Joint European Torus (Jet), which holds the current magnetic fusion record for power of 67%, is about to attempt to produce the largest total amount of energy of any fusion machine in history. Alternative designs are also being explored: the UK government has announced plans for an advanced tokamak with an innovative spherical geometry, and “stellarators”, a type of fusion device that had been consigned to the history books, are enjoying a revival having been enabled by new technologies such as superconducting magnets.

This is a lot of progress, but it’s not even the biggest change: that would be the emergence of private sector fusion firms. The recently formed Fusion Industry Association estimates that more than $2bn of investment has flooded into fusion startups. The construction of experimental reactors by these firms is proceeding at a phenomenal rate: Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has its origins in MIT research, has begun building a demonstration reactor in Massachusetts; TAE Technologies has just raised $280m to build its next device; and Canadian-based General Fusion has opted to house its new $400m plant in the UK. This will be constructed in Oxfordshire, an emerging hotspot for the industry that is home to private ventures First Light Fusion and Tokamak Energy as well as the publicly funded Jet and Mast (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) Upgrade devices run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Some of the investors in these firms have deep pockets: Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, Legal & General, and Chevron have all financed enterprises pursuing this new nuclear power source. For now, publicly funded labs are producing results a long way ahead of the private firms – but this could change.

With such progress, interest, and investment – and net energy gain perhaps just one or two more improvements away – perhaps it’s time to retire the old joke, so cliched it has been banned by editors at the Economist, that “fusion is 30 years away… and always will be”.

Junior UK science minister Amanda Solloway and Nick Hawker, CEO of First LIght Fusion, inspecting the company’s £1.1m “Big Gun” device, which the Oxfordshire firm hopes will help them achieve fusion and deliver clean energy.
Junior UK science minister Amanda Solloway and Nick Hawker, CEO of First LIght Fusion, inspecting the company’s £1.1m “Big Gun” device, which the Oxfordshire firm hopes will help them achieve fusion and deliver clean energy. Photograph: Matt Alexander/PA

But it does depend on what we mean by “fusion” in that context; the scientists and their backers are now focusing on the bigger objective of fusion as a viable power source like fission, solar or wind. This requires far more than just “breakeven” in energy: a functioning fusion power plant would probably need at least 30 times the energy out for energy put in. However, scaling up the gain in energy is but one difficulty in making fusion a viable power source. A commercial reactor will have to solve several tricky engineering problems such as extracting the heat energy and finding materials that will withstand the relentless bombardment the reactor chamber will receive over its lifetime. Fusion reactors must also be self-sufficient in tritium, one of the two types of hydrogen that are fed in as fuel. For this, it is necessary to surround the reactor chamber with lithium because its atoms are converted to tritium when struck by the most energetic products of fusion – and this process has yet to be demonstrated at scale.

Those pursuing fusion have long known of the obstacles, but – with limited resources – achieving the immediate goal of gain has been a bigger priority. That’s beginning to change as fusion scientists and engineers look beyond scientific proof of principle. Around the world, several recently opened facilities are dedicated to solving these problems and, although they’re not trivial, everyone in fusion is confident that the obstacles can be overcome: progress depends on investment and will.

To find examples of how these two factors can be transformative, look no further than the pandemic. A sudden shot of both investment and motivation transformed the use of mRNA to fight disease from a wild idea to an accepted technology in the form of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Katalin Karikó, whose foundational work on mRNA has been key to the success of the technology, had the will to persevere for many years with little recognition and even less funding. Her dedication, and that of her colleagues, combined with a massive investment in development, testing and deployment is what enabled the vaccines to be ready in record time. The world wanted this, and we made it happen.

Global heating has made the need to turn carbon-free fusion energy into a usable power source ever more urgent. The world’s response thus far has been lackadaisical: it’s 2021 and more than 80% of global primary energy consumption still comes from coal, oil and gas. Fossil fuel consumption actually increased between 2009 and 2019 (though it fell in 2020 as most of the world locked down to help prevent the spread of Covid-19). While progress to date has been slow, most nations have pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Dr Ajay Gambhir, a senior policy research fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London, says most electricity generation needs to come from near-zero carbon sources as soon as 2030 in order to achieve this. Dr Michael Bluck, also of the Grantham Institute, expresses serious doubts that commercial fusion energy will be ready in time, saying that it is “very difficult to see this [conventional tokamaks] happening until after 2050” and that laser fusion has “another 50 years to go, if at all”.

Construction of the magnetic Tokamak of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) in south-eastern France. The project is a collaboration between 35 countries.
Construction of the magnetic Tokamak of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) in south-eastern France. The project is a collaboration between 35 countries. Photograph: Clement Mahoudeau/AFP/Getty Images

Those working in fusion do recognise that time is of the essence, and it’s part of what is motivating the recent acceleration. The startups’ vision necessarily sees fusion power being deployed at an unprecedented rate. “If we want to contribute to net zero by 2050 we need to be building plants, multiple, in the 2040s,” Nick Hawker, CEO of First Light Fusion, tells me. And who says the fusion firms couldn’t do it with the right tailwind? We would never have believed that a vaccine, let alone the first mRNA vaccine, could be developed and approved within a year instead of over decades.

The scale of the climate challenge is so immense that we need to throw the kitchen sink at it. That means renewables, fission, energy storage, carbon capture, and any other lifeline humanity can grab. If the world doesn’t have the will to at least try to deploy fusion energy too, it would be a missed opportunity. Fusion could afford people in developing countries the same energy consumption opportunities as people in developed nations enjoy today – rather than the global cutbacks that may be necessary otherwise. And we are likely to need fusion well beyond 2050, too: as a source of large-scale power to extract the carbon dioxide we’ve already put into the atmosphere, and because it’s the only feasible way we can explore space beyond Earth’s immediate vicinity.

Whether commercial fusion energy is ready in time to help with global warming or not depends on us as a society and how badly we want – no, need – star power on our side.

Arthur Turrell is the author of The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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What happens when we ‘power through’ burnout?

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Employers know that burnout levels are increasing, but it’s important to step in and tackle it head on before it’s too late.

A recent survey from HRLocker found that more than half (52pc) of respondents are experiencing burnout.

The company surveyed 1,000 full-time employees across Ireland to assess their stress levels and the primary causes of stress.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

This is common thread with many other surveys and reports from around the world suggesting a significant increase in stress, exhaustion and burnout among the global workforce.

Another recent survey, this one of US workers, found that 89pc of respondents reported experiencing burnout over the past year.

While it’s easy to acknowledge that this increase in burnout is a problem, it’s a very different thing to take steps to actually address it, whether you’re an employee on the verge of crashing or a manager starting to notice the signs among your team.

Burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as a “occupational phenomenon”. While this can seem problematically vague for those who are experiencing it, Prof John Gallagher, chief medical officer at Cork-based Cognate Health, sees it from a different perspective.

He said that because burnout is considered a workplace phenomenon, it is not so much about the individual as much as it is about the impact that the workplace environment has on them.

“We can support the individual, but the real question is how do we fix the workplace and the impact it is having on the employee?”

‘The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact’
– DR SARAH O’NEILL

Many people will be familiar with the symptoms of burnout, which include profound exhaustion, cynicism about work, decreased productivity and extreme emotions.

However, it’s also worth noting that some people are more prone to burnout than others. “More often than not these are the more idealistic, committed and dedicated employees,” said Gallagher.

Dr Sarah O’Neill, chartered psychologist and chief clinical officer at Spectrum Life, agrees that it can often affect the most high-achieving employees. However, she said there are other people who can be prone to burnout too.

“People can also experience ‘bore-out’ when they are in a role that is dull, repetitive and there is a distinct lack of stimulation. The third common iteration is when people become worn down over a period of time,” she said.

“While the first example may be much more aligned with what we think of when we imagine burnout, the end result is the same.”

When the elastic band snaps

Burnout occurs when there are unusual levels of pressure or stress over a prolonged period of time. Those who start to suffer the symptoms will most likely have been ‘on’ for a long time with no opportunity to rest and recover.

“Think about an elastic band,” said O’Neill. “They stretch and bounce back. If the band is stressed, stretched out without the opportunity to bounce back and reset, overtime it loses its stretch. You can think about stress this way. Then burnout is when the band eventually snaps.”

Often, employees don’t mean to ignore their own health. Even the overachievers would rather reap the rewards that come with rest and recovery, which are higher energy levels, more productivity and better focus.

But sometimes an ongoing stressful period seems never-ending, like during a pandemic for example, and it can feel impossible to find the time to actually stop and take a break. You might just feel like you have to power through your stress in the hope that you’ll make it to the end of the tunnel.

However, it is this ‘powering through’ that will directly result in burnout. While it’s important for employees to be aware of this, Gallagher said it’s vital that employers and managers know when to step in.

“What employers and managers will see if an issue isn’t addressed is that the person will pull back and distance themselves from their work, become more cynical and ultimately disengage from the workplace completely. The physical symptoms are similar to those seen across other mental health issues such as feelings of exhaustion and weariness, as well as bowel and stomach problems,” he said.

“It’s important that managers engage with employees early once they see any of these warning signs and that they check in to see if the person is OK. Often the people that are most likely of experiencing burnout are those who take on more and more work without raising any red flags about their mental health and ability to cope.”

O’Neill agreed that early intervention is key but that it’s also important that managers understand how each member of the team responds to stress and pressure within the workplace.

“It’s critical for managers to know their teams well enough to recognise when something is off. That makes it possible to mitigate issues before they progress too far by managing an employee’s workload and having open conversations with them about the mental wellbeing,” she said.

The pandemic effect

Burnout has been a concern for employers and employees for several years now but, as we have seen from recent surveys and reports, the pandemic has likely compounded the stressors that can bring about burnout.

O’Neill said there has been a 30pc increase in people presenting with burnout compared to pre-pandemic trends.

“The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact and we’re seeing pretty consistent results from research where employees are identifying blurring of boundaries impacting their mental health.”

Gallagher has seen a similar increase, including increased incidences of anxiety and depression.

“It would seem that mental health concerns will be at the core of our work in occupational health for the foreseeable future. There are the more obvious reasons for this – increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, disconnection from people, as well as the general stress and anxiety of living during a global health crisis,” he said.

“But this is all compounded by the fact that it is easier to hide any issues from your colleagues and employers while working remotely and being less connected in real life.”

However, it’s not all bad news. O’Neill also said there are some positives to be gleaned from the pandemic when it comes to mental health. “We have collectively lived through a traumatic time which has, at its best, given us a new perspective on our lives. The theory of post-traumatic growth shows how a difficult experience can shift your values and your perspective on different situations in life, allowing you to move through them and grow as a result.”

Employers’ duty of care

While it’s important for employees to watch out for signs of burnout in themselves, both O’Neill and Gallagher agree that managers have a duty of care when it comes to workplace risks for their employees and these risks must include psychosocial risks.

“What I always say is that managers and employers need to ‘ask, don’t assume’ when it comes to discussing mental health concerns. We can’t assume a person is dealing with an issue and we can’t leave them to handle it by themselves. Managers need to reach out to employees and ask them how they are doing, especially if there have been any warning signs,” said Gallagher.

“Sometimes employers and managers prefer to pull back when an employee appears to be dealing with a mental health issue but that is when we need to lean in and address it openly and directly.”

‘We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health’
– JOHN GALLAGHER

O’Neill said it’s also important to look at the supports in place for teams, such as an employee assistance programme, and examine whether or not they are sufficient.

“We know people are increasingly experiencing mental health distress, that impacts them in the workplace and the mental healthcare system is, like many parts of the health service, overwhelmed by demand,” she said.

“Even if mental health distress is not a work-related issue, it can be in the interests of companies to provide support to employees from both a cultural and business perspective.”

While having support systems in place are vital, Gallagher highlighted the fact that the area of mental health can still be highly stigmatised. “While we have seen great developments to date, there needs to be an increased effort made to eradicate any stigma around mental health in the workplace,” he said.

“We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health – we still see employees asking for their medical certs to say they are suffering from back pain rather than stress, anxiety or depression. We need to cultivate an environment where employees are as comfortable saying they need time to care for their mental health as they are saying they need time to prioritise their physical health.”

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Best podcasts of the week: the life and death of Diego Maradona | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Last Days of Maradona
“Everyone – fans and non-fans alike – must have asked themselves: how did Maradona’s life end the way it did?” Thierry Henry narrates this podcast about the football legend’s death at the age of 60 in 2020 – part forensic investigation, part homage to his greatness. In a novel twist – and perhaps a sign of things to come for podcasting – the series is also available in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, via a series of hosts. Hannah J Davies

I’m Not a Monster
Listeners were captivated by the case of Indiana mother Sam Sally and how she ended up at the heart of the Islamic State caliphate. Now, host Josh Baker is back for two new follow-up episodes. He answers listeners’ questions – and heads back to Iraq. Hannah Verdier

Twenty Thousand Hertz
More offbeat sonic discoveries in a miniseries from the long-running audio show. It’s Not TV, it’s HBO, tells the story of the network’s bombastic 80s theme song as well as its iconic – if more understated – “static angel” sound, as heard before everything from The Sopranos to Sex and the City. HJD

Behind the Wand
More than 20 years after Harry Potter’s first film adaptation, Potterheads are still looking to learn something new about the wizarding world. Here, Emma
Watson’s body double Flick Miles takes us behind the scenes with crew members. It’s not as exciting as, say, the upcoming TV reunion, but fans might enjoy the nitty gritty details about how the story came to life on the big screen. Hollie Richardson

Even the Rich: Murder in the House of Gucci
With Lady Gaga and Adam Driver ’s new film throwing the spotlight on to the Gucci dynasty, this podcast tells the story of the family’s humble beginnings. Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams bring their gloriously salacious tone to the tale, from observing Guccio Gucci’s knowledge of luggage to analysing Patrizia Reggiani’s controversial white fur school coat. HV

Sunny delight ... Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Sunny delight … Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

There is always a risk in learning how something you adore is made. That’s why I was slightly apprehensive to listen to The Always Sunny podcast, which launched earlier this month. The premise is simple: each week, the geniuses behind the hit show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sit down to bring us insider knowledge on how every episode came to be, starting all the way back in 2005.

The worry is that your favourite (terrible) characters are somehow played by an unfunny trio, but Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton allay any fears early on, making one another laugh as much as you might imagine. The scoring is the same as the show, and sound design is nonexistent, so the content needs to carry – which it does. For true fans, it’s a must listen, as we hear how they developed ideas; the stumbling blocks they encountered; and, most interestingly, some of the things they regret with hindsight.

Talking points

  • As podcasts evolve, expect to see even more boundary-blurring with other creative mediums. A case in point: US culture show How Long Gone will release a double-CD album via Jagjaguwar on 17 December, featuring about releases from the record label’s other acts, including Moses Sumney, Dinosaur Jr and Angel Olsen.

  • Why not try: Close to Death | Is This Working? | Sh***hole Country

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India, US, agree to transitional digital tax scheme • The Register

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India has agreed to wind back the two per cent Equalisation Levy it charges foreign e-commerce companies, and the USA has withdrawn sanctions it imposed to protest the levy.

The levy was introduced in 2016 as a means of ensuring India could collect more tax. The nation’s government introduced it because big e-commerce players had employed legal-but-cynical tax minimisation schemes that saw them conduct purchases made in India with offshore entities – even though goods were sold in India, to residents of India.

The measure was aimed squarely at US-based companies such as Amazon.com, but also at India-based companies like FlipKart (which is owned by US-based Walmart).

The USA opposed India’s levy and similar taxes imposed by Vietnam, The Philippines, and Indonesia, arguing they discriminate against its businesses.

In July 2021, the Biden Administration fought back by imposing tariffs on nations that implement digital services taxes, but immediately suspended that sanction.

The timing of that US action was not random. October meetings of the G20 and OECD saw broad international agreement reached on new global tax rules that will see multinational corporations pay at least 15 per cent of their revenue as tax in each nation where they do business. In theory, that arrangement should mean the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft must pay tax wherever they operate, instead of being able to shop around for jurisdictions with low tax rates.

Once those deals were inked, the USA dropped its tariff threat.

But India didn’t drop its levy, because the new global tax deal is yet to be implemented.

While India and the USA wait for those formalities to be addressed, they’ll count the Equalisation Levy as a credit against future taxes, once the new global arrangements kick in. Those credits will accrue from April 1, 2022, until either March 31, 2024, or whenever the tax deals are sorted.

The US Department of Treasury hailed the deal with India as “a pragmatic solution that helps ensure that countries can focus their collective efforts on the successful implementation of the OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework’s historic agreement on a new multilateral tax regime”. America has also dispensed with its suspended tariffs on India.

India’s government noted the agreement but expressed no opinion about its merits.

Austria, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Turkey have already reached similar agreements with the USA.

Tax-avoiding tech giants have been mostly silent on the new arrangements – perhaps because most announced their quarterly results mere days or weeks after the new rules were agreed. The Register expects that investors will soon press for information on how the new tax regime will impact the bottom line. ®

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