Scientific News (July 2017)

Unclear Industry

A clause within Article 50 has been under put under the spotlight by members of parliament with concerns relating to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community – more commonly known as Euratom – following the decision to leave the EU. In the run up to Article 50, little was discussed surrounding the hidden clause and some MPs are preparing themselves for a fight on the subject with arguments for and against leaving Euratom.

Regulating the nuclear industry throughout Europe, Euratom was set up in 1957 alongside the European Economic Community (EEC). Euratom ensures that nuclear materials are responsibly transported throughout the EU and the wider world, as well as carrying out important research and the safe disposal of nuclear materials. The UK joined the EEC in 1973 and Euratom with it. Legally, it is a separate entity from the EU, and legally bound by laws and institutions that comes under the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Full members of Euratom are all members of the EU.

Although Euratom sets the rules, they have still have a responsibility to report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Should the decision be made to leave Euratom, the UK would then need to form new arrangements with the IAEAi in a separate set of negotiations.

It has been reported that there are two main arguments for the UK quitting Euratom following Brexit:

1. If the UK remains in Euratom we could find ourselves in the middle of a legal battle on whether a country like the UK could leave the EU and retain Euratom membership, and,
2. If the UK quits Euratom, the UK then takes back full control of its nuclear industry, taking over from the EU law over the laws governing how it polices the industry and associated areas of interest.

Euratom has special arrangements with non EU countries, such as Switzerland and Australia. Because of these special arrangements, these countries have helped fund separate projects including the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France. Experts are concerned that as the final arrangements between the UK and Euratom are being made following Brexit, it is believed that the UK will suffer a number of political and economical consequences, which would have a considerable impact on a country that is so committed to atomic energy.

In September 2016, with financing from the French and Chinese governments, the UK government approved a new £18 billion power station to be built at the existing Hinkley Point Power Station in Somerset.

Europe’s largest nuclear facility based in Sellafield, reprocesses and stores plutonium. The site based in Cumbria is known to have the largest stock of civil plutonium in the world. The on-site laboratory at Sellafield is run by Euratom, and a large chunk of resources from the EU are used to run safeguarding checks. The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy is also funded by Euratom and employs many EU citizens.
Investigations on the impact of Brexit on energy policies made by the Commons Energy Committee have lead for them to persuade the UK to delay any decisions to leave Euratom, and they have expressed serious concerns about power supplies being threatened should a new regulator not be in place. When a decision has finally been made, whatever the outcome, the UK will be affected in the future.

splitpage-sci

Beam me up spotty

A new record has been set for quantum teleportation by Chinese scientists who have successfully teleported a particle from the Earth to a satellite some 300 miles up in orbit. Science fiction has suddenly become real, and scientists have taken a momentous step forward towards the final aim of being able to create an ‘unhackable quantum internet’.

By transferring one particle instantaneously to another, Professor Chao-Yang Lu from the University of Science and Technology in China, who led the team of scientists reported “space-scale teleportation can be realised and is expected to play a key role in the future of distributed quantum internet”.

The team of scientists have successfully beamed photons from a station based on the ground in Ngari in Tibet to China’s Micius satellite. The experiment was part of the research into quantum entanglement, where a couple of particles are produced together at the same time, which enables them to exist in a single, joint quantum state. Scientists have been able to exploit the outcome of this effect, in order to transfer data between a pair of particles that have been entangled. During the process of quantum teleportation, a third particle is then introduced, and thus entangled with one of the original pair, which then leads the distant partner to assume an exact identity of the third particle.

This all may sound very ‘sci-fi’, however there are no plans to teleport animals or humans just yet. The current experiments are limited to quantum-scale objects, namely fundamental particles.

Quantum teleportation could be used in the future to produce brand new communications networks, where information would be programmed by the quantum states of entangled photons instead of binary strings of 0s and 1s. This has the potential of introducing massive security advantages, in theory making it impossible for a spy or third party to measure the photons’ states without any disturbance, and revealing an additional presence.

Hooke Professor of Experimental Physics at Oxford University, Ian Walmsley remarked that the most recent work that had taken place was an “impressive step towards this ambition”.

“This palpably indicates that the field isn’t limited to scientists sitting in their labs thinking about weird things. Quantum phenomena actually have a utility and can really deliver some significant new technologies.”

Previous experiments have already shown that scientists have succeeded in the creation of partial quantum networks, where secured messages have been sent over optical fibres. The Quantum Entanglement effect however is more complex, and with the time lost as photons traverse through optical fibres, scientists have been struggling to get teleportation to work over great distances in order to make a global quantum network a practical proposition.

In June 2017, the team demonstrated sending entangled photons from outer space to the Earth. The most recent work is the process in reverse – from a mountaintop base camp, they sent photons to the satellite as it directly passed overhead.

Transmitting into space is not as easy as you would think, and can be more of a challenge due to turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere. Turbulence and tropospheric scattering can cause the particles to swerve or turn at the very start of their journey, which then means that particles go off course and the quantum packet of the light information sent is significantly diminished.

In recent documentation that has been published on the Arxiv website, an article pronounced that over a 32 day period, scientists had sent millions of photons 300 miles to the satellite, and in doing so had successfully achieved 911 teleportation goals, described by the team as “…the first ground-to-satellite up-link for faithful and ultra-long-distance quantum teleportation, an essential step toward global-scale quantum internet.”

The Chinese scientists are not the first to dabble in the development of quantum-enabled satellites.  Teams across the world, including the European Space Agency and Canadian research scientists, are also undertaking investigations and experiments into the field.  The latest results suggest that China is leading the way within this field – it literally is a case of ‘watch this space’.

splitpage-sci

Cracking up

A trillion-tonne iceberg has been discovered an adrift in the Weddell Sea. At 5,800sq km, the gigantic iceberg with the rather dull scientific name of A68 is reported to be the size of Luxembourg, and at half the size of the recording-holding iceberg B15, has broken off an ice shelf on the Larsen C segment in the Antarctic.

According to researchers, the ice shelf has reduced in size by more than 12%, resulting in a change to the landscape of the Antarctic peninsula, now at the smallest size it has ever been recorded. An ice shelf is a mass of floating ice, which can have a thickness of q hundred meters of more; these shelfs are attached and grounded by huge ice sheets. The ice shelf then acts like a barrier that slows down the movement of ice and holds back the glaciers.

Researchers believe that if all of the ice in Antarctica melted or flowed into the oceans, sea levels would rise by 60 meters. A University of Leeds expert in satellite observations on glaciers, Anna Hogg said, “It is a really major event in terms of the size of the ice tablet that we’ve got now drifting away.”

Scientists have been watching the crack in the ice over a period of years. From the 25th – 31st May this year, a huge 17km rift appeared, this being the largest increased since January this year. By late June, it was found that the ice moving was rapidly exceeding more than 10 meters per day. It has been revealed via data collected days after the iceberg severed,  that the rift had many branches and that although now there is one large iceberg, it is believed that it will break into smaller pieces eventually. This shouldn’t be taken as read that this is a sign of the ice shelf disintegrating – ice shelfs naturally break up and often reform as they extend further out to sea.

It is possible that the Larsen C ice shelf will continue to shed icebergs and regrow, although it has also been suggested that the remaining ice shelf is likely to be less stable now that the iceberg has ‘calved’. Scientists are unlikely to know the full extent and outcome of these recent polar activities for at least a few years –  or event decades using the Larsen B ice shelf as an example. That took seven years to become unstable and disintegrate following similar activity. Although many similarities exist between the Larsen B and Larsen C shelves, prior to Larsen B’s collapse there were large melt ponds present. Although Larsen C is showing signs of small melt ponds, these in comparison are much smaller and yet to be seen at this time of year.

Earth Observation Professor, Andrew Shepherd at the University of Leeds was excited. “Everyone loves a good iceberg, and this one is a corker.”

“But despite keeping us waiting for so long, I’m pretty sure that Antarctica won’t be shedding a tear when it’s gone because the continent loses plenty of its ice this way each year, and so it’s really just business as usual!”

Climate change obviously has not been ruled out as playing a part in both the disintegration of the Larsen A and Larsen B ice shelves, no evidence currently shows that the iceberg from Larsen C was caused by this process. Experts from the US National Ice and Snow Data Centre believe that climate change has made the situation more likely than any other cause. Twila Moon, a Glacier Expert commented,“Certainly the changes that we see on ice shelves, such as thinning because of warmer ocean waters, are the sort [of changes] that are going to make it easier for these events to happen.”

Fellow experts though do not agree with Moon’s views and believe that recent data from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography shows much of the Larsen C ice shelf as actually healthy and thickening.

The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 mission has followed the progress of the rift along with the severed iceberg’s movements. They then forwarded the analysed data to the wider scientific community. State of the art radar technology means that experts can see activity on the Earth unfold more frequently. Prior to these technological advances, experts were lucky to have received one update a year.

Obviously, we couldn’t end the article without the mention of US president Donald Trump, especially with his views regarding global warming, but timing was key with the giant iceberg, as it came after Trump announced his plans of the US withdrawl from the 2015 Paris climate accord, a document that has been signed by more than 190 countries to attack global warming. Experts are dismayed by Trump’s decision.

splitpage-sci

Scientific News (June 2017)

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