What is the Future of Nuclear Power?
Arun Micro > 2015

What is the Future of Nuclear Power?

Despite countries such as Germany phasing out their nuclear power programme, the use of nuclear power worldwide is growing faster than ever.  China is currently building 27 new reactors and plans to build 200 more, to meet  the rapidly growing demand for electricity, which is expected to triple by 2050.

In the UK, we face similar challenges, as well as a demanding carbon reduction target set by the European Union.  Minister of Energy and Climate Change, Andrea Leadsome, recently made it clear that the Government is supporting new nuclear power initiatives such as the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant and the development of Small Modular Reactors. Objection is still strong, however, and cost is a major factor so ongoing experimentation is essential.

Hinkley Point

Hinkley Point has been earmarked as the location for a new nuclear power plant proposed by French electric utility company, EDF.  EDF has stated that, “the next generation of nuclear power stations are intended to generate secure, affordable, low-carbon electricity over their 60-year lifetimes.”  They claim that their EPR (pressurised water reactor) uses approximately 17% less uranium than existing reactors, which means that less fuel is used per unit of electricity generated, lowering the cost and radio-active waste burden.  EDF claims that the four proposed EPRs in the UK could generate up to 6.4million kW of electricity, enough to supply around 10 million homes.

Small Modular Reactors

Other options for the future of nuclear energy in the UK exist though and Prof Ian Fells, emeritus professor of energy conversion at the Newcastle University, has stated that, “problems continue to dog the Hinkley Point C nuclear station as costs have escalated from £5bn to £24.6bn. It will be much better to build a series of Small Modular Reactors using the British nuclear supply chain.”

Modules are prefabricated in factories and, being more compact than current power plants, can be shipped out to areas which previously would have been unsuitable for nuclear operations.  They can also be used in conjunction with renewable power sources.  Small Modular Reactors are still under development so more research is required but this kind of progress in nuclear power could mean it continues into the future as a low-carbon power generation option.

These kinds of developments in the industry are possible because of radiation resistant equipment made here in the UK.  AML makes stepper motors that can be used in high radiation environments for a large range of nuclear applications.  Call us now on 01903 884141 or email sales@arunmicro.com to find out more.

Nuclear Power to Become Crucial in Achieving the UK’s Carbon Target

The use of nuclear power will always be controversial, but new developments in the industry and the 2008 Climate Change Act, which requires the UK to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% of its 1990 level by 2050, means that politicians are seeing it as a way to help achieve climate change goals.  Although groups, such as Greenpeace, have objected to the increased use of nuclear power, a great deal of research using radiation resistant equipment is taking place worldwide to make nuclear power cheaper, safer and faster to install.  As such, the UK government has big plans for it as part of its climate change strategy.

Government Plans

Minister of Energy and Climate Change, Andrea Leadsome, addressed the Nuclear Industry Association conference in June saying, “Your industry is key to delivering our vision of the clean, affordable, safe and reliable energy British consumers and businesses need and vital to keeping the lights on in the decades ahead.”  She continued, “Nuclear power is also one of the cheaper forms of low carbon electricity...emitting similar levels of CO2 to renewables over the life of the plant.”  Her department is keen to exploit these benefits and plans to change legislation to make it easier for new nuclear power stations to be built.

Objections

Greenpeace, however, is not so enthusiastic about the expansion of nuclear power and lists the following concerns as reasons why it should be halted:

  • Safety – activists reference Chernobyl
  • Security – nuclear power stations present targets for terrorists
  • Waste Disposal – disposing of nuclear waste is difficult, dangerous and costly
  • Cost – building and running nuclear power plants is extremely expensive
  • Pulling Focus – investment and research into nuclear power could take it away from renewable power sources

Looking Forward

On the other hand, scientists including Prof Ian Fells, emeritus professor of energy conversion at Newcastle University, suggest that new developments, such as the creation of Small Modular Reactors, could overcome many of these concerns.  These plants are much smaller than conventional power stations, can be mostly prefabricated in factories, work alongside renewable power sources, pose far less of a risk of catastrophic accident and present less of a target for terrorism.  As such, they are considerably cheaper, faster and safer than conventional nuclear power plants, they claim.

Whether the future of nuclear power lies in Small Modular Reactors or other new scientific breakthroughs in the industry, research into this area is more important and prevalent than ever.  Stepper motors, which are resistant to radiation, are essential to this research and those made by AML are tried and tested in these environments. To find out more about them call today on 01903 884141 or email sales@arunmicro.com.

New Semiconductor to Help Power Spacecraft

Researchers at the University of Arkansas in the USA are currently developing a new type of semiconductor that could be used to create more efficient photovoltaic solar cells to be used on space missions. Thanks to a $750,000 grant from NASA, the US space agency, they will be able to improve the existing solar energy technology being used on the International Space Station and Hubble telescope to help NASA achieve its 15-year goal of reaching 45% efficiency in solar power.  Better radiation tolerance and lower manufacturing costs are further benefits of this new material. Other space agencies are also experimenting with new ways of harnessing solar power for space exploration missions.

What does this new semiconductor do?

The new photovoltaic devices are being made using a semiconductor comprised of silicon-germanium-tin (SiGeSn), which can source, detect and control light.  The devices work by using a semiconducting material, which creates a photoelectric effect – metals emit electrons when light shines on them – after which an electrochemical process takes place, where crystallised atoms are ironised in a series, which generates an electrical current. Most solar panels work in this way but the new SiGeSn does so more efficiently than the current semiconductors being used.

How is the new semicondutor made?

Creating the silicon-germanium-tin involves an ultra-high-vacuum chemical vapour disposition process on a silicon substrate. To do this, the substrate is exposed to a precursor – a compound that participates in a chemical reaction to create another compound – that reacts on the substrate, leaving behind the desired deposit.

Other ways solar energy is powering space missions

Using solar power for space exploration is not a new phenomenon but it is a technology that is continuously being explored in new ways. Not only are new materials being created, such as silicon-germanium-tin, but they are being deployed in new ways too. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched the IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) spacecraft in 2010 using a 20-metre solar power sail to power its flight. At only 0.0003 inches thick, the sail is incredibly thin and uses a combination of photons striking its surface to push it through space and ultra-thin solar cells to generate electricity.  These cells are made of amorphous silicon (a-Si) which can be spread very thinly on a substrate and generate electricity in a not particularly efficient but highly environmentally-friendly manner as they do not rely on toxic heavy metals.

Both of the above scientific developments into powering space missions through solar power would not be possible without highly controlled ultra-high-vacuum conditions here on Earth. AML manufactures the type of Ion Gauge Controllers that make this innovative research possible. Find out more by calling 01903 884141 or email sales@arunmicro.com.

Photo credit: NASA

New Semiconductor Technology Could Extend Moore's Law

Fifty years ago, Gordon Moore, a co-founder of multinational technology company, Intel, predicted that the number of transistors on a single microchip would double every year. Ten years later he revised this estimate to every two years. This is known as Moore's Law. In 2015, this forecast has remained true but even Moore himself has hypothesised that this rate of expansion cannot continue indefinitely. Other commentators have stated that transistors are now so small that Moore's Law could become untrue very soon. However, recent technological breakthroughs have opened up the possibility that Moore's Law may not just remain true but even be exceeded for many years to come.

Is this the End for Moore's Law?

Microchip manufacturers are constantly endeavouring to make chips more powerful and cheaper to build. This has involved packing an increasing number of transistors on to a single silicone wafer. The primary method of achieving this has been to make the components smaller and smaller. At around 14 nanometres many believe that they have reached the limits of how small they can be. However, Intel told The Economist magazine this year that they believe they can make transistors as small as 5 nanometres, about the width of a cell membrane, in the next ten years, but that would be the limit to how small they could be.  These limitations seem to spell the end for Moore's Law.

Breakthrough Techniques

IT technology company IBM made a breakthrough in 2007 when they increased the number of transistors without making them any smaller. Instead they were brought closer together. Using a power transmitting system called 'silicon via technology' they were able to create 3D chips containing 100 more channels through the wafer, eliminating the need for long metal wires connecting components together and shortening the distance electricity travels by 1000%.

Moving on from the Silicon Wafer

Although the use of 3D wafer construction has considerably increased the shelf life of Moore's Law, it still has limitations over time. The University of Connecticut is currently developing new integrated circuit technology, which could extend it even further. A group called POET Technologies has combined optics with electronics to create a wafer made of gallium arsenide, which they claim will be faster, cheaper and more energy efficient than silicon. The researchers state that, going forward, they will be able to fit all the necessary components on to a single chip without the need to connect chips together. Developments like this make it possible for Moore's Law to remain true far into the future.

AML creates ion gauge controllers, which can be used to measure vacuum levels to ensure the optimum conditions for semiconductor manufacture are maintained.  Contact us today for more details about our products by calling us on 01903 884141 or email via sales@arunmicro.com.

Hydrogen Economics: Boom or Bust?

In the ongoing search for sustainable, reliable, inexpensive and environmentally friendly energy sources, hydrogen has long been a contender. It is the simplest and most abundant element in the universe. This abundance, and the fact that when burnt as fuel its only remnants are water and warm air, make it a very attractive option. However, the costs and complications surrounding the creation and storage of liquid hydrogen are still holding it back from becoming a dominant fuel source. Experimentation to find cheaper ways of tackling this problem is taking place all over the world.

Producing Hydrogen

Currently, there are a number of ways to produce liquid hydrogen but the processes are all energy-hungry, to the point where the amount of energy required to produce the hydrogen is similar to the amount of potential energy stored in it. Clearly, this is not economically viable in most applications. Problems arise because hydrogen does not typically exist in nature by itself and it is often the process of separating it from other materials, such as water, that takes up the most energy. The most common processes being used are:

  • Thermochemical Processes – Using heat and chemical reactions to release hydrogen from sources like water. Energy for this comes from fuel materials like natural gas, coal or bio-diesel.
  • Electrolysis – As this process can be used to produce hydrogen with no greenhouse gas emissions and using renewable energy sources, a great deal of experimentation is ongoing to discover how to use it in a cost effective way.

Many other methods are used and more are being developed all the time.

Using Hydrogen

Production costs are not the only issue preventing hydrogen being used as a financially viable fuel source. Making it into a usable form and storing it are also key factors due to the very low boiling point of hydrogen. Liquid Hydrogen has to be stored at around -253°C and be highly pressurised. Cooling and compressing it into this state is also an expensive and high energy consuming process.

However, NASA uses approximately 10 million pounds of liquid hydrogen a year. They favour hydrogen as the main fuel for space vehicles because it is very light and powerful as a rocket propellant. This is because it has the lowest molecular weight of any known substance and burns at around 3,000°C.

The Future

New methods of producing liquid hydrogen are being discovered all the time. These include: Direct Solar Water Splitting Processes which involve using light energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, as well as Biological Processes which use microbes to produce hydrogen through biological reactions. New production techniques, along with refinements to widely used processes, mean that cost effective hydrogen fuel production is coming closer and closer along with all the environmental benefits.

AML design and create equipment which can be used at cryogenic temperatures to aid in the type of experimentation which has the potential to make this use of hydrogen possible. For more information on their products, call 01903 884141 or email sales@arunmicro.com to find out what they can do for you and your research.

The History of Cryogenics

Scientists in the 19th Century started experimenting with very cold temperatures. This type of study was called cryogenics. Major experimentation in this area began when scientists such as Michael Faraday began to liquefy gasses. Throughout the century, scientists went on to develop more sophisticated methods to create increasingly colder temperatures - this led to scientists liquefying all the known permanent gasses and finding new properties of solid materials.

A brief history of cryogenics; the discoveries made and the methods used

  • 1845 – By this time Michael Faraday had liquefied most of the permanent gasses known at that time except oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, methane and nitric oxide.
    •  Method – Immersing the gas in a bath of dry ice and then pressurising it until it liquefied.
  • 1877 - Louis Cailletet in France and Raoul Pictet in Switzerland succeeded in creating droplets of liquid air.
    • Method – Cailletet dropped the temperature through rapid expansion of the gas. This was achieved by compressing the gas with mercury using a steel and glass apparatus, before draining the mercury away allowing the gas to expand.
  • 1898 – James Dewar liquefied hydrogen at the lowest temperature ever achieved at that point, -252.5°C. He went on to solidify it at -258°C.
    • Method – Using liquid air at -200°C he cooled the hydrogen before forcing it through a fine nozzle into a vacuum. It liquefied when it escaped from the nozzle.
  • 1908 - Heike Kamerlingh Onnes liquefied helium which has the lowest boiling point of any known substance at -268.9°C.
    • Method – He created four cooling cycles using different liquefied gasses including oxygen and hydrogen. The helium was cooled more and more at each stage.
  • 1911 - Kamerlingh Onnes also discovered that if certain metals are cooled to temperatures not far above absolute zero they lose any resistance to electrical currents. This is called superconductivity and has many applications in the modern world.

Cyrogenic Applications in the 21st Century

MRI scanners widely used in medicine across the world rely on cryogenics to create magnets powerful enough to operate effectively. In scientific research, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, uses incredibly powerful magnets kept at very low temperatures to accelerate particles. Cryogenic liquids are also used a great deal in space exploration.

Cryogenic experimentation has come an incredibly long way over the past 150 years but it is still ongoing and continuing to make important discoveries. AML makes stepper motors and other equipment which can be used to conduct experiments with and using cryogenic materials. Call 01903 884141 or email sales@arunmicro.com to find out what they can do for you and your research.

Is The New LHC Run The End Of Particle Physics As We Know It?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN facility (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) near Geneva, is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world.  It has been used in a large number of experiments, which have proved that the Standard Model of particle physics encompasses essentially every particle that makes up the universe and the forces that act upon them.  The most significant of these was the discovery of the Higgs boson, the last particle predicted by the Standard Model to be discovered.

After being offline for two years for upgrading, the LHC is now back up and running again for its second run of experimentation.  This time it's even more powerful and the investigations are going beyond the Standard Model.  Scientists are particularly excited and anxious about this run because it could prove theories that go far beyond the reach of the Standard Model or suggest that no more research is required as the Standard Model is all there is.

The New and Improved Large Hadron Collider

Consisting of 27 kilometres of superconducting magnets, the LHC contains two separate particle beam pipes kept in ultra-high vacuum.  These beams travel at close to the speed of light and cause the particles to collide at a force equivalent to an apple hitting the moon hard enough to create a six-mile wide crater.  Since its upgrade, the LHC has nearly doubled its collision energy to a record-breaking 13 teraelectronvolts.  Scientists hope that this new level of energy will allow more radical discoveries.

Theories Beyond the Standard Model

One of the theories to be tested in this run is the 'Supersymmetry' theory, which suggests that 23% of the universe could be made up of dark matter, which is not included in the Standard Model.  Some scientists believe that further study of the Higgs boson could prove the existence of dark matter, as it seems to be attracted to particles with mass such as dark matter. Studying the way the Higgs boson interacts with other particles could unlock that mystery.  Another question that the Standard Model is not able to answer concerns anti-matter.  A new set of experiments called LHCb (Large Hadron Collider beauty) are currently investigating the similarities between matter and anti-matter particles by studying the beauty quark.

Rolf Heuer, the Director-General of CERN stated that, “with this new energy level, the LHC will open new horizons for physics and for future discoveries”.  However, if it fails to prove any theories beyond the Standard Model, it is highly likely that these theories will never be proven and will render further experimentation obsolete.  However, CERN is not the only organisation trying to make important breakthroughs in particle physics and for those other experiments equipment, such as stepper motors that can operate in ultra-high vacuum conditions, is essential.

To find out about AML's UHV stepper motors call 01903 884141 or email sales@arunmicro.com.

Photo credit: CERN

What is the Standard Model?

The Standard Model in particle physics definitely does not suggest that the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42.  However, it does give physicists a profound understanding of what life, the universe and everything is made up of.  It describes the fundamental particles that essentially make up all matter and the forces that act upon them. CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) states that, “how these particles and three of the forces are related to each other is encapsulated in the Standard Model of particle physics.”

Elementary Particles

Even though the development of the Standard Model was a cumulative effort of scientists around the world for many years, the term itself was coined in the 1970s.  They categorised the basic elementary particles, quarks and leptons into six groups, which were then paired and called 'generations' based on their weight and stability.  The lightest and most stable particles were called the first generation and they make up all stable matter in the universe.  The Standard Model has been used to not only identify different types of particles but also to predict their existence.  Over the years its reliability at predicting the existence of particles has been proven time and time again as these particles have subsequently been discovered.

Fundamental Forces

There are four Fundamental Forces that are exerted on these elementary particles and they are the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force.  Interestingly, the Standard Model includes all of these forces except gravity.  Being the best known force to the average person, it seems odd that this force is not included but it does not fit comfortably into the Standard Model and this is partly due to the fact that gravitational force is so weak when exerted on particles that its effect is negligible.  Each of the other forces works by matter particles exchanging force-carrier particles called 'bosons'.  Different forces have different bosons.  The strong force has one called 'gluons', while the weak force is carried by the 'W and Z bosons'.  Electromagnetic force is carried by 'photons' but, although it is thought that gravity should have a force-carrying particle called a 'graviton', it has never been discovered.
This is an example of how the Standard Model is “still incomplete” as CERN states.  It cannot explain dark matter and CERN suggests that it is “part of a bigger picture that includes new physics hidden deep in the subatomic world or in the dark recesses of the universe”.  Experiments are done continuously to test theories within and beyond the Standard Model such as the attempts to discover the Higgs boson particle in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.  However, many other such experiments are taking place all over the world using vacuum conditions to isolate particles.

AML makes stepper motors that can be used in these conditions to aid in conducting this important research.  Contact AML today by calling 01903 884141 or via sales@arunmicro.com to find out more.

Taking Steps to Mars

2015 will go down as the year that US space agency NASA brought us the most detailed view of Pluto yet. And in just 15 years’ time, according to plans already in place, NASA will conduct a manned mission to Mars, which could answer the age-old question of whether there is life on other planets.  However, as Mars is approximately 225,300,000 km from the Earth, getting there is no mean feat and will need to be done in stages.  Fortunately, through robotic probes and experimentation carried out on the International Space Station, this process has already begun.

The Next Step to Mars

The next stage on the journey to Mars is to capture an asteroid.  Technically, this will be part of a multi-ton boulder broken off an asteroid during a robotic mission called ARM (Asteroid Redirect Mission).  Choosing a suitable asteroid is the first part of this process and, in looking for a suitable candidate, NASA has discovered over 1,000 new near-Earth objects.  So far the agency has narrowed down the choice to four possibilities, based on velocity, orbit, size and spin.  Once the asteroid is chosen, a piece broken off and put into orbit around the moon, it will become a testing ground for the technology required for the mission to Mars.

The use of robots is nothing new in the attempt to reach Mars.  In fact, robotic missions have been landing on Mars for nearly 40 years.  They have already made amazing discoveries, including the fact that snow falls there, the highest temperature is -19.6C, the lowest -97.7 and there is a substance there called Perchorate, from which microbes can obtain energy.

The Phoenix Mars Lander

These discoveries were made by the Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008. Its aim was to assess the climate and geology, and to prepare for human exploration.  Landing in the Northern Arctic plain, it studied water, ice and soil in this region.  An important part of the rover was the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyser (MECA), which conducted important experiments on the surface of Mars.

The MECA’s main purpose was to characterise Mars’ soil by subjecting it to a series of tests.  Some involved mixing the soil with other materials and one involved studying samples with a microscope that could magnify images to 10 nanometers, which was the smallest ever on Mars.  The samples were moved through each of these sets of experiments by a stepper motor created by Arun Microelectronics Ltd, which was designed specifically to work in ultra-high vacuum conditions. Additionally, by reducing the mechanical complexity of the units, avoiding metal-to-metal sliding surfaces and ensuring they had low outgassing characteristics, AML was able to ensure the stepper motor was suitable for sensitive handling applications.

NASA's plans to put a human being on Mars during the 2030s, by capturing an asteroid on which to experiment, are huge and exciting but they would not be possible without precise engineering and experimentation here on Earth.

To find out how AML can fulfil your Ultra High Vacuum equipment requirements call 01903 884141 or email sales@arunmicro.com.

Samantha Cristoforetti Breaks a World Record on her First Space Mission

Between November 2014 and June 2015, Samantha Cristoforetti broke the world record for the longest space mission by a woman.  The previous record was held by Sunita Williams, who spent 195 days in space in 2012.  Cristoforetti's record was set by accident when a Russian space agency freighter burnt up on re-entry causing Cristoforetti's return to be delayed by a month while the accident was investigated meaning she spent 199 days in space.  This was a mission of firsts:

First Mission – First Coffee

As an Italian airforce fighter pilot, Samantha Cristoforetti had plenty of hours of flight time but this was her first mission into space.  She travelled a total of 84 million miles on her round trip to the International Space Station and back to Earth.  While she was there, she conducted a number of important experiments which could have huge implications for life here on Earth.  However, she is best known for being the first person to drink from the ISSpresso machine: the first espresso machine to operate in zero-gravity using capsules.

Potentially Ground Breaking Experiments

Some of Cristoforetti's experiments involved testing new medical technology.  One involved testing to see if nanoparticles could be used on bone cells to prevent osteoporosis.  Another involved using microgravity to manipulate cell shape by interfering with the cytoskeleton of the cell to start a cascade of reactions that could affect all the major cell functions.  This technology, if perfected, could be used to treat connective tissue diseases, osteoporosis and cancer.

The Future of Space Exploration

Scientific breakthroughs are nothing new on the International Space Station and in 2014 they made a major breakthrough in ongoing space exploration.  The Space Station's 3D printer created a ratcheting socket wrench for the astronauts to use.  Although it doesn't sound that dramatic, it demonstrates that astronauts can make tools for themselves in space without having to wait for them to be sent from Earth.  This has huge implications for sustainable space exploration as astronauts will no longer be dependent on their connection to Earth enabling them to go further than they have ever gone before.

All of these breakthroughs, those on Samantha Cristoforetti's mission and those of the International Space Station, are due to experimentation and manufacturing capabilities on Earth. Ultra High Vacuum equipment is crucial for space technology development. Contact AML today to find out how their high level of expertise can help you by phoning 01903 884141 or via sales@arunmicro.com.