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Global Briefs

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Global Briefs

One Step Closer to Fusion Power

The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced the achievement of fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). This is a major scientific breakthrough decades and billions of dollars in the making, paving the way for us to be able to produce clean fusion energy. Fusion power is considered a game-changer because it would allow us to produce electricity with no carbon footprint or radioactive waste, using fewer
resources than it takes to harness solar and wind power.

On December 5, 2022, the LLNL team conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach what is known as “scientific energy breakeven”, meaning that it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it. Merely a theory until now, fusion combines two light nuclei to form a single heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy. To achieve this milestone, LLNL built a series of powerful laser systems housed in a facility the size of a sports stadium. The lasers create temperatures and pressures comparable to cores of stars and giant planets.

There are still enormous challenges to be tackled in the decades ahead. The first is to develop machinery capable of affordably turning the reaction into electricity without destroying the machinery in the process. The hope is to address these challenges in time to have a positive impact on climate change.

Reforestation Is More Than Planting Trees

The United Nations designated 2021 to 2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. To that end, the European Union and 26 nations, along with donor support, recently pledged $16 billion to protect, restore and sustainably manage forests. A significant portion of the monies will be spent on reforestation.

Many reforestation projects focus on the number of trees planted, with less attention to how well they survive, how diverse the resulting forests are or how much carbon they store. A study of data from 176 reforestation sites found that on average only 44 percent of newly planted trees last more than five years, with some sites reporting a sapling survival rate of less than 20 percent. 

Several studies have explored ways to improve survival rates. Promising measures include planting near mature trees, fencing out cattle, improving soil conditions, planting native species first to pave the way for other tree species and involving local people to support reforestation efforts. 

Finding Hydrogen in Oil Wells

Climate change has spurred researchers and companies to develop fuels with zero carbon emissions. A simple solution is hydrogen because it burns without carbon emissions and is seemingly everywhere—under our feet and in every glass of water. The challenge is obtaining a reliable, safe and sustainable volume of hydrogen at a reasonable cost. There are several methods used today to produce pure hydrogen in large quantities. Most hydrogen is a byproduct of natural gas or coal gasification.

Cemvita Factory, a Texas biotech firm, field-tested a new method of hydrogen production in July, 2022, by injecting a propriety combination of bacteria and nutrients into a depleted oil well. Once inside, the microbes broke down the oil dregs to generate hydrogen and CO2. Cemvita Factory estimates there are more than 1,000 depleted oil wells in the United States that are suitable for their microbial treatment. While hydrogen production using depleted oil wells is getting some interest and attention, it still appears to be at a relatively early stage of development. One challenge faced by Cemvita Factory and other innovators in this area is how to prevent the CO2 from leaking into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. Methods to capture, store or neutralize the CO2 byproduct will need to be developed. 

Alarming Decline of the Hawksbill Turtle

Dispersed throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the hawksbill sea turtle helps maintain high coral cover on reefs by removing invasive prey. Their ornate, beautifully patterned shells make them a favorite attraction for snorkelers and divers around the world. But those beautiful shells also
make them a target for illegal harvesting to be carved into combs, jewelry and other trinkets.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the population of hawksbill turtles has declined by 84 to 87 percent over the last three generations, and their numbers continue to fall. Illegal poaching is not the only threat facing these turtles. Excessive hunting, loss of coral reef habitats due to warming oceans and acidification, light pollution in nesting areas due to development, marine pollution and fatal run-ins with commercial fishing have contributed to their decline. 

Conservation efforts are underway in places like Australia and the Caribbean, including working with commercial fishers to develop sustainable, turtle-friendly fishing methods. Laws are in place in many parts of the world to deter and prosecute the illegal trade of turtle products. Consumers can do their part by learning to identify, avoid and report hawskbill shell products. For tips, check out this video by Travel for Wildlife at Tinyurl.com/HawksbillHelp.

Turning Vegetable Waste into Plastic

The World Economic Forum estimates that about 400 million tons of plastic waste are produced globally each year and that 98 percent of single-use plastic products are made from fossil fuels. So, the prospect of replacing the petroleum in plastic with a plant material is exciting news for the planet and humanity. 

Toresyoku, a Japanese firm, has developed technology that efficiently removes cellulose (dietary fiber) from plant material for use in plastic production. Using
vegetable waste, such as cabbage cores, rice husks, coffee grounds and the leaves and stems of tomatoes and broccoli from local farms, the company extracts the cellulose through hydrolysis (heating under pressure in water) and component decomposition (using enzymes). 

Not only does the cellulose reduce the use of petroleum-based materials, but it may also increase the strength of the plastic being made for products such as plastic bottles, appliances and car bumpers. The company expects to start operating their factory soon and be able to process up to a ton of plant waste a day. While other companies have been able to extract cellulose from wood chips, Toresyoku’s technology is more efficient and can be done for a fraction of the cost of competing technologies.

Sharks Win!

In a groundbreaking decision, world governments have awarded increased protections to 54 species of sharks at the 19th Conference of the Parties\of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). “This decision is the most significant step toward improving global shark management that countries have taken,” says Mark Bond, a biologist at Florida International University and an advocate for the CITES protections. “It will ensure international shark trade is regulated and traceable.” 

Sharks and rays, which are fished for their fins and meat, are the second most threatened vertebrate group in the world, with a third of them threatened with extinction. The inclusion of these sharks on the CITES list helps ensure only legal and sustainable trade in fins and meat is taking place. Almost every shipment of shark products will now require a permit to prove that trade meets legal and sustainability requirements. Before the decision, there were few restrictions in place around the globe. 

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