Sunday, March 17, 2019

Solar vs. Nuclear: Long-term Environmental Footprint in Canada

Canada has always been on the front line of nuclear innovation ever since the first line of nuclear plant technologies started developing in the 1940s. Today, 16% of Canada’s energy comes from nuclear reactors.

But in recent years, technological advancements and an increasing concern for the environment caused renewables to substantially drop in price per Watt. One of the renewables, solar energy, 
seems destined for stardom in the energy industry. But what would be the impact of moving 
from nuclear to solar energy in Canada? More importantly, can we compare the long term 
environmental footprint of both? This can be answered by looking at the form of waste produced
over time by each energy transformation process.

Nuclear Energy

It is important to note that the main environmental footprint comes from the nuclear waste
produced. This waste is cooled down in water-filled ponds and then stored in containers. 
The first potential issue comes from the ponds. The water ponds are usually kept below 50͒C.
Prolonged interruption of the cooling process can result in water boiling and releasing radioactive
elements in the atmosphere. This happened in Fukushima. Even considering the dangers, plants
have been fortified against such dangers and the chances of something going wrong are very
low. [2] [3] The radioactive waste is usually transferred after some years into containers. 
Since large volumes of waste are displaced in thin-walled concrete containers and these containers
need to be carefully fitted underground, there is a chance of the vessel developing cracks, spilling,
or even breaking. [4] 

“Scratches on the canisters open up new surfaces that are vulnerable to 
chemical reactions. And that could result in corrosion cracking in the long term.” [4]
- Tom English and Subrata Chakraborty, Physicists

The canisters are also stored in dry places underground, but the rise of the sea level every year 
might affect existing storage locations and force a relocation. Every movement of the canister
can potentially damage it further. Sensors are normally used to detect damage but not all plants
have them installed. Decommissioning nuclear facilities can also result in spills, but, as with all
the risks mentioned, if preparation and safety measures are put in place, the risk is minimized.
The latest pond/container recorded spill dates back to 1979, showing how safe the current
infrastructure is. [4] [5] 

Solar Energy

To keep the matter specific, we will focus on photovoltaic cells. Unless damaged, photovoltaic
cells do not produce any waste or pollution during operation. [1] The critical component of panels
is made of silicon-containing materials. However, 90% of solar panels is actually composed of glass,
with traces of heavy metals and toxic elements. [8] The main concern with photovoltaic cells is
when they reach the end of their lifetime. There hasn’t been much work done on recycling
decommissioned or broken solar panels. Thus, solar panels are simply disposed of without their
material being recycled. [6] “[Solar panels] cannot be recycled…due to impurities. Common
impurities…include lead, cadmium and antimony.”- Dustin Mulvaney, Professor of
Environmental Studies, San Jose State University [6] The cost of recycling solar panels is so
high that it negates the purpose of this resource. A lack of proper recycling has led to disposal
of 250,000 metric tonnes of solar waste worldwide as of 2016, with a projection of 78 million
metric tonnes by 2050. [6] This waste is not radioactive, but still contains toxic elements that
need to be contained. For instance, cadmium, a carcinogen, can be washed off during rain when
exposed; the runaway water poses a threat to the surrounding soil and nearby population. [9]
It is very easy for solar panels to break and release their chemicals into the environment.
In regions prone to storms, entire solar farms can be destroyed. 
“Leaching [cadmium] from broken panels damaged during natural events — hail storms,
tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. — and at decommissioning is a big concern.”
- Sean Fogerty, Environmental Scientist [6]

Which One?

There are many other factors to take into account. The extraction of the Uranium could sometimes
release more carbon dioxide than a nuclear reactor could pay back in its entire lifetime. [7] 
Considering the geographical location of Canada, it may not be as feasible to install solar panels
as it would be in, say, California. However, looking at waste alone, it’s evident that Canada is
not yet ready to implement a sustainable, economical solution for recycling solar waste. On the
other hand, nuclear waste, although not recyclable, is disposed properly such that the toxic waste
is not exposed to the environment. Considering their smaller lifetime, low efficiency, and their
high material consumption, solar energy loses the battle against nuclear (for now). With
technological advancements in the future, solar energy will likely catch up and overtake
nuclear energy; until then, it’s best to stick with our reactors.

For a bit more drops of future:
[1] GreenMatch, “The Opportunities of Solar Panel Recycling: What Happens to PV Panels When Their Life Cycle
Ends”, United Kingdom, Mar 2019. URL:
[2] Verge Science, “88,000 tons of radioactive waste – and nowhere to put it”, San Onofre, Aug 2018. 
[3] Crowley, K., “Are Nuclear Spent Fuel Pools Secure?”, Council on Foreign Relations, Jun 2005. 
URL (Consulted 14/03/2019)
[4] KPBS TV, “Evening Edition Nuclear Waste Interview”, San Diego, Jan 2019. 
[5] IAEA, “Radioactive Waste - The Journey to Disposal”, Vienna, Oct 2014. 
[6] A. Wade, IRENA and IEA PVPS (2016) - End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels. 2016. 
(Consulted 16/03/2019)
[7] R. L. R. Murray, Nuclear energy: an introduction to the concepts, systems, and applications of nuclear processes. 
Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2009.
[8] T. Tsoutsos, N. rantzeskaki, and V. Gekas, “Environmental impacts from the solar energy technologies,” 
Energy Policy, vol. 33, 2005.
[9] Varun, I. Bhat, and R. Prakash, “LCA of renewable energy for electricity generation systems—A review,” 
Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, vol. 13, no. 5, pp. 1067–1073, 2009.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Autonomous Debate

Take a look at the picture below. It's a representation of how people saw the future of cars in the 1960's during what was called the "Golden Age of American Futurism". Along with electric solar cars, weather control and jet-pack mailmen, self-driving cars were a vision of the near future at the time. Turns out, you can get one today! But should you?

On May 7th, Tesla's autopilot was blamed for the death of Joshua Brown after it wasn't able to detect the truck that hit his car. Many have pointed out the dangers of the autopilot and have doubted the decision to have it available so soon to the public. But, as Elon Musk said, the autopilot is not yet good enough to completely replace the human driver. The owner is asked to keep his/her hands on the wheel and to be always prepared to take over. The technology is not to replace human drivers (yet); it's just a security upgrade that is meant to assist the driver in any situation (for now).

Something we shouldn't forget is that the autopilot is not perfect. But even then, it's still better at avoiding accidents than most human drivers are. I believe having such a technology is a must for achieving almost zero car accidents everywhere in the world. Doubting the autopilot is like doubting an experienced professional swimmer that is swimming next to you as you cross a fearsome ocean filled with numerous perils and immense predators. That being said, recently, a Tesla Model X saved the life of attorney Joshua Neally by using the autopilot to drive him safely to a hospital. A normal car could not have done that. This shows how useful the autopilot can be in certain situations.

Another interesting problem that autonomous driving brings is the question of who is responsible for the accidents? From an insurance and legal point of view, this requires an answer. Well, considering that we don't have the full autopilot yet, each person is responsible for the actions of its car except if the car accidentally made a wrong move. Then the cause of the accident will appear in the car's autonomous log. If full autonomous driving is announced, that means the company is responsible for any damage or accident caused by the car.

That being said, an autonomous car is basically a computer on wheels. So by creating a computer-car, you basically inherit all of the problems from computers. The big one is hacking. What if your car is hacked while you're doing 90 on a freeway? Hackers have fooled a Tesla into believing that no obstacle was in front of it by using radio interference. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. As you can see, security measures are needed more than ever to stop such things from happening and we still have a long way to go until driving in a computer is 100% safe.

I'll leave with something to think about. If an autonomous car has the ability to take action and make choices, what happens when those choices involve huge moral dilemmas. Would you prefer to have your car avoid a pedestrian but kill you; or would you like to live and sacrifice the pedestrian? Considering the fact that the car should serve its owner, then the latter seems more logical for a car maker. But still, it becomes a bit scary when that decision has to be taken by a robot.

For a bit more drops of future, check out: 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Google's Glamourous Gadget

So about a month ago, I decided to purchase a Virtual Reality headset to be able to experience for myself what I believe will be a great new revolution in so many different disciplines. From new teaching methods, to super realistic and immersive games, to new professional simulation training, virtual reality is a giant leap towards a future where technology is omnipresent (in a good way hopefully).

That being said, I decided to try out the inexpensive Google Cardboard since there isn't really another headset that you can purchase for 20$. The Oculus Rift is 500$ and the HTC Vive is even more expensive. But I really like the fact that Google tried to make the headset as affordable as possible so that more people can experience with VR. What's also interesting is that developer can create an app that works with the headset since Google released the free Cardboard Development Kit for any developer to use. With this simple "gadget", Google hoped to spark interest in VR and accelerate its development.

Now, that's a huge mission for a box made out of cardboard. But I believe Google Cardboard succeeded where the Google Glass failed. When the glasses came out, all they did was take pictures, surf the web and send messages. For a 1500$ gadget, that's pretty useless if we consider that the people who could afford the glasses already owned powerful smartphones that had a better camera, faster processors, etc. Instead of competing with smartphones, Google Cardboard used them as their main component. You don't need more than a pizza box to appreciate virtual reality from the comfort of your own home using your phone.

Since more and more apps are designed to work with the Google Cardboard, you can already get a taste of what virtual reality looks like. I didn't need a more expensive headset to be completely immersed  in the world created by the numerous developers. Even if it does cause motion sickness when you're, for example, on a roller-coaster and your eyes are detecting movement but your body is static, the experience is great, and it can only get better with time.

I believe Google Cardboard is the first step in discovering virtual reality for people who are really into it. And this is an important step to creating more demand for such an incredible new technology. If more and more people try it out and like it, then more funds will be invested into helping VR headsets become more and more sophisticated. All this to say: smart affordable technology is an amazing way of pushing technology in the right direction.

For a bit more drops of future, check out:

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Let's Talk Terraforming

If it should happen one day that our planet is in danger or if its capacity for inhabitants has been reached, then what do we do? From the early tribes to the biggest civilizations, we have always been closer to microorganisms than to animals when it came to the speed at which we colonized and occupied the Earth. And what about meteorites? One day, a rock as big as the one that is believed to have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs might knock at Earth's door once more. Then what? Will we have what it takes to destroy or deflect it?

Questions like these don't have clear answers. And that's why they're important. The only way we can keep having a safe population expansion is if we spread outwards. Sadly, all planets around us are not Earth-like; and the closest Earth-like planet is light-years away. But we can change that. Get ready for something straight out of a fiction novel. We have tools we can use to terraform planets to make them more habitable (like having a decent atmosphere and oxygen). Although it is imperative that we start terraforming planets as soon as we can send humans there, the process is long and costly.

So obviously Mars is a great start since it resembles our planet the most. Here is what has been proposed until now. We can start by releasing greenhouse gases (like chlorofluorocarbons) in the atmosphere. By giving Mars its own atmosphere, we allow the sun's rays to get trapped and heat up the planet. The temperature increase will release the CO2 that is trapped in the polar caps and contribute even more to the growing atmosphere. This cycle keeps going until the entire poles have released all their CO2 and the temperature will be sufficiently high to melt the ice and provide water. Finally, planting trees will provide the planet with the oxygen needed to sustain life.

So in summary: create atmosphere, raise temperature, release water, CO2 and oxygen and you got a planet where you can live on without a space suit. But this will happen over centuries and since this sort of investment doesn't bring anything in the short term, my guess is that we are far away from actually seeing such a project take place. Of course, the time taken to terraform a planet is proportional to how different that planet is from Earth. Let's consider the Moon as our next potential candidate for terraforming.

Since the moon doesn't have trapped CO2 in its poles (or an easy access to any other ingredient for life), the best way of terraforming it would be to capture comets that contain ice and other constituents and crash it on our satellite. Sadly, this is not something that's as easy as it sounds. Even if the moon is closer to us than Mars, it is also a lot smaller. It would be a good stepping stone for more ambitious missions though, and a good place to start.

Mars and the Moon would therefore be a good place to start terraforming. The moon should be used as more of a playground and experimental project in that domain, whereas Mars could be the Earth 2 in a couple of centuries. With the discovery of new technologies and with, hopefully, an increase in the funds given to NASA, we can (and probably will) begin our colonization and terraforming process of new planets and maybe even new solar systems. It is captivating what humanity can do as a whole and terraforming will be a major step in discovering not only new frontiers, but also what Man can achieve.

For a bit more drops of future, visit:

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Race to Mars

Shortly after Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957 by the Soviet, NASA was born under Eisenhower. As an aerospace agency, it was mainly in charge of the american space exploration. That being said, the real suspected cause of the existence of such an agency was to race the Russians to the moon. NASA had at its disposal US$89 million; an incredibly large sum of money that would keep on growing to represent, at its peak, 4.41% of the federal budget. This is a surprising investment considering that, except the numerous technological advancements it brought to our society, it did not directly benefit the american society. Going to the Moon did not really solve any problems on Earth. But it was a fantastic achievement. One that would pave the road for further space exploration missions and research. 

The important point in this is that the race to the moon was a political cock fight. But it served as an effective way to develop and advance scientific discovery in aerospace and many other fields. Of course, after the moon landing, after the race was won, NASA's budget (in % of the federal budget) decreased almost every year. Without this need for a political battle; without being provoked into investing in a battle or a race, research in space exploration was not prioritized over other "more urgent" problems...until today.

I have described the stakes of going to Mars in the previous post. When NASA reached the Moon, it had political support from all sides. Now that that's over, even if a mission to Mars is a great idea, problems are solved faster with a good financial support. As you know, it would take a regular ship 18 months to make the one-way trip to Mars. The primary problem with getting to Mars is propulsion. Making the trip last 45 days would solve problems such as radiation exposure, food, bone loss and boredom. But it's impossible. Or is it?

The national corporation Rosatom from Russia said that they are working on a nuclear engine for a rocket that could reach Mars in around a month and a half. Most of the problems for this type of propulsion system have been solved by 1967 when they were launching fission-powered satellites. Thrust will be produced by burning a chemical with the heat generated from the splitting of atoms. Why are the United-States not considering the same alternative? Maybe because nuclear incidents are disastrous (think about Chernobyl)? What would happen if this ship blew up during take-off? These questions led to a lot of policies surrounding nuclear power in the states.

Of course, is all of this possible? It might be too good to be true. The corporation has set 2025 as the due-date for a potential prototype. The only problem so far seems to be the budget of Rosatom. They were given about $700 million for the entire thing. That's 4% of NASA's budget for 2015. And remember, they have 10 years to build the thing with only that amount of money. Is it possible? Hopefully it is. All I know is, it will be a step forward towards getting to Mars.

That being said, this news might make the american government invest a lot more in NASA and in other space exploration programs. Like for the race to the Moon, maybe conflict will create great possibilities for scientific advancements. Are we at the starting line of
another historical race? Let's wait and see. The next ten years might be incredibly interesting for global space exploration as we move closer to putting a person on Mars.

For a bit more drops of future, check out: