UT Science Forum tackles nuclear energy

Dr. Stephen Skutnik, Assistant Professor at UT’s department of Nuclear Engineering says that the future of nuclear energy depends on if it’s viewed as trash or a treasure.

Skutnik addressed multiple forms of proposed storage methods such as geologic disposal, hydrogeologic disposal, ice sheet disposal and more outlandish solutions such as extraterrestrial and volcanic disposal.

Although scientists have the ability to store used fuel for decades, it is not seen a viable permanent solution.

According to Skutnik, geologic disposal is the only feasible option at this time. It involves storing the radioactive elements deep underground long enough to “run out the clock” on the materials so they are no longer radioactive.

However, “running the clock out” on elements such as Plutonium and Neptunium can take thousands of years. Before locking the elements away in their radioactive tombs, Skutnik supports the idea of isolating the Uranium, a less radioactive element, and reusing it for nuclear fuel.

Skutnik went on to point out that the United States’ method for handling used nuclear waste has not been widely supported. The Nuclear Waste Policy act of 1987 created a permanent, underground repository for radioactive nuclear waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, located 100 miles north of Las Vegas.

In 2009, the Obama Administration defunded the Yucca Mountain repository efforts and began the Blue Ribbon Commission. The commission recognized the national need for a consent-base repository program to garner wide public support. The target date for completion is 2048.

The Unite States government hopes to model the program after Sweden and Finland’s programs, the most programs successful thus far.

Robin Hill, a former engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, expressed optimism.

“I come to every seminar on the schedule,” Hill said. “I love it.”

“I made my living in this business with reactors, accelerators, fusion machines, waste management and cost benefit work for nuclear reactors,” Hill continued. “This stuff is important; I think the Baker Center should talk about this as well.

The political implications of nuclear energy reprocessing are heavy financial burdens and the possibility Plutonium and Uranium being used as a weapon. Currently, South Korea is seeking relief from a US treaty that prohibits the ability to enrich uranium or seek nuclear reprocessing.

In addition, Japan has been on a quest to recycle nuclear energy that has cost $25 million and generated no success.

“Understanding natural and biological processes is extremely important. The science forum gives students an opportunity to engage in additional educational opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise see,” said Amanda Womac, president of UT Science Forum and Director of Communications for the Office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

For more information about research and developments in science, visit the UT Science Forum in Thompson Boling Café from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. every Friday.

Next week, Terry Hazen, Governor’s Chair for Environmental Biotechnology will be presenting methane issues. Temporary parking passes are available for the event.

Featured image by Ryan McGill

Edited by Ben Webb

ORNL researcher discusses climate change, energy use

At the final UT science forum on April 22, post doctoral researcher Melissa Allen discussed the impacts of climate change on electricity demand and supply.

Allen, who works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, says she began studying this field because many people were researching how our energy usage affects the climate, but no one was looking at how climate change affects our energy usage.

“We hear a lot about how our energy use and the emission associated with that are affecting the climate, and I wondered, how is the climate impacting our energy use?” Allen told the audience.

“Our records and observations about the climate have gotten much better, and we keep coming up with the same answer,” she said. “The earth is warming and humans are responsible for that.”

Allen’s presentation revolved around three major scientific studies that depict the long-term outcomes of what will happen to our energy usage if the climate continues to be affected in the ways that it currently is.

One of the main impacts that climate change could have on our energy usage is that as it gets warmer outside, we will use more electricity. More people will have to cool their homes for longer periods of time, consuming more electricity than we currently do. Many parts of both the United States and the world do not have the energy infrastructure to keep up with the rising demands for energy.

For example, Allen referenced a study done on TVA in the Cumberland River Basin area that determined that climate change will cause the “rate of electricity demand to increase substantially due to population growth and temperature increases.”

Even while scientists are trying to determine the long term effects of climate change, the science behind this study is becoming increasingly more complex.

“Projections must include scenarios of technological change as well as high resolution climate and population changes,” Allen said. “There are all kinds of cascading effects that come out of these situations.”

Despite all of the details and complex science that goes into Allen’s climate models and predictions, she said one thing is clear and simple; humans need to take drastic steps combating climate change.

“I think we are at risk of some kind of tipping point,” she said. “We’re seeing some big changes now and if we don’t change in a big way soon we might see something that we couldn’t predict.”

Edited by Ben Webb

Featured Image by Ryan McGill

Professor discusses Earth-like world of Saturn moon

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At the March 4 Quest Science Forum, UT professor Devon Burr spoke about the “surprisingly earth-like world” of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Even though it is in the outer solar system, Titan shares many similarities with Earth and other terrestrial planets. For example, like Earth, Titan’s atmosphere is predominately made of nitrogen. This fact was confirmed by the Voyager Spacecraft in 1980, though Burr said it is highly unusual for an Outer Solar System planet to even have an atmosphere.

This thick atmosphere makes it difficult for scientists to see down to the surface of Titan. Burr compared the moon’s atmosphere to Los Angeles smog— yellow and hazy. Seeing through the atmosphere requires looking at radar images to study the surface features.

With radar and mapping technologies, scientists have learned that Titan’s surface has many dry river channels that move in patterns similar to those of Earth’s river systems. Scientists believe that Titan has subsurface oceans, meaning that the rock below the surface is extremely saturated with water.

The radar also picks up images of sand dunes on Titan, which are about 100 meters high and cover about 20 percent of the surface. Burr said these dunes are made up of particles similar to those found in the atmosphere, leading them to believe that the dunes are created by aerosols that rain down from above.

Titan’s extreme distance from the sun causes it to receive only one-hundredths of the energy from the sun that Earth does. In 1997, the Cassini-Huygens mission was sent to Titan as one of NASA’s last billion dollar missions.

“Because the spacecraft was so far away from the sun, it wasn’t possible to use solar energy like we would with an inner solar system mission,” Burr said. “So we basically used nuclear energy.”

In the next decade, Burr said, NASA is prioritizing going to Venus, the moon, the Trojan Asteroids and Uranus. She also noted missions launching to the Asteroid Belt next year and Mars in 2020.

The science forum will not be held for the next three Fridays, but will begin again on April 1 with a discussion on Pluto.

Featured image by Ryan McGill

Edited by Courtney Anderson

KGBA director discusses future of botanical gardens

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At noon on Friday, February 5, Jim Richards, Executive Director of the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum (KBGA), addressed a group of faculty, students and community members as part of UT’s ongoing Science Forum.

His presentation, titled “What if? The Changing Model of Botanical Gardens,” explored the shifting roles of botanical gardens and their struggle to keep moving forward despite the challenges they face, such as a lack of relevance, influence and community support, according to Richards.

“Right now, we have a limited audience made up of mostly tourists and passionate gardeners,” Richards said. “We want to broaden that audience to include more members of the community.”

He said they will do this through initiatives such as educational programs, developing staff skills and local research and creating community greening projects.

Richards says he fell in love with botanical gardens through years of visiting them all over the country, so when the city offered him the job directing Knoxville’s 47 acres of gardens, he gladly took it. Although Richards has been the director of KBGA for only six months, he already has major changes in motion for the gardens.

“We want to be able to address these topics, but have to be cautious about the potential to offend the donors who keep us going,” Richards said.

KGBA has recognized the importance of the growing commentary on environmental issues.

Recently, KGBA has been developing a bare-root plant system using gravel beds, a practice that has been widely successful in Missouri where it originated. This method allows trees to be grown extremely close together, with no soil and then to be easily transplanted to other places.

“The best thing about this project,” Richards said, “is that none of the 450 trees we’re growing will be kept at the botanical gardens— they’ll all be sent out into the community.”

“Our mission has always been growing gardens, honoring history and cultivating community, and I’m excited to be able to take the botanical gardens in a new direction.” Richards concluded.

The lecture was the second installment in a semester-long series of weekly lectures aimed at making complex scientific issues more accessible to members of the UT community.

Edited by Ben Webb.

Featured image by Ryan McGill

UT science forum explains future of wireless charging vehicles

Omer Onar of Oak Ridge delivers his speech about electric vehicles without plugging in
Omer Onar of Oak Ridge delivers his speech about electric vehicles without the notion of having to plug them in.

With the promoting of environmental awareness, people are spending more and more time focusing on clean energy and electric vehicles.. The UT Science Forum offered a lecture about wireless charging vehicles given by Omer Onar on Nov. 7.

Imagine charging an electric vehicle without plugging it in and even while it is in motion.  Onar explains how electric vehicles can be charged without plugging in and how they can become easily accessible. Onar estimates that by 2020, electric vehicles (EV’s) will be much more common.

Onar now works with power electronics and electric vehicles inthe Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and he mentioned his idea about charging vehicles in motion in his lecture.

“It makes your life easier,” Onar said. “You can drive wherever you want. You’ll sustain your charge without needing to stop and recharge your battery every couple of hours.”

The vehicle can be charged by coils, and the more time you spend on those coils, the more charge you’ll get. The best quality of this design is convenience.

Installed under highway asphalt or concrete, charging stations would charge EV’s as they pass over them. Roadside vehicle sensors would identify the vehicle and battery to determine how much of a charge to apply. “You don’t have to do anything,” said Onar.

Chuck Thomas, a staff of UT, believes wireless charging is feasible.

“I think the wireless transmission can prevent accidents, and make people be more adapted to this kind of transmission.” said Thomas.

For more UT Science Forum information, click here.

Edited by Jessica Carr

UT Science Forum hosts Mars researcher

The UT Science Forum is a presentation of the Quest Research program.
The UT Science Forum is a presentation of the Quest Research program.

For the past two years, a small laboratory rover has been digging, sifting, and inspecting the surface of Mars in an attempt to understand what it would have been like to walk on the planet 3.5 billion years ago.

While the rover, appropriately named Curiosity, is collecting data on Mars, a team of 250 scientists from all over the world are working to analyze that data. University of  Tennessee geology professor, Linda Kah, is one of those scientists.

“We landed on Mars two years ago with the goal of finding a region that may have been inhabitable,” Kah said at the UT Science Forum on Friday.

Kah came to the University of Tennessee in 2000 as an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. She was named a distinguished professor in 2008.

The rover landed in Gale Crater, an area of major interest to scientists because it indicated potential of recording activity that happened 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. Mineral evidence suggests that this was a period of climate change for the planet, when Mars was becoming colder and drier.

“It was a very important period in Martian history,” Kah said.

Curiosity is equipped with various instruments that measure radiation, weather, and the chemical composition of rocks. The rover also holds an X-ray diffractometer, which can detect the types of minerals in the rock on Mars.

“That’s the new thing. We’ve never had that before on any other planet,” Kah said.

Kah’s main role in the project is analyzing the sedimentary rock that has been found at Curiosity’s landing site. The structure and composition of the rocks reveals a lot about what Mars was like 3.5 billion years ago.

In the last two years, the sedimentary particles in Gale Crater have shown significant evidence of water. The distribution of particles and structure of the larger boulders are evidence of multiple, rapidly moving streams. Curiosity has also located very fine-grain particles, which are typical in areas where there was once standing water.

“NASA’s longtime goal has been to follow the evidence of water on Mars, because we know that water is required for life,” Kah explained.

Curiosity has the ability to travel up to 140 meters in one day, but in rougher territories, the rover can only move as far as can be seen safe from orbital imagery. Recently that has been between 30 and 50 meters per day.

“Sometimes we go out of the way for science, and sometimes we go out of the way for safety,” Kah said.

Curiosity is currently en route to Mount Sharp, an area that is expected to provide a large quantity of information about the fluid history of Gale Crater.

The public can follow Curiosity’s “road trip” online at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory website.

The UT Science Forum meets every Friday from 12–1 p.m. in the Thompson Boling Arena Cafe room C-D.

Edited by Ryan McGill.