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In a doughnut in Japan, unlocking the power of the Sun

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To the untrained eye, the JT-60SA looks like a contraption from 1970s sci-fi
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With its tangle of pipes and pumps leading to a metal pot the size of a five-storey building, Japan’s JT-60SA machine looks to the untrained eye like a contraption from 1970s sci-fi.

But inside it is a doughnut-shaped vessel where experiments done at millions of degrees could help unlock a carbon-free, inexhaustible and safe power source for the future: nuclear fusion.

“Fusion energy, the power behind the Sun and the stars, has been a great prize for energy research for decades, ever since it was first attempted in the 1950s and 60s to find some way to reproduce this power of the Sun here on Earth,” project leader Sam Davis told AFP on a recent tour.

“Not only is (fusion) free from greenhouse gases and free from long-lived nuclear waste, but it’s compact, doesn’t cover the whole landscape, and can generate industrially useful quantities of power,” the British-German engineer said.

Unlike fission, the technique currently used in nuclear power plants, fusion involves combining two atomic nuclei instead of splitting one, generating vast amounts of energy.

The process is safe and there are no nasty by-products like fissile material for a nuclear weapon or hazardous radioactive waste that takes thousands of years to degrade, its proponents say.

– Swirling plasma –

Taking 15 years to build in Naka, northeast of Tokyo, the JT-60SA is 15.5 metres (51 feet) tall and 13.7 metres (45 feet) wide, comprising a so-called tokamak vessel able to contain swirling plasma heated to millions of degrees.

Inside the facility, which was inaugurated in December, the aim is to get nuclei of hydrogen isotopes to fuse into an atom of helium, releasing energy, and mimicking the process that takes place inside the Sun and stars.

“With only one gram (0.04 ounces) of a mixed fuel… we can obtain an energy equivalent to eight tonnes of oil,” said Takahiro Suzuki, deputy project manager for the Japan side of the joint project with the European Union.

But despite decades of efforts, the technology remains in its infancy and is very expensive.

Currently the largest such facility in operation, the JT-60SA is the little brother and guinea pig of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built in France.

According to media reports, ITER — a project run by six countries and the European Union — is years behind schedule and could end up costing as much as 40 billion euros ($42.3 billion), far more than first projected.

The holy grail of both projects, as well as others around the world, is to develop technology that releases more energy than is needed to fuel it — and at a large scale and for a sustained period.

The feat of “net energy gain” was managed in December 2022 at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States, home to the world’s largest laser.

– ‘Flash in a can’ –

But the US facility uses a different method from ITER and the JT-60SA known as inertial confinement fusion, in which high-energy lasers are directed simultaneously into a thimble-sized cylinder containing hydrogen.

“Magnetic confinement, and in particular, tokamaks, of the kind that JT-60SA is, are much more applicable to running a steady state power plant, to steady energy production as we would need,” Davis said.

“This is not just a flash in a can.”

But with the world record set by China for heating plasma to the required temperature — 120 million degrees Celsius (216 million degrees Fahrenheit) — currently just 101 seconds, there is still a long path ahead.

“Nuclear fusion can certainly contribute to a future energy mix. Exactly on what timescale is very hard to say. It will come down ultimately to how much is invested in the field (and) how much society wants to pursue this as a solution,” Davis said.

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In Brazil, hopes to use AI to save wildlife from roadkill fate

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Some 475 million vertebrate animals die on Brazilian roads every year
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In Brazil, where about 16 wild animals become roadkill every second, a computer scientist has come up with a futuristic solution to this everyday problem: using AI to alert drivers to their presence.

Direct strikes on the vast South American country’s extensive road network are the top threat to numerous species, forced to live in ever-closer proximity with humans.

According to the Brazilian Center for Road Ecology (CBEE), some 475 million vertebrate animals die on the road every year — mostly smaller species such as capybaras, armadillos and possums.

“It is the biggest direct impact on wildlife today in Brazil,” CBEE coordinator Alex Bager told AFP.

Shocked by the carnage in the world’s most biodiverse country, computer science student Gabriel Souto Ferrante sprung into action.

The 25-year-old started by identifying the five medium- and large-sized species most likely to fall victim to traffic accidents: the puma, the giant anteater, the tapir, the maned wolf and the jaguarundi, a type of wild cat.

Souto, who is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), then created a database with thousands of images of these animals, and trained an AI model to recognize them in real time.

Numerous tests followed, and were successful, according to the results of his efforts recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Souto collaborated with the USP Institute of Mathematical and Computer Sciences.

For the project to become a reality, Souto said scientists would need “support from the companies that manage the roads,” including access to traffic cameras and “edge computing” devices — hardware that can relay a real-time warning to drivers like some navigation apps do.

There would also need to be input from the road concession companies, “to remove the animal or capture it,” he told AFP.

It is hoped the technology, by reducing wildlife strikes, will also save human lives.

– ‘More roads, more vehicles’- 

Bager said a variety of other strategies to stop the bloodshed on Brazilian roads have failed.

Signage warning drivers to be on the lookout for crossing animals have little influence, he told AFP, leading to a mere three-percent reduction in speed on average.

There are also so-called fauna bridges and tunnels meant to get animals safely from one side of the road to the other, and fences to keep them in — all insufficient to deal with the scope of the problem, according to Bager.

In 2014, he created an app called Urubu with other ecologists, to which thousands of users contributed information, allowing for the identification of roadkill hotspots.

The project helped to create public awareness and even inspired a bill on safe animal crossing and circulation, which is awaiting a vote in Congress. 

A lack of money saw the app being shut down last year, but Bager is intent on having it reactivated.

“We have more and more roads, more vehicles and a number of roadkill animals that likely continues to grow,” he said.

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Honda to build major EV plant in Canada: govt source

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Honda hopes to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2040, with a goal of going carbon-neutral in its own operations by 2050
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Japanese auto giant Honda will open an electric vehicle plant in eastern Canada, a Canadian government source familiar with the multibillion-dollar project told AFP on Monday.

The federal government as well as the province of Ontario, where the plant will be built, will both provide some financial incentives for the deal, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official announcement is due Thursday, though Ontario premier Doug Ford hinted at the deal on Monday.

“This week, we’ve landed a new deal. It will be the largest deal in Canadian history. It’ll be double the size of Volkswagen,” he said, referring to a battery plant announced last year, for which the German automaker pledged Can$7 billion (US$5 billion) in investment.

Canada in recent years has been positioning itself as an attractive destination for electric vehicle investment, touting tax incentives, renewable energy access and its rare mineral deposits.

The Honda plant, to be built an hour outside Toronto, in Alliston, will also produce electric-vehicle batteries, joining existing Volkswagen and Stellantis battery plants.

In January, when news of the deal first bubbled up in the Japanese press, the Nikkei newspaper estimated it would be worth Can$14 billion — numbers backed up by Canadian officials recently.

In the federal budget announced last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government introduced a new business tax credit, granting companies a 10 percent rebate on construction costs for new buildings used in key segments of the electric vehicle supply chain.

Canada’s strategy follows that of the neighboring United States, whose Inflation Reduction Act has provided a host of incentives for green industry.

Honda hopes to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2040, with a goal of going carbon-neutral in its own operations by 2050.

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Denmark launches its biggest offshore wind farm tender

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Denmark's offshore wind parks currently generate 2.7 gigawatts of electricity
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The Danish Energy Agency on Monday launched its biggest tender for the construction of offshore wind farms, aimed at producing six gigawatts by 2030 — more than double Denmark’s current capacity.

Offshore wind is one of the major sources of green energy that Europe is counting on to decarbonise electricity production and reach its 2050 target of net zero carbon production, but it remains far off the pace needed to hit its targets.

Denmark’s offshore wind parks currently generate 2.7 gigawatts of electricity, with another one GW due in 2027.

The tender covers six sites in four zones in Danish waters: North Sea I, Kattegat, Kriegers Flak II and Hesselo.

“We are pleased that we can now offer the largest offshore wind tender in Denmark to date. This is a massive investment in the green transition,”  Kristoffer Bottzauw, head of the Danish Energy Agency, said in a statement.

Investment in offshore wind plummeted in Europe in 2022 due to supply chain problems, high interest rates and a jump in prices of raw materials, before bouncing back in 2023.

A record 4.2 gigawatts was installed in Europe last year, when a record 30 billion euros in new projects were approved, the trade association WindEurope said in January.

It said it was optimistic about the future of offshore wind in Europe, expecting new offshore wind capacity of around five gigawatts per year for the next three years.

However, it noted that that was still far short of what is needed if Europe wants to hit its 2030 target of 111 gigawatts of offshore wind installed capacity, with less than 20 gigawatts installed at the end of 2023.

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