Sunday, September 30, 2012

If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?

Not if we use regular laser pointers.

The first thing to consider is that not everyone can see the Moon at once. We could gather everyone in one spot, but we learned our lesson about that a few weeks ago. Instead, let’s just pick a time when the Moon is visible to as many people as possible. Since about 75% of the world’s population lives between 0°E and 120°E, we should try this while the Moon is somewhere over the Arabian Sea.

We can try to illuminate either a new moon or a full moon. The new moon is darker, making it easier to see our lasers. But the new moon is a trickier target, because it’s mostly visible during the day—washing out the effect.

Brightness aside, an ideal time would probably be 2:00 PM EST on December 27th, 2012, when a full moon will be high in the sky above Mumbai and Islamabad. At that point, the Moon will be visible to approximately five billion people—most of Asia, Europe, and Africa—about as many as can ever see it at one time.

But let’s pick a quarter moon instead, so we can see the effect on the dark side. We’ll avoid the December 21st quarter moon to avoid encouraging any Mayan nonsense, and pick the one on January 4th, 2013, half an hour after midnight (GMT). It’ll be day in East Asia but night in Africa and Europe.

Here’s our target:

the moon, half lit by light from the sun and half dark because the moon is in the way

The typical red laser pointer is about 5 milliwatts, and a good one has a tight enough beam to actually hit the Moon—though it’d be spread out over a large fraction of the surface when it got there. The atmosphere would distort the beam a bit, and absorb some of it, but most of the light would make it.

a dotted line shows that a laser pointer's beam would cover part of the moon's face

Let’s assume everyone has steady enough aim to hit the Moon, but no more than that, and the light is spread evenly across the surface.
At half an hour after midnight (GMT), everyone aims and presses the button.
This is what happens:
people aim laser pointers at the moon. there is no visible effect.
Well, that’s disappointing.
It makes sense, though. Sunlight bathes the Moon in a bit over a kilowatt of energy per square meter. Since the Moon’s cross-sectional area is around 10^13 square meters, it’s bathed in about 10^16 watts of sunlight—ten petawatts, or two megawatts per person—far outshining their five milliwatt laser pointer. There are varying efficiencies in each part of this system, but none of it changes that basic equation.
a man in a hat suggests trying more power.
5 milliwatts is wimpy. We can do better.
A 1-watt laser is an extremely dangerous thing. It’s not just powerful enough to blind you—it’s capable of burning skin and setting things on fire. Obviously, they’re not legal for consumer purchase in the US.
Just kidding! You can pick one up for $300.
So suppose we spend the $2 trillion to buy one-watt green lasers for everyone. (Memo to presidential candidates: this policy would win my vote.) In addition to being more powerful, green laser light is nearer to the middle of the visible spectrum, so the eye is more sensitive to it and it seems brighter.
Here’s the effect:
people aim more powerful laser pointers at the moon. there is no visible effect.
The laser pointers we’re using put out about 150 lumens of light (more than most flashlights) in a beam 5 arc-minutes wide. This lights up the surface of the Moon with about half a lux of illumination—compared to about 130,000 lux from the sun. (Even if we aimed them all perfectly, it would only manage half a dozen lux over about 10% of the Moon’s face.)
By comparison, the full moon lights up the Earth’s surface with about one lux of illumination—which means that not only would our lasers be too weak to see from Earth, but if you were standing on the Moon, the laser light on the landscape would be fainter than Moonlight is to us on Earth.
a man in a hat suggests trying more power.
With advances in lithium batteries and LED technology over the last ten years, the high-performance flashlight market has exploded. But it’s clear that flashlights aren’t gonna cut it. So let’s skip past all of that and give everyone a Nightsun.
You may not recognize the name, but chances are you’ve seen one in operation: It’s the searchlight mounted on police and Coast Guard helicopters. With an output on the order of 50,000 lumens, it’s capable of turning a patch ground from night to day.
The beam is several degrees wide, we’ll want some focusing lenses to get it down to the half-degree needed to hit the Moon.
Here’s the effect:
people aim Nightsuns at the moon. there might be a visible effect. it's hard to say.
It’s hard to see, but we’re making progress! The beam is providing 20 lux of illumination, outshining the ambient light on the night half by a factor of two! However, it’s quite hard to see, and it certainly hasn’t affected the light half.
a man in a hat suggests trying more power.
Let’s swap out each Nightsun for an IMAX projector array—a 30,000-watt pair of water-cooled lamps with a combined output of over over a million lumens.
people aim IMAX projectors with lenses on them at the moon. there's little visible effect.
Still barely visible.
a man in a hat suggests trying more power.
At the top of the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas is the most powerful spotlight on Earth. Let’s give one of them to everyone.
a battery of luxor hotels fires beams of light at the moon. the light is slightly visible on the dark side.
Oh, and let’s add a lens array to each so the entire beam is focused on the Moon:
a battery of luxor hotels with lenses fires beams of light at the moon. the dark side is visibly illuminated.
Our light is definitely visible, so we’ve accomplished our goal! Good job, team.
a man in a hat suggests trying more power.
… Well.
The Department of Defense has developed megawatt lasers, designed for destroying incoming missiles in mid-flight.
The Boeing YAL-1 was a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser mounted in a 747. It was an infrared laser, so it wasn’t directly visible, but we can imagine building a visible-light laser with similar power. Let’s give one to everyone.
a fleet of aircraft fire megawatt lasers at the moon. the dark side is nearly as bright as the light side.
Finally, we’ve managed to match the brightness of sunlight!
We’re also drawing five petawatts of power, which is double the world’s average electricity consumption.
a man in a hat suggests trying more power.
Ok, let’s mount a megawatt laser on every square meter of the surface of Asia. Powering this array of 50 trillion lasers would use up Earth’s oil reserves in approximately two minutes, but for those two minutes, the Moon would look like this:
a field of megawatt lasers covering asia fires at the moon
The Moon shines as brightly as the midmorning sun, and by the end of the two minutes, the lunar regolith is heated to a glow.
a man in a hat suggests trying more power.
Ok, let’s step even more firmly outside the realm of plausibility.
The most powerful laser on Earth is the confinement beam at the National Ignition Facility, a fusion research laboratory. It’s an ultraviolet laser with an output of 500 terawatts. However, it only fires in single pulses lasting a few nanoseconds, so the total energy delivered is about equivalent to a quarter-cup of gasoline.
Let’s imagine we somehow found a way to power and fire it continuously, gave one to everyone, and pointed them all at the Moon. Unfortunately, the laser energy flow would turn the atmosphere to plasma, instantly igniting the Earth’s surface and killing us all.
But let’s assume that the lasers somehow pass through the atmosphere without interacting.
Under those circumstances, it turns out Earth still catches fire. The reflected light from the Moon would be four thousand times brighter than the noonday sun. Moonlight would become bright enough to boil away Earth’s oceans in less than a year.
But forget the Earth—what would happen to the Moon?
The laser itself would exert enough radiation pressure to accelerate the Moon at about one ten millionth of a gee. This acceleration wouldn’t be noticeable in the short term, but over the years, it adds up to enough to push it free from Earth orbit.
… If radiation pressure were the only force involved.
40 megajoules of energy is enough to vaporize a kilogram of rock. Assuming Moon rocks have an average density of about 3 kg/liter, the lasers would pump out enough energy to vaporize four meters of lunar bedrock per second:
5 billion people×500terawattspersonπ×Moon radius2×20megajouleskilogram×3kilogramsliter4 meterssecond

However, the actual lunar rock won’t evaporate that fast—for a reason that turns out to be very important.
When a chunk of rock is vaporized, it doesn’t just disappear. The surface layer of becomes a plasma, but that plasma is still blocking the path of the beam.
Our laser keeps pouring more and more energy into the plasma, and the plasma keeps getting hotter and hotter. The particles bounce off each other, slam into the surface of the Moon, and eventually blast away into space at a terrific speed.
This flow of material effectively turns the entire surface of the Moon into a rocket engine—and a surprisingly efficient one, too. Using lasers to blast off surface material like this is called laser ablation, and it turns out to be a promising method for spacecraft propulsion.
The Moon is massive, but slowly and surely the rock plasma jet begins to push it away from the Earth. (The jet would also scour clean the face of the Earth and destroy the lasers, but we’re pretending for the moment that they’re invulnerable.) The plasma also physically tears away the lunar surface, a complicated interaction that’s tricky to model.
But if we make the wild guess that the particles in the plasma exit at an average speed of 500 kilometers per second, then it will take a few months for the Moon to be pushed out of range of our laser. It will keep most of its mass, but escape Earth’s gravity and enter a lopsided orbit around the sun.
Technically, the Moon won’t become a new planet, under the IAU definition of a planet. Since its new orbit crosses Earth’s, it will be considered a dwarf planet like Pluto. This Earth-crossing orbit will lead to periodic unpredictable orbital perturbation.  Eventually it will either be slingshotted into the Sun, ejected toward the outer Solar System, or slammed into one of the planets—quite possibly ours. I think we can all agree that in this case, we’d deserve it.
everyone fires 500-terawatt lasers at the moon. the moon leaves.
And that, at last, is enough power.

Hideo Kojima Eurogamer Expo Dev Session

This afternoon, in the packed conference hall in Earls Court, Hideo Kojima took to the stage to talk about all things Metal Gear and show off it’s latest iteration – Ground Zeroes.
The event kicked off with Kojima answering questions submitted by Eurogamer readers in the lead up to the event – starting with a question on boss battles and Kojima’s favourite from the entire series. He stated two that he feels, for different reasons, struck a chord with him; The Boss at the end of MGS3 and Liquid Ocelot at the end of MGS4.
Both emotional battles, with the former having you battle someone you don’t want to kill – but must – and the second taking you throughout the history of MGS. He later hinted that he has many ideas for bosses in the future that he hopes we’ll enjoy. With previous bosses such as Fatman and The Cobra Unit from MGS3, we’re sure that they’ll be impressive indeed.
Kojima never expected Liquid Snake to become such an iconic character, when he was in MGS1. As he didn’t plan to make a sequel to MGS1, he now regrets killing off Liquid in MGS1 and needed an iconic character to be an antagonist in future titles.
Kojima stated that he has aged and matured along with Snake and that Snake will always be apart of him – He couldn’t go back to making a Snake that’s younger than him as, much like war, Snake has changed.
On the subject of Policenauts, Snatcher and if we would ever see the titles come back – Kojima is doubtful as the sales of the titles wouldn’t be enough, or financially viable, anymore. He wants to make games that are accepted globally – adventure games not being them. A remake would also have to be outsourced, with Kojipro working on new titles.
A scaredy cat, when it comes to movies, Kojima says that a Silent Hill game is something he “could” design, created with a special type of horror that only those who get scared by films could create. He talks about how the Silent Hill series has a unique atmosphere which he wouldn’t want to break, however he would be up for lending technology or his help if they did want to use FOX Engine. The president of Konami has already asked if he wanted to create the next Silent Hill after that statement in the press.
Neil Armstrong was a big influence for Kojima, and others born in that era, and that made him think about Policenauts in it’s planning stages. He respects the astronaut- especially after wanting to be one himself – and spent some time researching him in later life. Kojima even went as far to say that he would sell his soul to go to space!
Kojima stated that he will not be involved with directing or writing the Metal Gear Solid film but will supervise and work very closely with the production. Metal Gear, to him, will always be a game and he couldn’t be the one who would transfer it to film. Game movies, in the past, haven’t been of high quality he admits, but, Avi knows Metal Gear and Kojima is sure that the script and movie will turn out great. He couldn’t talk much about casting though, but he would rather go for someone unknown than someone like Hugh Jackman like he has said before as a potential Snake.
Kojima showed the Ground Zeroes demo that has previously been shown at PAX and TGS and once again confirmed that the game is open world and that if you can see something, you can go there. Due to the open world setting, there may have to be some downgrade in graphics but the lighting effects will be in full force, creating a gorgeous looking title. You can sneak in from any point and call in the helicopter to get extracted anywhere. From there you can go to the next mission or return to base.
The demo is a prologue and only shows a small map but there will be bigger places that you can use the helicopter to fly to. Time will pass in real time which will affect the gameplay. Different helicopters will also affect the time it takes to arrive somewhere, so get ready to pimp your heli. Kojima informed fans that this prologue was designed to test out the limits of FOX Engine originally.
Flipping back to some general questions before the conference ended, he was asked on the base creation and weapon modification from Peace Walker. Kojima says that it is something that he enjoyed and they are certainly planning on looking at in Ground Zeroes. You can walk around your base and the travel to the base is real time with no visible loading screens.
Kojima can also say with confidence that turning Metal Gear into an open world title will not affect the gameplay. The core gameplay is still stealth but players are being given more options. Piloting jeeps and other vehicles is an option, so if you want it to be action orientated then you can, but it isn’t a necessity and players will receive higher rewards for using stealth.
Would Kojima want the series to continue for another 25 years though, with that being the milestone it has reached this year? He wouldn’t see him doing it, if he did. Kojima would want the series to continue under younger wings – much like the Bond films have.

Did a Massive Extraterrestrial Body Impact Earth 12,000 Years Ago?



New research results are consistent with a controversial theory that an extraterrestrial body – such as a comet – impacted the Earth approximately 12,900 years ago, possibly contributing to the significant climatic and ecological changes that date to that time period. The paper in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) includes significant findings about the nature of so-called "microspherules" that were found at a number of prehistoric sites, based on research done at North Carolina State.
While the findings are interesting in themselves, the paper is only the latest in a heated scholarly debate focused on whether such an "impact event" took place. The debate dates back to a 2007 paper, in which researchers reported finding evidence at multiple sites of a significant impact event. The evidence cited in that paper included a large increase in the abundance of magnetic microspherules at the study sites. The microspherules are metallic spheres in the range of 10 to 50 micrometers. For comparison, human hair is 50 to 100 micrometers in diameter.
Specifically, the 2007 team found hundreds to thousands of these microspherules in each kilogram of dirt they sampled at the Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) layer from several sites. The YDB marks the period when the Earth's climate reverted to conditions similar to the ice age and populations of prehistoric animals, such as mammoths, appear to have dropped off precipitously. It also marks the period when the Clovis culture in North America seems to have experienced a significant population decline or some significant cultural modification.
Samples were also taken from layers above and below the YDB. Microspherules were found in much greater numbers in the dirt samples taken from the YDB, as compared to the samples from the other layers. These microspherules have a variety of natural and artificial sources, including impact events, volcanoes and industrial pollution. Most types of microspherules are easily distinguished from one another.
However, in 2009, another team of researchers published a paper calling the 2007 findings into question. The researchers had examined two of the sites cited in the 2007 paper – the Blackwater Draw site in New Mexico and the Topper site in South Carolina, as well as 5 others – and reported that its researchers were unable to find increased numbers of the relevant microspherules in the YDB at all but one site – and even that site was questionable.
Now the new PNAS paper finds that the 2009 study relied on flawed protocols. Perhaps more importantly, the researchers behind the new study have re-examined the Blackwater Draw and Topper sites – as well as a third site in Maryland common to the 2009 study– and were able to find microspherules in amounts consistent with the 2007 hypothesis at each site.
"Our study replicates only a small subset of the research reported in 2007 and within those narrow limits, our results are consistent with theirs. Much research remains to be done to prove or disprove the hypothesis," says Dr. Malcolm LeCompte of Elizabeth City State University, who is lead author of the new PNAS paper.
LeCompte brought some of these microspherules to the Analytical Instrumentation Facility (AIF) at NC State, which provides both analytical instrumentation and expert staff to help researchers analyze and characterize materials and material structures at the micro and nanoscale.
"They wanted to know what's in these spherules and where they came from," says Charles Mooney, the scanning electron microscope (SEM) lab manager at AIF. "We analyzed the microspherules with an SEM, which allowed us to obtain high-resolution images of the microspherules. We also collected x-rays generated by electron beam-sample interactions to tell us what elements were in each sample," Mooney explains. "This told us that the microspherules were largely made up of iron, aluminum, silicon, and occasionally titanium, with one spherule containing significant amounts of rare earths, such as cerium."
Dr. Dale Batchelor, director of operations at AIF, also sliced open some of the microspherules using an analytical instrument composed of a both a focused ion beam (FIB) and an SEM to examine their interior structure and composition. Interestingly, some of the microspherules were partially hollow, but exhibited internal crystal structures when cross sectioned with the FIB.
"To our knowledge this is the first instance of the FIB technique being used to cross section YBD microspherules – in effect exploratory surgery on the microscale," Batchelor says. "The FIB is the scalpel and the SEM is the eye."
Most of the microspherules were made up of elements in proportions similar to the composition of the Earth's crust and not, as some had proposed, meteorite material. In addition, the surface characteristics of the microspherules indicate that they were heated to a molten temperature and then cooled rapidly. "This is consistent with the theory of an impact event, but falls short of proof positive," says LeCompte.
More information: doi: 10.1073/pnas.1208603109 Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Women with severe endometriosis may be more attractive

Observing that women with the most severe form of endometriosis happen to be unusually attractive, researchers in Italy speculate that the qualities that led to the women's good looks also predisposed them to the painful gynecological condition.

"Several researchers believe that a general phenotype exists which is associated with the disease," said study researcher Dr. Paolo Vercellini, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Universita degli Studi in Milan.
In the study, independent observers rated 31 percent of women with severe endometriosisas attractive or very attractive, while just 8 percent of women with milder endometriosis, and 9 percent of women without the condition were rated that highly.
It may be that a more feminine body type is the result of the same physical characteristics that predispose women to develop severe endometriosis, Vercellini said.
Female attractiveness is linked with higher estrogen levels, and it's possible that the hormone "might favor the development of aggressive and infiltrating endometriotic lesions, particularly in the most feminine subjects," the researchers wrote in their study.
The study was published online Sept. 17 in the journal Fertility and Sterility.
A more feminine silhouette In endometriosis, cells that normally line the uterus leave the organ and become deposited in other sites within the body, such as on the ovaries, rectum, bladder or pelvic area. These deposits respond the same way as normal uterine cells do to the hormone changes that occur over a woman's monthly cycle — they thicken, and then shrink — which can cause pain in the pelvic region, and bleeding.
Endometriosis is thought to affect 5 to 10 percent of women. The severe form, called rectovaginal endometriosis, is much less common than milder forms, Vercellini said.
In the new study, researchers looked at 100 women with rectovaginal endometriosis, 100 women with less severe endometriosis, and 100 women without endometriosis who were undergoing gynecologic surgery for other reasons. Most of the women in the studies were in their late 20s or early 30s.
Two male and two female doctors who did not know the women's diagnoses met with each woman for a few minutes, and rated her overall attractiveness on a 5-point scale.
Other researchers took measurements of the women, and calculated their body mass indexes, their waist-to-hip ratios, and their "breast-to-underbreast" ratio — a measure of breast size.
Results showed that the women with severe endometriosis had lower body mass indexes, and larger breasts, than those without the disease.
The women also completed a questionnaire about their sexual history, and the results showed that women with severe endometriosis were more likely to have had sexual intercourse before age 18. This could be a result of these women being more attractive, even during adolescence, the researchers said.
One measurement of attractiveness — waist-to-hip ratio — was not different between the groups, the researchers said.
What the findings mean Previous studies have found that several physical characteristics — such as body size, body mass index, hair color, eye color, skin color and fat tissue distribution — may be different in women with endometriosis than in the general female population, Vercellini said.
This line of research may shed light on the hormones or genes linked with women's risk of developing the uterine condition, the researchers said.
While it's not exactly clear why women with severe endometriosis may be more attractive than others, the hormone estrogen could play a role, the researchers said. Studies have shown that more-attractive women have higher levels of estrogen, and higher levels of the hormone also may be linked with the development of endometriosis.
On the other hand, it could be that the same genes that play a role in women's physical appearance also raise the risk of developing severe endometriosis.
"It is tempting to speculate" that genes that interact with hormones to produce a more feminine appearance may also predispose women to severe endometriosis, Vercellini said. However, the findings are preliminary and need to be verified in further studies, he said.
Vercellini noted that in the study, the attractiveness of the women with mild endometriosis did not differ from that of women without the condition — it was only the women with rectovaginal endometriosis who appeared to be more attractive.

Unreleased Prototype For Neo Geo Pocket Color Discovered & Now Made Official

With all of the recent hype over the upcoming Neo Geo X Gold console, it came as quite an interesting shock to us this morning when we discovered some news in regards to another Neo Geo handheld console: the Neo Geo Pocket Color. The system, with such a small number of titles available as it was (85 released worldwide and only a fraction of them getting a USA release), is very much an uncommon one. So learning about any unfinished prototypes or unreleased demonstrations is always something interesting and special. A sample cartridge of the previously unreleased “Magician Lord 2″ has been found, and we have some information and details under the cut.
The French website known as “Gamekult” is the one that broke the story online, and they are the proud owners of the cartridge. They have been quite generous in sharing video game footage, photos of the cartridge and screen grabs from the game. What makes this prototype discovery interesting is that it seems to be very early in the development stages at this point, and is quite unfinished. The game does not feature any audio. (Or if it does, it was not made evident in the video clips that we are able to share with you. But I think it would be safe to say that no audio was programmed yet.) The discovery certainly shares with fans of the Neo Geo Pocket Gold what the system was capable of.
Gamekult has not made it known on if the ROM has been dumped for the benefit of playing the game on an emulator program. While there are lots of people that would love to own a physical reproduction cartridge, sadly, that’s how rumors get started. Currently, there are no plans to do such a project.
For those unfamiliar with the Neo Geo Pocket Color handheld at all, let’s give you a quick rundown. The console is a 16-bit color handheld, manufactured by SNK, who was responsible for all of the Neo Geo consoles in the past. Previously, a handheld called “Neo Geo Pocket” had been released, but it was a black and white handheld which was released in 1998 in Japan. (The original monochrome predecessor was released only in Japan.) The Neo Geo Pocket Color was released in Japan on March 16, 1999, and was released for North American audiences on August 6, 1999. The updated color console was 100% compatible with the original devices game cartridges. The North American version had an exclusive launch on the eToys website, which also sold the initial launch titles in plastic snap lock cases, and sold originally for $69.95. The Neo Geo Pocket Color was SNK’s last video game console, and was discontinued in 2001. A total of 2 million units were sold worldwide.

Seeing a new prototype that was previously thought lost is always something pretty special in the world of retro video gaming. And finding a prototype for a system that was released, but not common in our country, makes it a special treat. So without further ado, here is some video footage of the supposedly lost “Magician Lord 2″ for the Neo Geo Pocket Color!

Pirate Bay Founder Arrested in Cambodia

Pirate Bay founder Gottfrid Svartholm has been arrested in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Svartholm, known online by his nickname Anakata, was sentenced to one year in jail for his involvement in The Pirate Bay but has been missing for some time. Svartholm was wanted internationally but exact details as to why he was arrested have not yet been made public.
gottfridPirate Bay founder Gottfrid Svartholm was arrested by Cambodian police on Thursday in Phnom Penh, the city that he made his home several years ago.
According to local sources he was arrested in an apartment above the Cadillac Bar on the riverfront, a place where he is known to have stayed in the past.
Neither Cambodian nor Swedish authorities have commented on the grounds of the arrest.
The 27-year-old became wanted internationally after he failed to return to Sweden to serve his 12 month jail sentence earlier this year.
Gottfrid’s lawyer Ola Salomonsson thinks the arrest could be related to The Pirate Bay case, but this hasn’t been announced officially.
“As far as I understand it is because he is on an international wanted list,” he said.
While there is no extradition treaty between Cambodia and Sweden the lawyer believes his client could be transferred to his home country eventually.
Gottfrid has been battling poor health ever since The Pirate Bay appeal in 2010. He failed to attend that hearing due to an illness which left him too sick to leave hospital in Cambodia.
Then, despite having supported his original absence with a medical certificate, Gottfrid failed to appear at a subsequent hearing. This prompted the Court of Appeal to finalize the initial verdict of one year jail time and a fine of $1.1 million.
All this time the Pirate Bay founder was nowhere to be found. Neither his lawyer nor his old Pirate Bay friends had heard from him. Sources in Cambodia, however, told TorrentFreak last year that Gottfrid was still in bad shape.
Gottfrid should have returned to Sweden to begin serving his sentence January 2nd this year, but again he failed to appear.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Pair of MIT Scientists Try to Transform Nuclear Power

Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie are Ph.D. students in nuclear engineering at MIT. For most of their peers, the options upon graduating are pretty simple: teach, or work for one of the national labs. Dewan and Massie, though, decided an unconventional path: like a couple of Stanford grads, they’ve formed a start-up. Incorporated in 2011, it’s called Transatomic Power, and its mission is to transform the nuclear power industry.

Transatomic’s product is called a “Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor.” If you’ve read my book, SuperFuel, you’ll recognize it as an update on an old reactor technology that was pioneered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in the 1950s and 60s. SuperFuel focused on another type of molten salt reactor, a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, or LFTR. Dewan and Massie’s design is fuel-agnostic in the sense that it can run on either uranium or thorium; as the name implies, its signal feature is that it can consume spent fuel from conventional light-water reactors. Transatomic joins a growing list of start-ups, including Flibe Energy, that are trying to revolutionize nuclear power by bringing back alternative fuels, including thorium, and alternative reactor designs.

(A quick note on the uranium fuel cycle: Most uranium in the ground is the isotope uranium-238 (U238), which is not fissile, and thus is no good for producing power. Conventional reactors require fuel in which the percentage of the isotope U235 has been enriched up to 3% to 5%, or “reactor-grade” uranium. Uranium that is enriched to around 20% U235 is weapons-grade. That’s why it’s a relatively easy step for countries with enrichment capability, like Iran, to build nuclear weapons programs. Thorium requires no enrichment.)

‘A Leapfrog Move’

“Nuclear power is in a cul de sac,” Russ Wilcox, the CEO and co-founder of Transatomic, told me in a phone interview. “The nuclear industry knows it’s in trouble, it’s not quite sure what to do, and it’s just trying to survive for the moment. It’s a fabulous time to do a leapfrog move.”

Wilcox was one of the founders of E Ink, which commercialized electronic paper materials originally developed at MIT’s Media Lab and ended up licensing the technology to Amazon, for the Kindle, to Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and so on. (Wilcox also points out that the ink for E Ink-based readers continues to be made at a state-of-the-art facility in Boston that employs around 100 skilled workers.) E Ink was sold to Taiwanese company Prime View for nearly half a billion dollars in 2009. Transatomic’s plan is to build a prototype reactor in 5 years, commercialize the technology in 15 years, and have reactors come online by around 2030. The company doesn’t plan to build and operate nuclear power plants, but to license its reactor technology.

Molten salt reactors (MSRs) can achieve much higher burn-up factors than conventional uranium reactors. In other words, while conventional reactors harness only around 3% of the available energy in a given volume of uranium, MSRs can capture much higher percentages – up to 98%, according to Transatomic (I should note that the nuclear experts I consulted for SuperFuelbelieve that burn-up factors of 50% are more realistic). Beyond that, the company is not releasing details of its patented reactor technology.

Liquid-fuel reactors, such as MSRs, also offer inherent safety advantages: because the fuel is liquid, it expands when heated, thus slowing the rate of nuclear reactions and making the reactor self-governing. Also, they’re built like bathtubs, with a drain in the bottom that’s blocked by a “freeze plug.” If anything goes wrong, the freeze plug melts and the reactor core drains in to a shielded underground container. Essentially, if Transatomic’s design works as advertised, MSRs could solve the two problems that have bedeviled the nuclear power industry: safety and waste.

Noting that China plans to build a liquid-fuel reactor (likely powered by thorium) within 5 years, Wilcox says that he and Dewan and Massie – currently the entire staff of Transatomic – would prefer to build the prototype MSR in the United States, but will consider another country if the licensing or financing proves too difficult here. (The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently licensed a two-reactor nuclear plant in Georgia, the first new reactors to be licensed in this country since 1978. The reactors are conventional light-water uranium powered models.)

In SuperFuel I noted that the nuclear power industry has a generational problem: most of the leading executives in the industry are now in their 60s. It will take a new generation of scientists and technologists to spark a revival in nuclear power technology. Transatomic Power is an encouraging sign that this is beginning to happen.