In building the heart of a star, humans inch closer to net zero

Nuclear fusion offers near limitless power from minimal fuel but the challenge for scientists is taming it

Anjana Ahuja 

Images taken by Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft reveal the source of the strongest flare to have been released in four years by the sun © NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory/Getty

The fireball at the heart of our solar system is powered by nuclear fusion. 

The crushing pressures in the sun’s core squeeze hydrogen nuclei together so powerfully that they overcome their natural repulsion and fuse. 

These nuclear clinches generate larger particles with masses that are not quite the sum of their parts.

The missing mass becomes energy, a fiery embodiment of Einstein’s equation E=mc2. 

The equation shows that, in terms of energy production, a tiny bit of mass goes a long way thanks to the colossal multiplier of c, the speed of light (300,000km per second), squared.

Scientists, lured by the prospect of almost limitless power from minimal fuel, have long dreamt of replicating nuclear fusion in the laboratory. 

This month, researchers in the US shifted the dial significantly by approaching “ignition”, where a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma fuel, bombarded by 192 lasers, began to fuse, producing enough energy to continue heating the rest of the fuel in a self-sustaining way.

Professor Jeremy Chittenden, from Imperial College in London, hailed the breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility in California as the biggest in nearly half a century. 

Chittenden, who collaborates with the NIF, likened the challenge of reaching ignition to striking a match so that it produces a flame. 

“Ignition is the key process through which we can produce large energy gains because it’s a self-sustaining process — for as long as we can hold the burning plasma together.”

Which, currently, is only a tenth of a billionth of a second. 

That is because of the extraordinary process that the fuel pellet undergoes. 

First, it is targeted by the lasers — collectively the most powerful in the world. 

The rapidly heated outer surface explodes away, prompting the plasma fuel within to reactively collapse.

The peppercorn-sized pellet implodes to the width of a human hair, reaching a pressure of hundreds of billions of atmospheres and 100m degrees Celsius, sparking fusion. 

NIF scientists managed to keep the pellet together long enough to burn about 2 per cent of the available fuel.

The energy produced, 1.3 megajoules, was about 70 per cent of the energy used by the lasers and several times the output of previous attempts. 

Crucially, it was deemed sufficient to be on the threshold of ignition (there is active debate over the definition). 

The next hurdle is to reach “break even”, where the energy produced by fusion matches the energy expended to kickstart the process.

The ultimate goal is for the energy out to exceed the energy in, creating a clean, abundant power source (fusion itself is emissions-free and the associated nuclear waste is less than that produced by current nuclear fission reactors, which split atoms rather than fuse them).

The NIF approach is one of several fusion technologies under study. 

The best known is magnetic confinement fusion, in which hydrogen fuel is trapped and squeezed by powerful magnetic fields. 

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France is a 35-country collaboration to build the world’s biggest tokamak — a magnetic confinement device. 

This is viewed as a more stable and controllable way of generating fusion power in the long term. 

It has not yet reached break-even but optimism remains buoyant, especially given the dash to net zero.

The UK government has pledged to build its own prototype tokamak-based fusion energy plant by 2040. 

Scaling up will not be easy: a viable plant needs an energy output equivalent to hundreds or thousands of the energy produced by the NIF experiment, every second.

Plugging it into national grids and regulating a new form of nuclear power also present bear traps. 

But the high risks are balanced by potentially astronomical rewards. 

Investors, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, ploughed an estimated $300m into private fusion companies in 2020.

Chittenden emphasises that the NIF is geared towards fundamental science rather than energy production: proving it is possible to build the heart of a star in a laboratory to aid understanding of nuclear processes, including nuclear weapons. 

“This is a much more extreme state of matter than has ever been made before,” he says. 

“We can study material that’s under conditions comparable to the first few minutes after the Big Bang.”

Such is the intensity of the electromagnetic radiation that it may even be possible to observe the spontaneous creation of matter, as energy becomes mass. 

Nuclear fusion, in lighting a path to the future, might one day illuminate our distant cosmic past.

The writer is a science commentator 

Fed officials offload shares to avoid conflicts of interest

Robert Kaplan and Eric Rosengren will refrain from trading for remainder of their tenures

Colby Smith and Eric Platt in New York 

Robert Kaplan and Eric Rosengren, presidents of the Dallas and Boston Feds, respectively, said their investments had complied with the central bank’s ethics rules © FT montage; Bloomberg

Two Federal Reserve officials said they would sell their portfolios of shares by the end of the month after coming under scrutiny for investing and trading in a year when the US central bank took extraordinary steps to shore up financial markets.

Robert Kaplan and Eric Rosengren, presidents of the Dallas and Boston Feds, respectively, said they would hold the proceeds from the share sales in cash or invest them in diversified indexed funds, which would prevent them from picking individual stocks.

The pair said they would refrain from any share trading as long as they remain at the helms of their institutions.

Kaplan said on Thursday that financial transactions conducted during his tenure as Dallas Fed president had complied with the central bank’s ethics rules, but that he had “decided to change [his] investment practices” in order “to avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest”.

Rosengren issued a similar statement simultaneously and expressed regret for creating any ethics concerns.

“Regrettably, the appearance of . . . permissible personal investment decisions has generated some questions, so I have made the decision to divest these assets to underscore my commitment to Fed ethics guidelines,” he said. “It is extremely important to me to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Kaplan disclosed this month that he held stakes worth more than $1m in 27 publicly traded companies, funds and alternative investments, which was subsequently reported by The Wall Street Journal this week.

His holdings included iPhone maker Apple, Chinese ecommerce group Alibaba, electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla and telecoms group Verizon.

His disclosure, which also showed he owned a stake in the Kansas City Royals baseball team, indicated he made various trades worth more than $1m in 22 stocks and funds last year.

The disclosure was not detailed enough to show how Kaplan’s portfolio performed in a year when the broad market rose 16 per cent, although he held stakes in several high flyers, most notably Tesla.

But Kaplan also held several of the year’s worst-performing blue-chip stocks, including Delta and Boeing, as well as a number of oil and gas companies that were hit by the drop in crude prices — including Valero, Chevron and Marathon Petroleum.

Rosengren, who has warned about risks in the real estate market, listed stakes worth at least $151,000 in four real estate investment trusts.

The disclosure showed he ended last year with positions in Annaly Capital, Invesco Mortgage Capital, Two Harbors Investment and AGNC Investment Corporation, and that he bought and sold stakes throughout the year.

His positions in Annaly, AGNC and Two Harbors represented three of the four largest publicly traded stocks in his portfolio, according to the disclosure.

He also owned shares in AT&T, Pfizer and Chevron, among others.

Why Nation-Building Failed in Afghanistan

Although the United States clearly could have done a better job of managing its departure from Afghanistan, the tragedy playing out this month has been 20 years in the making. From the outset, America and its allies embraced – and never reconsidered – a top-down state-building strategy that was always destined to fail.

Daron Acemoglu

ISTANBUL – The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago with the hope of rebuilding a country that had become a scourge to the world and its own people. 

As General Stanley McChrystal explained in the run-up to the 2009 surge of US troops, the objective was that the “government of Afghanistan sufficiently control its territory to support regional stability and prevent its use for international terrorism.”

Now, with more than 100,000 lives lost and some $2 trillion spent, all America has to show for its effort are this month’s scenes of a desperate scramble out of the country – a humiliating collapse reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in 1975. What went wrong?2

Pretty much everything, but not in the way that most people think. 

While poor planning and a lack of accurate intelligence certainly contributed to the disaster, the problem has in fact been 20 years in the making.

The US understood early on that the only way to create a stable country with some semblance of law and order was to establish robust state institutions. 

Encouraged by many experts and now-defunct theories, the US military framed this challenge as an engineering problem: Afghanistan lacked state institutions, a functioning security force, courts, and knowledgeable bureaucrats, so the solution was to pour in resources and transfer expertise from foreigners. 

NGOs and the broader Western foreign-aid complex were there to help in their own way (whether the locals wanted them to or not). 

And because their work required some degree of stability, foreign soldiers – mainly NATO forces, but also private contractors – were deployed to maintain security.

In viewing nation-building as a top-down, “state-first” process, US policymakers were following a venerable tradition in political science. 

The assumption is that if you can establish overwhelming military dominance over a territory and subdue all other sources of power, you can then impose your will. 

Yet in most places, this theory is only half right, at best; and in Afghanistan, it was dead wrong.

Of course, Afghanistan needed a functioning state. 

But the presumption that one could be imposed from above by foreign forces was misplaced. 

As James Robinson and I argue in our 2019 book, The Narrow Corridor, this approach makes no sense when your starting point is a deeply heterogeneous society organized around local customs and norms, where state institutions have long been absent or impaired.

True, the top-down approach to state-building has worked in some cases (such as the Qin dynasty in China or the Ottoman Empire). 

But most states have been constructed not by force but by compromise and cooperation. 

The successful centralization of power under state institutions more commonly involves the assent and cooperation of the people subject to it. 

In this model, the state is not imposed on a society against its wishes; rather, state institutions build legitimacy by securing a modicum of popular support.

This does not mean that the US should have worked with the Taliban. 

But it does mean that it should have worked more closely with different local groups, rather than pouring resources into the corrupt, non-representative regime of Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban president, Hamid Karzai (and his brothers). 

Ashraf Ghani, the US-backed Afghan president who fled to the United Arab Emirates this week, co-authored a book in 2009 documenting how this strategy had fueled corruption and failed to achieve its stated purpose. 

Once in power, however, Ghani continued down the same road.1

The situation that the US confronted in Afghanistan was even worse than is typical for aspiring nation builders. 

From the very beginning, the Afghan population perceived the US presence as a foreign operation intended to weaken their society. 

That was not a bargain they wanted.

What happens when top-down state-building efforts are proceeding against a society’s wishes? 

In many places, the only attractive option is to withdraw. 

Sometimes, this takes the form of a physical exodus, as James C. Scott shows in The Art of Not Being Governed, his study of the Zomia people in Southeast Asia. 

Or it could mean co-habitation without cooperation, as in the case of Scots in Britain or Catalans in Spain. 

But in a fiercely independent, well-armed society with a long tradition of blood feuds and a recent history of civil war, the more likely response is violent conflict.

Perhaps things could have turned out differently if Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency had not supported the Taliban when it was militarily defeated, if NATO drone attacks had not further alienated the population, and if US-backed Afghan elites had not been extravagantly corrupt. 

But the cards were stacked against America’s state-first strategy.

And the fact is, US leaders should have known better. 

As Melissa Dell and Pablo Querubín document, America adopted a similar top-down strategy in Vietnam, and it backfired spectacularly. 

Places that were bombed to subdue the Viet Cong became even more supportive of the anti-American insurgency.

Even more telling is the US military’s own recent experience in Iraq. 

As research by Eli Berman, Jacob Shapiro, and Joseph Felter shows, the “surge” there worked much better when Americans tried to win hearts and minds by cultivating the support of local groups. 

Similarly, my own work with Ali Cheema, Asim Khwaja, and James Robinson finds that in rural Pakistan, people turn to non-state actors precisely when they think state institutions are ineffective and foreign to them.

None of this means that the withdrawal could not have been managed better. 

But after 20 years of misguided efforts, the US was destined to fail in its twin objectives of withdrawing from Afghanistan and leaving behind a stable, law-based society.

The result is an immense human tragedy. 

Even if the Taliban do not revert to their worst practices, Afghan men and especially women will pay a high price for America’s failures in the years and decades ahead.

Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, is co-author (with James A. Robinson) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.  

Why educating girls is even more important than people realise

It makes them richer, healthier and more free. And their children inherit these advantages

THE LAST time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they banned girls from going to school. 

This time they say they will allow them to be educated “within the limits of Islam”. 

No one knows what that means. 

Afghan women fear the worst. 

As the men with guns in Kabul ponder whether to allow their female compatriots to study, it is worth reflecting on why this matters so much.

Development experts do not agree on much, but they all agree that educating girls is one of the most effective ways to ease all manner of social ills. (Boys’ education matters too, but girls have further to catch up.) 

When girls learn how to read, write and do sums, they lead longer, healthier lives. 

They are much less likely to become child brides or teenage mums and are also less likely to suffer domestic violence. 

If all women completed primary school, the number who die in pregnancy and childbirth would fall by about two-thirds.

Educating girls is also an excellent way to reduce poverty. 

This should be obvious—if half the population never learn much, they will never earn much. 

Women who finish secondary school can expect to earn twice as much as those who never enter a classroom. 

A degree of financial independence, in turn, gives them more bargaining power in their relationships with fathers, brothers and husbands who might seek to push them around.

Women who spend more time in school generally choose to have smaller families. 

This is the main reason why the global fertility rate has fallen from five children per woman in 1960 to 2.5 today. 

In very poor countries, uneducated women may have lots of babies, because they expect some of them to die young, and the family wants extra hands in the fields. 

If women are educated, however, they have fewer children so they can afford to keep them in school for longer.

The children benefit enormously: they are more likely to receive vaccinations and less likely to die before they grow up. 

If all women finished secondary school the number of child deaths would fall by half, and 12m fewer children would suffer from stunting caused by malnutrition. 

Children born of educated mothers are much more likely to get a good education themselves, and use it to snag a good job. 

So are their children—it is a virtuous circle. 

A recent study of eight emerging economies by Citigroup and Plan International concluded that making sure all girls finish secondary school would boost GDP in those places by an average of 10% within a decade. 

And places that educate girls end up with more female politicians, which can improve governance. 

Female legislators are typically more supportive of health and education spending, and less keen on big armies.

Despite these benefits, many countries continue to neglect girls’ education. 

Few go as far as the Taliban, who have been known to throw acid in bookish girls’ faces. 

But in poor countries only about 80 girls complete lower secondary school for every 100 boys. 

And the pandemic has made matters worse. 

Many countries have closed schools for months. 

Millions of girls whose education was interrupted will never go back, having been married off or sent out to work. 

It is not just in Afghanistan that girls’ potential is being wasted.