Maybe We Shouldn't Have Given Up On Nuclear Power?
Nuclear energy has unfortunately had a bad name for itself over the past century or so, but in general it's actually quite safe and reliable compared to other non-renewable energy sources - sure, coal plants don't go boom all at once (and neither do modern reactor designs, I'll add), but they do kill more people over time.
Either way, the UK decided to shut down several nuclear plants recently, and now the National Grid are warning that they might not have enough power production to meet demand come next winter - even with the undersea power connections from Europe.
The UK's actually doing rather well at improving their renewables mix, but you still need constant baseload and peaking plants when you've got a lot of solar and wind, due to their intermittent nature, and they're lagging behind a bit on building the requisite grid-scale energy storage needed to go more renewable (despite some spectacular pumped-hydro storage plants, like Dinorwig).
Stick A Pipe On It
California is in a historically bad drought - which, considering their normal state of drought, means things are starting to border on the disastrous. As well as wildfire season being a huge risk this year, some parts of the state face running out of water for homes and businesses completely.
Marin, just north of San Francisco, is one of these places, and they don't have a lot of local fresh water sources, being surrounded by saltwater on three sides and all. There's a plan in the works to build a desalination plant, but that takes years, and Marin might need more water a lot sooner than that - so they need to pipeline it in from other places.
Building underwater pipelines also takes years, but they have a cunning plan - build a temporary pipeline along the bridge that connects them to inland California. Sadly, it seems they might take up the pedestrian/bike path rather than a traffic lane, but they need water, and despite the ridiculous water rights situation in California (a lot of fresh water flow is privately owned!), I suspect the people looking after Marin just want to keep the water on for the time being rather than fighting political battles.
Finally, They're Burying The Power Lines
Talking about wildfires in California, far too many recent ones were caused by sparks and power line faults from northern California's utility company, PG&E. They're up there as maybe one of the worst-run utility companies in the US - which, let me tell you, is an unfortunately strong field of contenders - and are probably responsible for killing many Californians and burning down the homes of many more.
Now, finally, they appear to have realised what the rest of the world has, which is that you should really bury power lines in wildfire and wind-prone areas. Buried power lines can't fall down, don't have issues with things slamming into them, and are generally better in many ways apart from being more expensive and thus giving the utility companies less profit.
We'll see how fast they actually do this - at their current renovation pace, it'll take decades, at which point I fear the majority of California will have burned - but it's a start, at least.
Water Theft In The Wild West
In scenes that risk making 2008's Quantum Of Solace look like it has a reasonable plot, that drought in California is now so severe that water theft is increasing rapidly, and much of it is going to illegal maruijana farms.
Among other things they're illegaly using fire hydrants, tapping into home water supplies, building their own dam and runoff diversion systems, and even daring to tap into the very high-pressure water mains, all in order to get some precious water.
Maruijana isn't even a very water-demanding crop - unlike almonds, which despite being incredibly water-intensive, they still grow in a desert - but due to its illegal nature, the people who farm it are apparently quite happy to add on more crimes to their existing crimes. California might have to take a lesson from Australia's experience with dealing with water theft.
If Someone Says "Runway Polymerisation", You Should Run Too
The report on the tanker fire of the Stolt Groenland in 2019 is out, and it contains some rather alarming details about the chemical fire that occurred. See, the tanker was transporting styrene monomer - one of the basic building blocks of the plastics industry.
The problem with styrene monomer, though, it that it really wants to polymerise into longer chains. This is good when you're using it to make useful plastics, and very, very bad when it's in the hull of a ship, as that process creates heat. And guess what makes the styrene polymerise faster, and depletes the stabilising chemical you ship it with? Heat.
This is, as they say in chemistry, a runaway exothermic reaction, and the best thing to have if you're near one is a good pair of running shoes. If you want an idea of how problematic this is, take a look at Figure 17 (on page 17) of the full report - the runaway reaction began a week earlier and was already near-unstoppable the day before it caused the fire. So, if you ever find yourself captaining a chemical tanker, be sure to keep the styrene cold, eh?
A Tale Of Refined Travel In The Skies
It's no secret I like airships. They're great machines that would fill a fantastic heavy-lift niche in the aviation sector if it wasn't for the one time one of them caught fire.
Well, that airship, the infamous Hindenburg, did many trips before its untimely demise, and this is a wonderful written account from one of the passengers on those previous trips - needing to get to a wedding in Canada in only a few days, they take the airship rather than the traditional ocean-bound ships of the time.
It gives you a fantastic sense of place, and a longing for this mode of travel that never quite was. There are staterooms and fine dining, and you're floating among the clouds with fantastic views. There's also some fun technical details I wasn't aware of, like the fact that the Hindenburg refilled its water-based ballast tanks by brushing against rainclouds. Sigh.
Not Quite On Course
The new Russian ISS module Nauka is having some problems getting up to the space station. Designed as the primary scientific research module for the Russian side, it's been delayed by years due to a variety of issues - only to finally launch this week and have even more issues.
At first, it looked like its primary engine wasn't working, and there was a period during the week where it was low enough that only had about 30 orbits remaining until it re-entered and burned up. Thankfully, they got the module boosted up towards the ISS, but they're still unsure if the docking systems are deployed properly.
Given it was initially meant to launch thirteen years ago, I do hope it finally makes it up there - though it seems the ISS control center are not 100% confident, as they're waiting a bit longer to see if they should move the module that's currently occupying its docking slot.
Mars Has A Hot, Gooey Interior
Nasa's InSight probe has been doing a whole load of seismology since it landed back in 2018, and they've managed to work out a bit more of what lies under Mars' surface.
The way it does this is by listening for naturally-occurring marsquakes, and seeing how the seismic echoes bounce around the planet. We do the same here on Earth, though our seismometer networks also detect human-created shocks (like large weapon explosions), too.
Anyway, turns out that Mars' core is big, warm and molten all the way through (Earth's has a solid centre), and the crust is a lot thinner than expected. Nobody's going to be tapping it for geothermal power quite yet, I'm sure, but the more we learn about Mars the more we learn about the Solar System at large.
Plastic Processors Are Coming
Here at Tales, we categorise most computing stories under the Silicon category because a) it sounds catchy and b) that's what microchips and processors are made of. The folks over at ARM and PragmatIC, however, are out to change that, as they've come up with a new range of plastic-based processors.
Plastic, as you are probably aware, is a lot more flexible than silicon, so this could be a great way to make entirely flexible computers - embedded computing is one of their main goals. I'm also excited about the idea of non-silicon substrates, though; silicon is a pain to refine, and while plastic isn't exactly green either (given all the oil needed), it's still nice progress.
Don't expect these chips to be powering your next laptop though - they run at a blistering 20kHz, around 100 times slower than the processors you're used to, and have almost no memory - they're even less powerful than the Apollo Guidance Computer, which is impressive, since the microchips in some charging cables beat Apollo these days. Still, you have to start somewhere!
Pebbles Are A Girl's Best Friend
Normally I enjoy including heists in here because they have some exciting use of unknown tools or infrastructure, but this one is just pure social engineering. Either way, it's still quite funny that it actually worked in the moment.
A woman not only managed to pose as a gem expert and manage to get far too close to about £4 million worth of diamonds, she then managed to swap them for pebbles using sleight-of-hand and the jeweller took their container back to the vault unaware of the swap.
I'm impressed that they X-rayed the bag to see if the diamonds were still in there and the pebbles appeared "diamond-like" on the X-ray - not sure if that was intentional, but it seems like maybe that's not the best way to look inside things if it wasn't. Either way, they caught her, and she's now facing trial, so don't go trying this one.
When Explosions Are Constructive
Ever wondered how to make a nice, perfectly spherical tank of of straight bits of metal - at least, without a very complex system of rollers? Well, wonder no more, as this short video presents an alternative way - explosive hydroforming.
Basically, you make a tank that's sort of round, make sure you welded it together really well, and then fill it full of water and then set off an explosive inside. The explosive force pushes the tank to be perfectly round and, honestly, it's just very pleasing to watch.