Neutrinos, the ‘tweener’ that could obstruct clean energy and hurt the environment.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Saul Perlmutter and his colleagues caused a surprise late last year when they announced they had detected neutrinos that were the protons of the first atomic bomb, fired by the Trinity experiment in New Mexico. The discovery brought hope of a breakthrough in understanding how light interacts with matter, and of paving the way for the creation of electric batteries.

But for energy engineers the physicists’ discovery came at a price: These heavy neutrinos, which are the lowest known energy particles in the universe, could prevent the development of clean energy. By reducing the amount of charge that electrons carry, neutrinos would reduce the strength of the charges that make energy transfer possible in energy-converting devices such as solar cells and wind turbines. As their Nobel prize-winning work suggested, neutrinos can be seen as the propelling force of ions when they carry electric charges. They are also carried by tiny currents, just like protons, and carry enough energy to break up the atom of radium, a heavy radioactive isotope that carries a high energy charge.

“If you want to make clean energy, you should be able to make dirty electricity” Mr. Perlmutter said when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. “There has to be some plausible way to think of it … It’s a frightening prospect, because you’re stuck with this large number of neutrinos” or nuclear ions, which carry more energy than neutrinos. By stopping the creation of new nuclear energy sources, these neutrinos would essentially be banned from entering the energy field.

While neutrinos are still a mystery, physicists have already begun drilling holes in the Earth’s crust. From the high ground, neutrinos could escape and arrive at a reactor very quickly. To prevent leakage of neutrinos, the physicists at Caltech and Berkeley appear to favor a design for a much more powerful magnetic field than is usually used, which would do the trick: They would replace the electrons that spin charged magnets with even stronger electron spin.

When asked what would happen if they found that these experiments could not reach neutrinos, Mr. Perlmutter told me in an interview that there was, “a whole group of people on this issue who are very passionate.”

On May 17, Mr. Perlmutter and his collaborators published a new study in the journal Science. In it, they proposed shooting an accelerator filled with electrons (like those found in a wind turbine) into the Earth. That spin in the electricity generated would act like a helix, pushing that electron to orbit faster. So the experiment could create a kind of magnetized chain reaction.

The problem with this approach is that the destructive particles (known as neutrinos) would block the electromagnetic field. Add to that the mass of the electron on the ground and the power of the wind turbine at the bottom of the fluid, and you have a recipe for neutrino overload. The study proposes an alternative for bumping up the energy: Think of the current at the tip of a ladder. If you hit something with the light-emitting at one end, it would cause the metal to spin faster and it could set the next “step” for more energy to be added.

It’s time to clean up our own electric grid.

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Editor’s Note: Phish and Vendela the Astrobot performed a live science news special episode about the atomic bomb and electricity on April 19 on inPULSE.

Wang, P., Matuszak, S., Harms, A., Zaiss, K., Wang, C., Spector, R., Baddeley, J., & Perlmutter, S. (2018). Originating from the Zero Earth Energy Revolution. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.aae147310

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