And Now for Some Good News

m awfully tired of bad news. The U.S. health care system is flooded, again, with sick people: this time not just COVID, but also flu and RSV. Inflation remains high and we teeter on the edge of a recession. We talk about renewable energy but remain heavily dependent on oil, coal, and natural gas; the war in Ukraine is proving how vulnerable that makes the world, as Europe is grimly finding out. We pretend that we’re recycling plastics but, really, we’re not, and all that plastic ends up somewhere, especially as microplastics, which literally end up everywhere, including inside us.

Well, sorry, I don’t have good news about all of those, but there is some good news about a couple of them, and these days I count that as a win.

Let’s start with the plastics. Plastics have been a huge boom to our lives and economy, but, as with most things, we failed to really understand the consequences until it was too late. Thus all that plastic everywhere, seemingly forever. But maybe not. Interesting Engineering reported on the work of two companies, who “have found technologies that recycle all types of plastic.” The companies are Plastonix and Elemental Recycling.

Plastonix says its “technology comprises methods, systems, apparatuses, and a proprietary lipid agent to process up to 10 unique petroleum-derived material types together or separately in order to convert them into a usable chip or powdered material,” which “can be further repurposed as a filler or parallel material for virgin plastic resins or converted to a composite material, paving material, or construction units such as block paving stones, tile beams, sheets, or boards.”

Beats a landfill, or bits of microplastics in your lungs and bloodstream, right?

This is not sustainable. Credit: Laura Sullivan/NPR

As if that wasn’t enough, Plastonix claims its technology is “energy efficient, low carbon, and uses an organic, non-toxic chemical — a green chemical — in its processes.” Its patent is pending.

Elemental Recycling boasts “From Waste Plastics to Graphite and Beyond.” Their process produces graphite and “High Purity Hydrogen” that can both be used in a number of industrial applications. Even better, IE notes: “Both of these methods are carbon-neutral and provide green sources of materials…more importantly, it produces no emissions at all.”

Elemental Recycling’s technology is already patented and is expected to be available for sale in 1Q 2023.

And these aren’t the only players in the plastic recycling. Researchers at the University of Colorado recently announced a method to break down a common but extremely durable polymer, called polycyanurate networks (PCNs) into simpler “monomers” that can be rebuilt into other PCNs.

“We are thinking outside the box, about different ways of breaking chemical bonds,” said Wei Zhang, lead author of the study. “Our chemical methods can help create new technologies and new materials, as well as be utilized to help solve the existing plastic materials crisis.”

Professor Zhang wants plastics to be recycled as commonly as things in the natural world: “Why can’t we make our materials the same way?”

As exciting as those are, and as big an impact as they could have, there’s an even more exciting development in nuclear fusion. According to a scoop from Financial Times, and confirmed by numerous other outlets, on Tuesday The Department of Energy is expected to report that scientists have finally produced a fusion reaction with a net energy gain. I.e., it produced more energy than it took to create the fusion. This has long been considered the “holy grail” of not just fusion research but of clean energy generally.

If you don’t remember your high school physics, fission is when we split atoms — like in an atomic bomb or a nuclear power plant — but fusion is when two atoms are fused. Both produce vast amounts of power, but fusion is especially powerful. The sun relies on fusion.

The research was conducted at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Illustration of lasers creating fusion. Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/AP

Now, we’re not going to have our own nuclear fusion generators anytime soon. We’re not even going to have fusion power plants in the near future. The research relies on big lasers focused on small pellets of hydrogen in targeted bursts, and require hours between the bursts. We’re still in the basic research stage, as we have been for the past fifty years.

Moreover, it didn’t produce all that much energy. It used 2.1 megaJoule (MJ) of energy to produce 2.4 MJ. “It’s about what it takes to boil 10 kettles of water,” Jeremy Chittenden, co-director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies at London’s Imperial College told CNN. “In order to turn that into a power station, we need to make a larger gain in energy — we need it to be substantially more.”

He added:

To turn fusion into a power source we’ll need to boost the energy gain still further. We’ll also need to find a way to reproduce the same effect much more frequently and much more cheaply before we can realistically turn this into a power plant.

Still, many people are excited. DOE previews tomorrow’s announcement as “a major scientific breakthrough.” Dr Robbie Scott, of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Central Laser Facility (CLF) Plasma Physics Group, who contributed to this research, told The Guardian:

Fusion has the potential to provide a near-limitless, safe, clean, source of carbon-free baseload energy. This seminal result from the National Ignition Facility is the first laboratory demonstration of fusion ‘energy-gain’ — where more fusion energy is output than input by the laser beams.

Ultimately, fusion could produce energy that is cheap, has no carbon footprint, doesn’t leave radioactive waste, and is more reliable than solar or wind energy. It’d be a different world — and a much healthier one.

Carbon-based energy and plastics (and, remember, plastics generally are made with petroleum products) helped make possible many of the 20th century’s accomplishments. The price for those accomplishments is only becoming clear in the 21st century, and it is a price that is causing dangerous climate change and havoc with ecosystems, among other things.

Science got us here, for better and for worse, but the recent achievements in recycling plastics and fusion show that science may yet help us survive the 21st century.



Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kim Bellard

Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!