The Race To Crack Battery Recycling—Before It’s Too Late

Every day, millions of lithium-ion batteries roll off the line at Tesla’s Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada. These cells, produced on site by Panasonic, are destined to be bundled together by the thousands in the battery packs of new Teslas. But not all the batteries are cut out for a life on the road. Panasonic ships truckloads of cells that don’t pass their qualification tests to a facility in Carson City, about a half hour’s drive south. This is the home of Redwood Materials, a small company founded in 2017 with an ambition to become the anti-Gigafactory, a place where batteries are cooked down into raw materials that will serve as the grist for new cells.

Redwood is part of a wave of new startups racing to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist yet: How to recycle the mountains of batteries from electric vehicles that are past their prime. Over the past decade, the world’s lithium-ion production capacity has increased tenfold to meet the growing demand for EVs. Now vehicles from that first production wave are just beginning to reach the end of their lifespan. This marks the beginning of a tsunami of spent batteries, which will only get worse as more electric cars hit the road. The International Energy Agency predicts an 800 percent increase in the number of EVs over the next decade, each car packed with thousands of cells. The dirty secret of the EV revolution is that it created an e-waste timebomb—and cracking lithium-ion recycling is the only way to defuse it.

Redwood’s CEO and founder J. B. Straubel understands the problem better than most. After all, he played a significant role in creating it. Straubel is cofounder and, until last year, was the CTO at Tesla, a company he joined when it was possible to count all of its employees on one hand. During his time there, the company grew from a scrappy startup peddling sports cars to the most valuable auto manufacturer on the planet. Along the way, Tesla also became one of the world’s largest battery producers. But the way Straubel sees it, those batteries aren’t really a problem. “The major opportunity is to think of this material for reuse and recovery,” he says. “With all these batteries in circulation, it just seems super obvious that eventually we’re going to build a remanufacturing ecosystem.”

There are two main ways to deactivate lithium-ion batteries. The most common technique, called pyrometallurgy, involves burning them to remove unwanted organic materials and plastics. This method leaves the recycler with just a fraction of the original material—typically just the copper from current collectors and nickel or cobalt from the cathode. A common pyro method, called smelting, uses a furnace powered with fossil fuels, which isn’t great for the environment, and it loses a lot of aluminum and lithium in the process. But it is simple, and smelting factories that currently exist to process ore from the mining industry are already able to handle batteries. Of the small fraction of lithium-ion batteries that are recycled in the US—just 5 percent of all spent cells—most of them end up in a smelting furnace.

The other approach is called hydrometallurgy. A common form of this technique, called leaching, involves soaking lithium-ion cells in strong acids to dissolve the metals into a solution. More materials, including lithium, can be recovered this way. But leaching comes with its own challenges. Recyclers must preprocess the cells to remove unwanted plastic casings and drain the charge on the battery, which increases cost and complexity. It’s part of the reason why spent lithium-ion batteries have been treated as waste ever since the first commercial cells hit the market in the early 1990s. It was often several times cheaper to mine new material, especially lithium, than recover it with leaching.

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A New Study About Color Tries to Decode ‘The Brain’s Pantone’

At first, Conway was pretty skeptical that he would get any results. “The word on the street is that MEG has very crappy spatial resolution,” he says. Essentially, the machine is good at detecting when there’s brain activity, but not so great at showing you where in the brain that activity is. But as it turned out, the patterns were there and they were easy for the decoder to spot. “Lo and behold, the pattern is different enough for the different colors that I can decode with upwards of 90 percent accuracy what color you were seeing,” he says. “That’s like: holy crap!”

Chatterjee says that Conway’s MEG approach allows neuroscientists to flip traditional questions of perception upside down. “Perception is usually taken as the known quantity”—in this case, the color of the spiral—“and then researchers tried to figure out the neuronal processes leading to that,” he writes. But in this experiment, Conway approached the question from the opposite side: He measured the neuronal processes and then made conclusions about how those processes affect his subjects’ color perception.

The MEG also allowed Conway to watch perception unfold over time. In this experiment, it took about one second from the moment the volunteer saw the spiral until the moment when they named its color aloud. The machine was able to reveal activation patterns during that period, showing when color perception arose in the brain, and then track that activation for approximately another half second as the percept shifted to a semantic concept—the word the volunteer could use to name the color.

But there are some limitations to this approach. While Conway could identify that viewing different colors creates different patterns of brain responses, and that his 18 subjects experienced specific patterns for colors like yellow, brown, or light blue, he can’t say exactly where in the brain those patterns emerge. The paper also doesn’t discuss any of the mechanisms that create these patterns. But, Conway says, figuring out that there is a neural difference in the first place is huge. “That there is a difference is instructive, because it tells us that there is some kind of topographic map of color in the human brain,” he says.

“It’s that relationships between colors as we perceive them (perceptual color space) can be derived from the relationships of recorded activity (even if it’s MEG and can’t get you down to the level of single neurons or small ensembles of neurons),” writes Chatterjee. “That makes this a creative and interesting study.”

Plus, Conway says, this research refutes all those arguments that MEG isn’t precise enough to capture these patterns. “Now we can use [MEG] to decode all sorts of things related to the very fine spatial structure of neurons in the brain,” Conway suggests.

The MEG data also showed that the brain processed those eight color spirals differently depending on whether they showed warm or dark colors. Conway made sure to include pairs that were the same hue, meaning their wavelengths would be perceived as the same color by the eye’s photoceptors, but had different luminance, or brightness, levels, which changes how people perceive them. For example, yellow and brown are the same hue but differ in luminance. Both are warm colors. And, for cool colors, the blue and dark blue he picked were also the same hue as each other, and had the same difference in luminance as did the yellow/brown pair of warm tones.

The MEG data showed that the patterns of brain activity corresponding to blue and dark blue were more similar to each other than the patterns for yellow and brown were to each other. Even though these hues all differed by the same amount of luminance, the brain processed the pair of warm colors as being much more different from one another, compared to the two blues.

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Physicists Pin Down the Nuclear Reaction After the Big Bang

In a secluded laboratory buried under a mountain in Italy, physicists have re-created a nuclear reaction that happened between two and three minutes after the Big Bang.

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research develop­ments and trends in mathe­matics and the physical and life sciences.

Their measurement of the reaction rate, published on November 11 in Nature, nails down the most uncertain factor in a sequence of steps known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis that forged the universe’s first atomic nuclei.

Researchers are “over the moon” about the result, according to Ryan Cooke, an astrophysicist at Durham University in the United Kingdom who wasn’t involved in the work. “There’ll be a lot of people who are interested from particle physics, nuclear physics, cosmology, and astronomy,” he said.

The reaction involves deuterium, a form of hydrogen consisting of one proton and one neutron that fused within the cosmos’s first three minutes. Most of the deuterium quickly fused into heavier, stabler elements like helium and lithium. But some survived to the present day. “You have a few grams of deuterium in your body, which comes all the way from the Big Bang,” said Brian Fields, an astrophysicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The precise amount of deuterium that remains reveals key details about those first minutes, including the density of protons and neutrons and how quickly they became separated by cosmic expansion. Deuterium is “a special super-witness of that epoch,” said Carlo Gustavino, a nuclear astrophysicist at Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

But physicists can only deduce those pieces of information if they know the rate at which deuterium fuses with a proton to form the isotope helium-3. It’s this rate that the new measurement by the Laboratory for Underground Nuclear Astrophysics (LUNA) collaboration has pinned down.

The Earliest Probe of the Universe

Deuterium’s creation was the first step in Big Bang nucleosynthesis, a sequence of nuclear reactions that occurred when the cosmos was a super hot but rapidly cooling soup of protons and neutrons.

Starting in the 1940s, nuclear physicists developed a series of interlocking equations describing how various isotopes of hydrogen, helium, and lithium assembled as nuclei merged and absorbed protons and neutrons. (Heavier elements were forged much later inside stars.) Researchers have since tested most aspects of the equations by replicating the primordial nuclear reactions in laboratories.

In doing so, they made radical discoveries. The calculations offered some of the first evidence of dark matter in the 1970s. Big Bang nucleosynthesis also enabled physicists to predict the number of different types of neutrinos, which helped drive cosmic expansion.

But for almost a decade now, uncertainty about deuterium’s likelihood of absorbing a proton and turning into helium-3 has fogged up the picture of the universe’s first minutes. Most importantly, the uncertainty has prevented physicists from comparing that picture to what the cosmos looked like 380,000 years later, when the universe cooled enough for electrons to begin orbiting atomic nuclei. This process released radiation called the cosmic microwave background that provides a snapshot of the universe at the time.

Cosmologists want to check whether the density of the cosmos changed from one period to the other as expected based on their models of cosmic evolution. If the two pictures disagree, “that would be a really, really important thing to understand,” Cooke said. Solutions to stubbornly persistent cosmological problems—like the nature of dark matter—could be found in this gap, as could the first signs of exotic new particles. “A lot can happen between a minute or two after the Big Bang and several hundred thousand years after the Big Bang,” Cooke said.

But the all-important deuterium reaction rate that would allow researchers to make these kinds of comparisons is very difficult to measure. “You’re simulating the Big Bang in the lab in a controlled way,” said Fields.

Physicists last attempted a measurement in 1997. Since then, observations of the cosmic microwave background have become increasingly precise, putting pressure on physicists who study Big Bang nucleosynthesis to match that precision—and so allow a comparison of the two epochs.

In 2014, Cooke and coauthors precisely measured the abundance of deuterium in the universe through observations of faraway gas clouds. But to translate this abundance into a precise prediction of the primordial matter density, they needed a much better measure of the deuterium reaction rate.

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Pfizer Seeks Approval, the CDC Urges Restraint, and More News

Pfizer seeks FDA approval for its vaccine, the CDC urges Americans to avoid Thanksgiving travel, and the federal pandemic response draws renewed concern. Here’s what you should know:

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Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is first to seek emergency use authorization in the US

Pfizer and BioNTech are applying for emergency use authorization from the FDA today for their coronavirus vaccine, the first to seek approval in the US. The news comes just days after the companies announced they had the data needed to seek emergency use and found the vaccine to be 95 percent effective and safe. The vaccine requires two doses a couple weeks apart, and the companies say recipients are protected from SARS-CoV-2 28 days after receiving the first shot. It will need to be transported and stored at incredibly cold temperatures.

It seems likely that the FDA will make its decision about granting emergency use authorization after its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee meets on December 8, 9, and 10. After that, a CDC advisory committee will review the data and decide which groups should be vaccinated first. The vaccine could be available by the middle to end of next month. Moderna also released promising early results from its vaccine trial this week and may be ready to apply for FDA approval soon. It’s possible the agency will review the two mRNA vaccines at the same time.

The virus continues to surge as officials urge Americans not to travel for the holidays

Coronavirus cases and hospitalization rates continue to rise at alarming rates across the country. As of this week, more than a quarter of a million Americans have died of Covid-19. Infectious disease experts estimate that more than 3 million people across the US are currently infected and potentially contagious.

As the virus spreads swiftly, even state and local officials who were once resistant to issuing restrictions have started cracking down. Governors in states like New Mexico and California have announced new stay-at-home orders and bans on nonessential indoor services, while New York City’s public school system has halted in-person schooling. On Thursday, CDC officials urged Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving during the agency’s first news briefing in months. Even if you get tested beforehand or avoid air travel, there is no safe way to gather with people outside of your household to celebrate the holiday this year.

The federal pandemic response draws renewed concern as aid programs are set to expire at year’s end

Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin said Thursday that he would be ending several of the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending programs at the end of the year. He asked that unspent money initially given to the Fed as part of the first stimulus bill be reallocated, a decision the central bank criticized. Two unemployment programs that assist millions are also set to expire at year’s end.

During a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing this week—the first in months—Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged the rise in cases nationwide, touted the imminent arrival of a vaccine, and condemned the idea of a national lockdown. But clear-cut national guidelines remain elusive. Overall, the lack of transparency surrounding coronavirus policies across the country has made it harder for the public to evaluate the job being done and for individuals to tailor their behavior throughout this pandemic. All of this guarantees that, while the end may soon be in sight, this crisis will almost certainly get worse before it gets better.

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How to Reduce (but Not Eliminate) Covid Risk at Gatherings

Strictly quarantining is a better approach than simply getting a Covid-19 test, as questions remain about the effectiveness of some often-used tests, experts say.

Benjamin says the PCR test, which can tell you if you’re currently sick, is the most reliable, more so than the newer rapid-response tests, which can give false negatives or positives. Still, “the test is as good as it is on the day you took it,” he warns. Wolfe agrees, saying, “you can’t do testing by itself and expect it will get you out of a problem.”

The public health experts we spoke to say testing is no get-out-of-jail-free card for holiday travel. Instead, it should be seen as a complement to quarantining, physical distancing, mask-wearing, and symptom monitoring. Benjamin adds that some symptoms of allergies and Covid-19 can look similar. If you wake up on the morning of planned travel not feeling great, he says, rethink the trip.

As for travel itself, driving is your best bet. Even then, Benjamin says, the risk isn’t negligible, especially if you make pit stops. Burns-Wright plans a one-way car rental up to Philadelphia with minimal stops on the way.

Flying isn’t a no-go, experts say, but people should be cautious and mindful of the risks.

A recent study by the Department of Defense and United Airlines says the risk of transmission when everyone in the plane is wearing a mask is low, but the study assumed optimal airflow in the cabin and assumed that everyone did indeed wear their mask for the duration of the flight. In the real world, the CDC warned in September that approximately 10,900 people were potentially exposed to coronavirus on flights between January and August, CNN reported.

Watson points out that there are a lot of different opportunities for exposure at an airport, from security to sitting on the tarmac. Masks are encouraged, the experts say, and Wolfe even encourages people to bring extra masks should their ear loops snap during travel.

As for other forms of transport, Watson warns people that public transport can also have risks, including buses, which often have less stringent rules on safety and cleanliness than airlines, and definitely have less ventilation.

When you arrive at your destination, public health experts recommend creating a bubble with those you’re staying with, quarantining together.

“Think about the NBA bubble and try to avoid being the NFL,” Sehgal says. For Burns-Wright, that means only seeing her mom, who lives alone, during her visit and occasionally her mom’s neighbor, but only in outdoor settings, like on their front porches. They don’t plan on having anyone else over for Thanksgiving.

But all experts warn that even small group gatherings still pose a risk. CDC director Robert Redfield warned on a call with governors earlier this month that small group gatherings were driving up infections.

“We’re seeing a lot of transmission amongst families and friends in small groups,” Seghal says. He adds that the social interactions people prize during the holidays put people at particular risk, from cooking together in close proximity to multigenerational gatherings. “All of these things put us at increased risk of transmission of airborne infectious disease,” he says.

It’s why public health experts say hosting an outdoor gathering is safer than indoor gatherings. Seghal even says he has encouraged friends to get outdoor heaters. And while the experts say there’s little evidence that sharing food or touching shared surfaces can spread the virus, it’s important to be cautious and practice basic hygiene, like handwashing. It’s much less the sharing of food that’s a concern, but the behavior of doing so, Seghal says, pointing out that refilling one another’s glasses or reaching over a table for food puts each other in closer proximity, which should be avoided.

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Ancient Dog DNA Reveals Their Enduring Connection With People

After that domestication event, some things do seem to have stayed constant. According to the team’s results, after dogs split off from wolves over 11,000 years ago, wolves never made a major reentry into dog populations (until, perhaps, the contemporary craze for wolfdogs). Given that dogs and wolves belong to the same species and produce perfectly healthy offspring, this discovery came as a surprise to the authors. They inferred this result from the observation that some wolves are equally related to all ancient and modern dogs, which indicates that all dogs have the same amount of wolf ancestry. The logical explanation is that wolves didn’t contribute substantially to the dog gene pool after domestication. If, instead, wolves had continued interbreeding with dogs, the team would have expected to observe that all wolves were more closely related to some dogs—which had wolves in their family trees post-domestication—than others, which only had dog ancestors.

But, for some reason, the opposite happened when it comes to the wolf genome: Dogs are universally more related to some wolves than they are to others, which indicates that dogs did in fact contribute genetic material to wolf populations. This asymmetry between dogs and wolves may have a simple explanation: humans. “It shows us,” Lindblad-Toh says, “that probably people held onto their dogs and took good care of them and made sure that they didn’t let wolves in.” The wolves had no such guardians.

But Liisa Loog, a postdoctoral researcher in the Genetics Department at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in the study, believes that it is important to keep this result in perspective. She notes that the authors’ argument depends on some specific assumptions about how ancient wolves relate to modern wolves, assumptions that are impossible to confirm without studying ancient wolves directly. “The authors here rely on the assumption that this happened on a now-extinct wolf population that hasn’t been sampled, and that is equally related to all modern-day wolf populations,” she says. “This may be the case, but it also may not be the case.”

This assumption, and the assumptions about geographic and climatic consistency that undergird Bergström and Frantz’s trade hypothesis, do mean that their results and theories can’t be confirmed without additional research, like similar studies of ancient wolf DNA. But, ultimately, 27 dog genomes are a narrow window onto the past: When working with such a small amount of data, assumptions become necessary. “The DNA itself is just DNA,” Bergström says. “It needs that wider context of interpretation.”

The scarcity of evidence, coupled with the difficulty of extracting high-quality DNA from such old bones, might make ancient DNA research seem like a foolhardy endeavor—why not just obtain genetic samples from modern dogs and figure out the family tree from there? But ancient DNA also has some distinct advantages over modern DNA, especially when it comes to dogs. Many contemporary dogs owe their genetic profiles to the Victorian dog breeding craze, so the signatures of their more distant past may be difficult to discern. Looking for evidence about ancient dogs in the genomes of modern ones is like “searching for a needle in a haystack,” Loog says. So it can help to go directly to the source. “Ancient DNA,” Loog says, “literally gives us this time-stamped genetic picture of the past.”

So, while it may be difficult to learn about prehistoric dogs by studying their modern descendants, the special insights afforded by ancient DNA can provide invaluable context for understanding how humans relate to dogs today. “Dogs are kind of unique in that they are a predator, a carnivore. And they were domesticated by hunter-gatherers, way before agriculture, and they were also able to spread so quickly to most groups,” Bergström says. “It’s somehow a surprisingly good fit for the human species to take on this animal as a companion—even though, a priori, it seems like an unlikely candidate for domestication.” If Bergström and his colleagues are right, the human tradition of living with, breeding, and protecting dogs, and of treating canines not just as useful tools but as sources of social connection and emotional support, could have an 11,000-year history. Even before they figured out how to cultivate crops, humans may very well have known how to take care of, and be taken care of by, their animals.

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A Covid Vaccine Nears, Biden Gets to Work, and More News

The vaccine process nears a new phase, Biden plans his pandemic response, and the winter surge arrives. Here’s what you should know:

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Pfizer may soon have a vaccine—but challenges lie ahead

Pfizer and BioNTech put out a press release this week announcing that its Covid-19 vaccine is more than 90 percent effective for participants who were definitely Covid-free before the trial started then developed symptomatic cases. So far, there have been no serious safety concerns. The first of its kind, this vaccine is made up of mRNA that helps the body make proteins that train the immune system to recognize SARS-CoV-2. Pfizer will likely have the safety data it needs to apply for FDA approval by the end of the month. If it’s greenlit, it will be the first mRNA vaccine cleared for use in humans. Moderna, which is also making an mRNA vaccine, is expected to release early data in the coming days as well.

Though an approved vaccine would be exciting, distributing the Pfizer shot comes with its share of logistical problems. It requires two doses and must be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit or -70 degrees Celcius in order to be effective, which will make distribution across the US—not to mention worldwide—difficult and complicated. Then there’s the fraught question of who should get it first. Regardless, inoculating the whole world will require more than Pfizer’s vaccine alone.

Biden plans his coronavirus response as a new outbreak hits the Trump administration

Earlier this week, Joe Biden announced the members of his coronavirus task force. The 13-member team of doctors and health experts will help the president-elect develop a plan for tackling the pandemic and work with governors to develop consistent messaging at the state and federal levels. Separately, he is also forming a special transition team for coordinating the Biden White House’s coronavirus response with other federal agencies. Yesterday Biden also joined Democratic legislators in demanding a new stimulus package before the end of 2020.

Meanwhile, yet another coronavirus outbreak has hit the White House, likely after a crowded party on election night. Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, and campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski are among those who have tested positive. More than 130 Secret Service officers who protect the president and the White House have recently been ordered to isolate or quarantine as well.

As people migrate indoors, cases rise in record numbers

As winter approaches, the pandemic continues to accelerate at an alarming rate: It has been just over a week since cases in the US first topped 100,000, and yesterday there were more than 160,000. In response, governors in Ohio and Utah have instituted mask mandates, and those in Illinois, Maryland, and Washington have raised the possibility of reinstating stricter lockdowns. And with the holidays just a few weeks away, experts are emphasizing that there is no way to travel and gather with family that is completely risk-free.

Part of the problem is that people are more likely to gather indoors as the weather cools and daylight hours wane. New research found that crowded indoor venues may have accounted for eight in 10 new cases in the early months of the pandemic. How can we make our indoor spaces safer? Given that viruses have an easier time spreading through dry air, researchers are investigating whether humidifiers could help keep Covid-19 at bay inside. Questions about air quality and flow could create the opportunity to transform how we ventilate buildings for the better.

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What is ‘proning,’ and does it help Covid-19 patients?

Proning, an emergency medical procedure, entails flipping people over onto their stomachs. Doing this allows gravity to pull fluid away from the back of the body and make more space for oxygen in the lungs. It’s also safer for health care workers trying to avoid getting sick. It hasn’t been the subject of much research or attention, in part because it’s so simple it almost seems a misnomer to call it a “medical procedure.” But it’s become much more widespread since the spring, and some experts say this could be part of the reason why we’re seeing fewer deaths even as cases rise.

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Fireball Is Werner Herzog’s Ode to Space Rocks

The Ramgarh crater in northern India was formed millions of years ago when a large meteorite crashed into Earth. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists began to believe it was an impact basin. From the ground, it’s difficult to assess that it’s a crater. The thing is just too big to take in all at once. Yet the cluster of temples in the center of Ramgarh suggests ancient cultures recognized there was something special about the place, even if they had no way of knowing it was formed by a rock from outer space. Examining the effects of meteorites is always scientific, but it’s often spiritual, too, and it’s the tension between those two disciplines that drives Fireball.

Written and directed by Werner Herzog, the documentary aims to make sense of extraterrestrial geology, to trace all the ways meteorites have made impressions far beyond the edges of any individual crater. Herzog and his codirector, Cambridge University volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, interview boffins geeking out over meteorites in their lab, of course, but also a jazz musician prowling for micrometeorites on the rooftops of Oslo, an indigenous painter chronicling otherworldly stories in the outback of Australia, and a Jesuit priest keeping vigil over a meteorite collection in a secluded European observatory. “Every stone has its own separate story,” Herzog says.

Oppenheimer traces the genesis of Fireball, which drops Friday on Apple TV+, to a visit to Korean Polar Research Institute, which sponsors an annual Antarctic expedition to collect meteorites. When Oppenheimer saw the vast collection of meteorites stored at the institute, he knew there was a bigger story to tell. “I was struck by the significance these stones have for understanding the earliest period of the solar system and the building blocks of life on Earth,” he says. “I just felt instantly that meteorites are a phenomenon that speak to us on both a scientific and a metaphysical level.” Oppenheimer had previously collaborated with Herzog on Into the Inferno, and when he pitched the German auteur on a movie about meteorites he didn’t have to wait long for a decision. “It was five seconds and it was clear we were going to do it,” Herzog says.

Meteorites are the perfect topic for a filmmaker like Herzog. His best work has always featured subjects that occupy liminal spaces where two worlds collide—East and West, the human and the supernatural, the digital and the analog. Fireball falls squarely in this tradition. Meteorites are both a local phenomenon that have shaped communities and an existential threat faced by the entire planet. They’re messengers from the deep past heralded as portents, and inert pieces of matter that carry the building blocks of life. They’re the source of both scientific and spiritual wonder, and in this respect, meteorites have a lot in common with the humans who study them.

Even though Fireball is ostensibly a science documentary, it doesn’t feel like one. “Documentaries about science are always very predictable, and many of them are too didactic,” Herzog says. “We said we shall never be didactic, we will give insights of a deeper nature than just science.”

While Herzog and Oppenhemier drop plenty of mind-bending facts throughout the doc, they also know when some hand-waving will suffice. (Do you really want to know the mathematical basis of a quasicrystal? I didn’t think so.) Fans of Herzog will also relish his moody and often humorous voice-overs, which transform a Mexican port town into “a beach resort so godforsaken you want to cry” and stray dogs sunning themselves in a crater into beasts too dumb to reckon with the cosmic implications of their tanning bed.

More than 100 tons of space rock falls to earth every day. Most of these meteorites arrive as microscopic particles of cosmic dust, but every so often one comes along that’s big enough to shape the destiny of an individual, a community, or the entire planet. This is what Herzog meant when he said each of these stones has a story. It feels natural to attribute meaning to a natural event caused by random fluctuations in an unfeeling universe. Sometimes the story starts with a meteorite. Other times, it’s how the story ends.

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Everything You Need to Know About Energy

So, what’s great about fossil-fuel-based energy? The best thing is that it’s easy. You just need to get this stuff out of the ground and then burn it. It’s like instant energy just waiting there for humans to use it. Most forms of fossil fuels also have a high energy density. There’s quite a bit of energy in gasoline, which has an energy density of 46.4 MJ/kg. Even though an automobile is only 25 percent efficient, just 1 kilogram of gasoline can give you 11.6 million joules of energy. Remember, it was 10 joules to lift a textbook ofg the ground and onto a table. This is why you can get a car to drive 20 to 50 miles on just a single gallon of gasoline. You have to admit that’s really impressive.

OK, then, what’s not great about fossil fuels? Hopefully, you already know the answer to this question. When you burn a fossil fuel, you produce carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and it contributes to climate change. If we keep burning fossil fuels, the increase in carbon dioxide is going to change the climate in a way that will make it difficult for humans to keep doing things we have always done—like living near the coast or growing crops in certain regions. So, that’s what’s bad about fossil fuels.

But let me just be clear. It’s not just the use of gasoline in automobiles. We also burn fossil fuels for the production of the electrical energy used in houses and stuff. The basic idea is to burn the fossil fuel to heat up water and convert it to steam. This steam then pushes on the blades of an electric turbine engine to spin it. These spinning turbines create electrical energy through an electromagnetic interaction (using loops of wires and magnets). A number of energy sources use spinning turbines, actually.

Solar Energy

If you just go outside during a sunny day, you can feel it. You can feel your body warming up as a result of the interaction with the light from the sun. In fact, at our location in the solar system, the sun gives us about 1,000 watts per square meter of power. Of course, the trick is to get this energy into something more useful like electrical energy. One way to do this is with a solar panel (photovoltaic cell). This is essentially a solid-state device (with no moving parts) for which light can cause an electron energy transition to produce electric current. Yes, that’s an over simplification—but you get the idea. It turns light energy into electrical energy.

But wait! There’s another way to use solar power. It’s called a concentrated solar power plant. The idea is to arrange a bunch of mirrors to all reflect sunlight to a central point. The object at this solar focal point will then get extremely hot, and you can use that hot thing to heat up water to produce steam and then turn an electric turbine. Oh, usually the extremely hot thing will be a liquid—maybe like molten salt. That way you can heat up some stuff and then move it to make some steam while still heating up other parts of the liquid.

OK, but is solar power also renewable? It’s fine if you say that it’s a renewable energy source, but technically it’s not. The solar energy comes from the sun (that’s probably obvious). But the sun produces energy mostly due to nuclear fusion reactions in the core. Guess what? In 5 billion years, the sun is going to run out of energy. So it’s not technically renewable, but in the time span of the life of the sun, it’s practically unlimited.

Hydroelectric Power

I would like to call this “hydropower” instead of hydroelectric, but that’s the common name that everyone uses. The thing is that we have been using some form of hydropower for a long time—the water wheel is much older than the invention of electricity. In terms of electrical energy, it’s not too complicated. In fact it’s mostly like the electrical energy from fossil fuels. However, instead of using steam to turn an electric turbine you use falling water, or, technically, moving water resulting from a change in height.

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The Next Covid Dilemma: How to Make Buildings Breathe Better

Clambering around the ceiling of a big-box store, Jeff Siegel, a mechanical engineer at the University of Toronto, had no idea that he was looking at the post-pandemic future of air-conditioning systems. Siegel studies indoor air quality, and he and his colleagues were testing the air in the store—he wouldn’t say which one. This is the possibly grim future part: While they were up there, they found that one of the six HVAC units (that’s heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) was installed exactly upside down. Like, 180 degrees from spec. “The door that was used to access the filter couldn’t be fully opened, and the filter couldn’t be replaced,” Siegel says.

When the team went back six months later to test again, “the filter was entirely plugged with dust and other stuff. There was literally no way to change it without a Sawzall to cut the frame,” Siegel says. At the time, Siegel knew what that meant. The air inside the store would be that much crummier. It was, in a way, just like a thousand other HVAC mistakes Siegel has seen: dampers that are supposed to admit outside air into a building rusted open or shut, badly installed filters letting air pass around their edges, forced-air fans running barely 18 percent of the time. In theory, HVAC heats and air-conditions. In practice, it doesn’t always ventilate or filter.

But now that scientists around the world largely agree that the pandemic virus SARS-CoV-2—like a lot of other respiratory viruses—transmits most easily indoors, in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces, that occasional, multipronged failure signifies a much more serious problem. As the number of people infected with Covid-19 in the US breaks records, and cooped-up kids and suffering business owners agitate for a life slightly more normal, the once boring ventilation and filter systems in the guts of homes, schools, offices, and factories have become a focus of debate. People know that if they want to go back inside those buildings—even while masked and 6 feet away from each other—something has to vent potentially virus-infused air. That means a renewed interest in HVAC, and possibly a new future for an often-overlooked field of science. Maybe. “The best HVAC in the world performs poorly when it’s not well maintained, and the usual standard is ‘not well maintained,’” Siegel says. “What we’re seeing now in the pandemic is that people want HVAC to help us, and it’s like, wait a second—you’ve systematically underinvested and not done the kinds of things you should do to have a well-functioning system.”

On the other hand, that might mean a new future for ventilation is emerging, and along with it a new way of seeing the future of building design and engineering—because trying to Covid-proof a home or office might make it better in all sorts of other ways, too.

SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory coronavirus that almost certainly has among its modes of transmission the ability to move almost like a vapor, in invisible bubbles of snot and spit or dessicated protein that waft on air currents, emitted by people showing no symptoms of illness. Transmission is most common indoors, where the air doesn’t exchange as often as it does outside. So one of the biggest ideas for decreasing transmission but still letting people go back to school and work safely—not to mention places like restaurants, theaters, and bookstores—is ventilation: getting potentially infectious viral particles in the air out, and clean air in. “Those of us in this field have been arguing for decades that we need to pay attention to the indoor environment, and we’re thrilled people are recognizing it’s important. But how to get from here to there will take an infusion of investment,” says Shelly Miller, a mechanical engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies indoor air. “We view outside air and water as shared goods. This is something everybody shares. I don’t really see why it would be any different from the air in a building, because lots of people share the air in the building. We just haven’t looked at it that way.”

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