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Nevada research contributes to nuclear fusion, trips to Mars, water quality

NASA's new moon rocket lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. This launch is the first flight test of the Artemis program.
John Raoux
NASA's new moon rocket lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. This launch is the first flight test of the Artemis program.

A lot of you will remember this clip:

In it, Doc is filling a device with a banana peel and beer to gas up his DeLorean. Fantastic, right? Well, it is today. But last month, a major advance in nuclear fusion was announced when more energy came out of a fusion reaction than was put back in.

That could mean the creation some day of something like a perpetual energy machine. Not only that, it wouldn’t create huge amounts of radioactive waste.

But what about the fuel? Could it really be something as throwaway as our own trash? And when might something like this actually come to reality?

Roberto Mancini and Bruno Bauer are physics professors at the University of Nevada, Reno. They joined State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann for more.

"We do experiments, we create them, and in particular, my contributions to the accomplishment of December 5 was about measurement techniques," Mancini explained. "Measuring in physics experiments, it's an important thing. That's how we learn what is going on. And we have contributed over the years through developing ways in which we can measure density and temperature in these systems."

He said it's an indirect, sophisticated process "that involves physics in order to interpret the measurement."

So what is nuclear fusion? Bauer explained: "Fusion is when you put together light nuclei to make heavier nuclei. And in general, you'll get energy out if you use light nuclei. And the opposite process that we use right now for nuclear reactors, or fission reactions, where we take heavy nuclei, and we break them up into lighter nuclei. And we also get energy out."

We're talking about the astounding announcement in December that scientists at Lawrence Livermore in California were able to achieve a nuclear fusion reaction that created more energy than it took to create the reaction. Over 60 years of efforts; it had never been done before.

"No one is really sure exactly the next challenges that we will have to overcome. But the consensus is that we're talking about decades of more work until we get there," Mancini said.

Hear the full interview above.

From UNLV to Mars

Continuing our discussion related to scientific developments, NASA is planning trips back to the moon and, for the first time, to Mars.

NASA’s long in-development ARTEMIS lunar space missions completed its first phase last month. The idea is to land someone on the moon in two years. Then from there, head to Mars. And the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is helping out.

Mechanical engineering students at UNLV have been testing materials that will be used to keep astronauts and their ship safe during their deep-space travel.

Brendan O’Toole is a professor of mechanical engineering and the director of the Center for Materials and Structures at UNLV.

O'Toole said they've been testing composite sandwich models. He compared it to drywall in the home, but drywall is too heavy and not strong enough for aerospace structures. The first time the U.S. went to the moon, they used fiberglass, and now they're using carbon fiber reinforced polymers.

His students aren't hitting the models with hammers, but applying tension, compression and flex, "typical standardized test methods." Students are much more tech savvy these days, he said, and use 3-D printing in other testing processes.

"It's fun to work with young students who are enthusiastic," O'Toole said. "And these research experiences help them achieve their goals. All the students that worked on these private projects either found jobs in the aerospace industry or went on to grad programs to study more."

NASA's mission in 2025 will mark the first time we've returned to the moon in more than 50 years. Jason Steffen is an associate professor of physics at UNLV and his focus in recent years has been finding planets beyond our solar system. He was a member of the Kepler Mission, a space-based telescope launched in 2009 to map our galaxy and look for exoplanets.

Why are we going?

"I'm sure that I would be surprised if geopolitics didn't come into play to some extent," he said. "But I believe the main goal, like the main scientific goal, is one to study the moon more and also to serve as a platform from which we can explore with humans, other parts of the solar system, Mars in particular, but so to serve as a kind of a location where we can bring things together. The materials we need to get together in order to send humans to Mars, it's a lot harder to do it to do that directly from the Earth because the Earth's gravity is so much larger than Mars is in the moon's is."

Steffen said he's not sure what to expect from Mars. He wouldn't be surprised if signs of life were found, but we'll at least learn more about the planet's surface geology.

"A lot of the surprises are going to be kind of small, technical surprises more than grand sweeping changes in our perspective of what Mars is like," he said.

Hear the full interview above.

Arsenic in the water

The water we drink, shower in, cook with — if you pay the Southern Nevada or Truckee Meadows water authorities a monthly fee, you know it’s tested for poisons. There are no safety regulations for private wells.

And that could be a problem for the 182,000 Nevadans who get their water from private wells. The Desert Research Institute and the University of Hawaii Cancer Center recently published a study that found nearly a quarter of all private wells in Nevada are contaminated with arsenic and other heavy metals.

Dan Saftner is a hydrogeologist and assistant researcher for the Desert Research Institute. He said many owners of private wells don't regularly test their water, and may not be aware of the water quality they're consuming.

For the survey, they sent kits to 170 homes in the Reno-Carson City area.

Here's how the process worked: "We asked them to purge their systems, so just allow their water to run for a little while before collecting the sample. That way, we have a better idea that it's water that's representative of their aquifer, rather than water that's been perhaps sitting stagnant in the pipes within their house. So once they did that, they then collected the sample and tightened that lid and put it back into a box that we had pre-labeled that they sent back to us where we then prepared that sample for analytical testing at the laboratory."

It's all part of a larger project called Healthy Nevada.

About 41% of the samples exceeded recommended drinking levels for dissolved metals. They found arsenic to be the main element, as well as uranium, lead, lithium and molybdenum in about 10% of the samples. All of the elements are naturally occurring, and Saftner said the concentrations they're seeing are likely representative of natural conditions.

The ultimate goal of their work will be to see "if there are any associations between the folks that are living in Northern Nevada and health outcomes as it pertains to these sorts of environmental exposures."

Hear the full interview above.

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Christopher Alvarez is a news producer and podcast audio editor at Nevada Public Radio for the State of Nevada program, and has been with them for over a year.
Paul serves as KNPR's producer and reporter in Northern Nevada. Based in Reno, Paul specializes in covering state government and the legislature.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the audience engagement specialist for Nevada Public Radio. She curates and creates content for, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.