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10th May 2023

The power of stars: Manchester and its energy revolution

Manchester has long been making waves in the nuclear energy industry – find out how the scientific namesakes of university buildings set in motion a movement towards green energy.
The power of stars: Manchester and its energy revolution
Photo: Dan Meyers F @ Unsplash

If you’re interested in science, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of nuclear fusion. This intense, atom-smashing process is what fuels the lives of stars and lights up our Universe. If you studied GCSE physics you might also remember the names Rutherford and Joule – whose work drove the energy revolution from Manchester.

From the 1800s through to today, the work of this city’s residents and university staff has unlocked the power of heat, exposed the nature of the atom, and led to the development of nuclear power. Now, the world could be on the cusp of a novel and abundant source of clean energy – it’s almost the stuff of science fiction.

Star-powered toasters

Nuclear fusion occurs when atoms collide and combine into a heavier element, releasing a burst of energy. It is a hugely powerful process. You could hold the weight of the fuel that powers a hydrogen bomb in one hand, yet it explodes with a force that can level entire cities. If this shocks you, it’s probably because we don’t experience this scale of energy on an everyday basis.

In fact, there are astronomical amounts of energy in every direction you see, but it’s trapped inside matter. This relationship is described by Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2. If you could somehow unlock all the energy inside just 1kg of matter, it would be comparable to the amount of energy that the UK consumes in two weeks.

This abundance of energy is why scientists have long dreamt of creating a nuclear fusion power plant. They took one step closer towards this goal on December 5 2022, when physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California made a massive breakthrough.

In the early hours of the morning, 192 lasers blasted a morsel of diamond-encased hydrogen about the size of a piece of gum. For the first time in history, the ensuing fusion reaction produced more energy than was used to start it – one and a half times as much in fact.

So where do researchers go from here? As a next step, experimentalists at the upcoming ITER reactor in France aim to extract ten times as much energy as they put in. Tony Roulstone, a nuclear engineer at the University of Cambridge, suggests fusion may become a major source of energy production in the 2060s or 2070s. This means you will likely live to see your toast browned by the power of stars.

Despite being an advanced area of scientific research, nuclear energy production can be boiled down to two well-known fundamentals. The first is that energy is conserved, and can neither be created nor destroyed. The second is that all matter consists of tiny particles called atoms. Over the past two centuries, Manchester has found itself at the centre of these discoveries.

Revolutionising Energy

James Joule, the namesake of the standard unit of energy, lived a 30-minute walk from the University of Manchester. Raised in Victorian-era Salford, Joule was more an industrialist than a strict academic.

He ran the brewery he inherited from his father, but spent his spare time using his practical skills to tinker with experiments involving heat and electricity. Joule was so obsessed, he spent his honeymoon measuring the temperature of the top and bottom of a waterfall, which probably didn’t go down well with his bride.

In Joule’s time, there was a mistaken belief that heat was an invisible fluid – the caloric – that flowed from hot to cold. In fact, Joule’s experiments showed that mechanical processes, electricity, and heat were all equivalent forms of energy – in other words, the principle of the conservation of energy.

The caloric, in theory, could not be created or destroyed, and could not explain how heat could drive a mechanical process, such as when steam is used to rotate the turbines found in nuclear power plants. As such, Joule’s discrediting of the caloric was a much-needed first step towards modern electricity production.

Game-changing atoms

Manchester also has a strong legacy in the field of atomic physics. Although the idea of atoms has existed since the Ancient Greeks, it was John Dalton, who first modernised the concept around 1805.

A Quaker from the rural Lake District, Dalton built his career and adult life in Manchester’s city centre, where Joule was his student. Dalton popularised the theory that in chemical reactions, atoms are combined, separated or rearranged. Today, this enables chemically-based energy production, as occurs when burning fuels.

Next in the field was J. J. Thomson, who in the 1890s discovered that atoms had electrons. Raised in Cheetham Hill (north of Victoria station) he completed his early education in Manchester, before being later claimed by Cambridge – as with many British scientists.

Thomson won the Nobel Prize in 1906. He was also highly influential, with eight of his students and junior colleagues also winning Nobel Prizes. One such student was Ernest Rutherford, perhaps Manchester’s most important alumnus.

Rutherford was a New Zealander who came to the Victoria University of Manchester in 1907. It was here that he discovered the nucleus and the shocking revelation that atoms are almost entirely empty space.

A given nucleus takes up less than 0.1% of an atom’s volume but includes over 99.9% of its mass; the rest being the orbiting electrons. If an average-sized raisin was as dense as a nucleus, it would weigh over 40 billion kilograms!

At Manchester, Rutherford also officially discovered the proton and performed the first artificially-induced nuclear reaction. For this reason, he is often referred to as  ‘the father of nuclear power’.

One of Rutherford’s students, James Chadwick, came from a working-class family in Cheshire and was educated in Manchester on scholarship. Chadwick intended to study mathematics but joined the physics course by mistake, which is how Rutherford became his teacher.

His brilliance lead to him winning a scholarship to spend a year abroad in Berlin. Unfortunately, World War One broke out whilst he was there and Chadwick spent four years in a prison camp.

Free again, he moved on to Cambridge and continued to work with Rutherford until he discovered the neutron in 1932. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It’s by bombarding nuclei with neutrons to force them to split that nuclear power plants work today.

Manchester’s influence on nuclear research continues. As part of the Fusion Centre for Doctoral Training, it is a key player in the drive towards fusion today.

We can only hope that one day this goal succeeds, and that future generations can reap the benefits of green, waste-free and virtually unlimited energy?

Words by Daniel Hunt

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