How Brazil Spun the Atom

While Iran grabs headlines, Brazil is quietly, and without belligerence, preparing its centrifuges to start enriching uranium

17 min read
Mining and processing of uranium ore into a concentrate known as yellowcake.
Photo: Igor Pessoa/INB

My footsteps echo across the empty corridor, and fluorescent lights flicker above my head. I’m in a compound of boxy concrete buildings at the Resende nuclear complex in southeastern Brazil. Ahead of me, behind locked doors, is a vast, high-ceilinged hall. I can’t go in there, my escort tells me, but I shouldn’t take it personally. Even among the employees here, very few have access to that hall, and those who do can’t talk about what’s in there. Inside is the newest example of one of the most heavily guarded technologies of the industrial age.

This is where Brazil will soon produce enriched uranium in industrial quantities to fuel its two nuclear power reactors. That hall—this much is known—houses hundreds of identical machines. They are slender, upright cylinders topped by a maze of thin pipes, and they sprawl around the room like a thick forest of metal. The machines are uranium centrifuges. They spin at supersonic speeds to accomplish a neat trick: separating two types of uranium atom that are virtually identical except for a minuscule difference in weight. This separation process, known as enrichment, isolates the uranium atoms that are fissile—the useful material capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction—from the rest.

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Royal Mail Is Doing the Right Thing With Drone Delivery

Drones are actually the best way of delivering mail to far-flung islands

2 min read
A large drone with twin propellers stands idle on a remote airport runway as a postal worker walks towards it with two large mail bags

Eight-ish years ago, back when drone delivery was more hype than airborne reality (even more so than it is now), DHL tested a fully autonomous delivery service that relied on drones to deliver packages to an island 12 kilometers off Germany’s North Sea coast. The other alternative for getting parcels to the island was a ferry. But because the ferry didn’t run every day, the drones filled the scheduling gaps so residents of the island could get important packages without having to wait.

“To the extent that it is technically feasible and economically sensible,” DHL said at the time, “the use of [drones] to deliver urgently needed goods to thinly populated or remote areas or in emergencies is an interesting option for the future.” We’ve seen Zipline have success with this approach; now, drones are becoming affordable and reliable enough that they’re starting to make sense for use cases that are slightly less urgent than blood and medication deliveries. Now, thinly populated or remote areas can benefit from drones even if they aren’t having an emergency. Case in point: The United Kingdom’s Royal Mail has announced plans to establish more than 50 new postal drone routes over the next three years.

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Simple, Cheap and Portable: A Filter-Free Desalination System for a Thirsty World

Suitcase-size device makes seawater potable

4 min read
A black hard case contains a white device with beige layers with wires connecting to electronics on the top of the interior of the case.

The unit weighs less than 10 kilograms, does not require the use of filters, and can be powered by a small, portable solar panel.

M. Scott Brauer

A Portable Desalination System Makes Water Potable—Without a Filter

Payal Dhar (Freelance Blogger)

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