Apple’s i Cloud

Inside the Huge Solar Farm That Powers Apple’s iCloud

Lisa Jackson on Apple’s wide-ranging plan to green its act.
—By Suzanne Goldenberg and James West | Mon Jul. 28, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. The article was reported by the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg, and the video was produced by Climate Desk’s James West.

The skies are threatening to pour on the Apple solar farm but as the woman in charge of the company’s environmental initiatives points out: The panels are still putting out some power. Apple is still greening its act.

The company, which once drew fire from campaigners for working conditions in China and heavy reliance on fossil fuels, is now leading other technology companies in controlling its own power supply and expanding its use of renewable energy.

After converting all of its data centers to clean energy, the Guardian understands Apple is poised to use solar power to manufacture sapphire screens for the iPhone 6, at a factory in Arizona.

And in a departure for its reputation for secretiveness, Apple is going out of its way to get credit for its green efforts.

“We know that our customers expect us to do the right thing about these issues,” Lisa Jackson, the vice-president of environmental initiatives told the Guardian.

This week the company invited journalists on a rare tour of its data center in North Carolina to showcase its efforts.

Until a year ago, the telegenic Jackson was the front woman for Barack Obama’s environmental ambitions as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now she is leading the effort to shrink Apple’s carbon footprint—and make sure customers realize the company is doing its bit to decarbonize its products and the internet.

Data centers require huge loads of electricity to maintain climatic conditions and run the servers carrying out billions of electronic transactions every day.

With Apple’s solar farm, customers could now be confident that downloading an app or video-chatting a friend would not increase carbon pollution, Jackson said.

“If you are using your iPhone, iPad, Siri or downloading a song, you don’t have to worry if you are contributing to the climate change problem in the world because Apple has already thought about that for you. We’ve taken care of that. We’re using clean energy,” she said.

The company is also moving to install solar and geothermal power at a plant in Mesa, Arizona, that has been manufacturing sapphire glass. Apple would not directly comment on the Arizona factory but the state’s governor, Jan Brewer, has publicly praised the company’s decision to relocate there and to use solar and geothermal in manufacturing.

“We are aware that almost 70 percent of our carbon footprint is in our supply chain,” Jackson said. “We are actively working on the facilities that we have here in the United States.”

The initiatives mark a turnaround for Apple, which was criticized in the past for working conditions and the use of toxic chemicals at its factories in China and for its heavy reliance on carbon intensive sources such as coal to power the cloud.

Greenpeace now says the company is out ahead of competitors like Google and Facebook, which also operate data centers in North Carolina.

“They are the gold standard in the state right now,” said David Pomerantz, a senior Greenpeace campaigner. “There are a lot of data centers in North Carolina and definitely none has moved as aggressively as Apple has to power with renewable energy,” he said.

The 55,000 solar panels tracking the course of the sun from a 400,000 square meter field across the road from Apple’s data center in Maiden were not in the picture seven years ago when Duke Energy and local government officials sought to entice Apple to open up a data center in North Carolina.

Apple’s solar farm is said to be the largest privately owned array in the US. James West/Climate Desk
Duke Energy, which has a near monopoly over power supply in the Carolinas, set out to lure big companies like Apple, Facebook and Google to the state with offers of cheap and reliable power for the data centers that are the hub of internet.

Data centers, with their densely packed rows of servers and requirements for climatically controlled conditions, are notorious energy hogs. Some use as much power as a small city. In Apple’s case, the North Carolina data center requires as much power as about 14,000 homes—about three times as much as the nearby town of Maiden.

Charging up a smart phone or tablet takes relatively little electricity, but watching an hour of streamed or internet video every week for a year uses up about as much power as running two refrigerators for a year because of the energy powering data centers elsewhere.

That made data centers a perfect fit for Duke, said Tom Williams, the company’s director of external relations. With the decline in textile and furniture factories that had been a mainstay in the state, the company had a glut of electricity.

“What the data centers wanted from Duke was low cost and reliable power. Those two things—cost and reliability—are fundamental to their operations,” he told the Guardian. “What we like about these data centers is that it’s an additional load on our system.”

In the early days, Apple bought renewable energy credits to cover the center’s electricity use. In 2012, the company built its first solar farm across the road from the data center.

Apple built a second solar farm, and announced plans this month for a third, all roughly about the same size, to keep up with the growing use of data. It also operates fuel cells, running on biogas pumped in from a landfill. All of the power generated on-site is fed into the electricity grid.

“On any given day 100 percent of the data center’s needs are being generated by the solar power and the fuel cells,” Jackson said.

The company has been less successful in its efforts to get other companies to switch to solar power. Duke, in cooperation with Apple, launched an initiative last year to encourage other big electricity users to go solar but so far there have been no takers.

Renewable energy accounts for barely 2 percent of the power generated in North Carolina, and Duke does not see the share growing significantly by 2020.

Lisa Jackson with President Obama during her time as EPA administrator. Mike Theiler/DPA/ZUMA
Meanwhile, consumer groups accuse Duke of offering Apple cheap energy at the expense of ordinary residential customers and of blocking rooftop solar.

“We think Duke is actually trying to tamp down the solar industry in this state. They are accommodating big customers like Apple who want to do solar farms, but as far as rooftop solar or other solar developments they are doing things that hurt solar,” said Beth Henry, who sits on the board of NC Warn, a local environmental group.

It’s also questionable whether Apple can ever operate entirely off the grid. On bright sunny days, the solar farms generate excess power. But Apple still needs a backup.

“They are still hooked up to our grid,” Williams said. “They are still a very important part of our system. We provide back-up power. I expect it in times of a storm.”

One morning during last winter’s deep freeze—the so-called polar vortex—was a case in point, Williams said. “With the polar vortex we reached an all-time peak in the winter time,” he said. “There was no solar on our system at all.”

What is clear is that Apple and the other big tech companies are in a race to control and clean up the cloud.

Google uses renewable energy to power about a third of its data centers. Facebook says its new Iowa data center will run entirely off wind power when it comes on-line in 2015.

Microsoft earlier this month announced a second wind farm in Illinois to power its data centers.

That expansion of renewable energy on the cloud is likely to continue, Jackson said.

“There is an opportunity in getting ahead of the trend to move towards being self-sufficient on energy and in using clean energy,” she said.

“It’s something our customers value. They ask about corporate values around things like climate change and we are really proud to be able to say that we acknowledge climate change is a problem and that more than just being a problem we are actually doing something about it.”

Stepping into the Frame in the South of France

Stepping Into the Frame in the South of France



A beach in L’Estaque earlier this month. Credit France Keyser for The New York Times

It was Paul Cézanne who went to L’Estaque first, in 1864. He escaped the gray dreariness of Paris and later avoided army conscription in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 in this sunny shorefront village outside Marseille. From the windows of a rented house next to the little church on the hill, he could look out on the tile rooftops leading down to the harbor, with its fishing boats, and across the wide bay to Marseille, the low, rocky mountains at its back.

He painted intensely. With every brush stroke and every year, the landscape changed, the picture plane began to dissolve — the rooftops, the sea, the barren rocks, the forest-green scrub, all becoming new versions of themselves, transformed by his vision. “It’s like a playing card. Red roofs against a blue sea,” Cézanne wrote of L’Estaque to his friend the painter Camille Pissarro in an 1876 letter. “There are olive trees and pines that always keep their leaves. The sun is so frightful that it seems as if all the objects are reduced to silhouette, not only in black and white, but in blue, in red, in brown, in violet.”

In 1906, Georges Braque went to L’Estaque after seeing Cézanne’s work on view in Paris. He stayed five months. “It was in the South that I felt my rapture rise in me,” wrote Braque, who grew up in Le Havre, on the English Channel. That same fall, Cézanne died. One century was giving way to the next. Braque had reshuffled the playing cards, making the familiar landscape even more unfamiliar. With his brush, the boxy roofs became puzzle pieces, the arches of the local viaduct a study in the contrast between positive and negative space. By 1908, he had flattened the windswept trees to the boundary between the second and third dimensions. Impressionism changed to Fauvism in Braque’s hallucinatory forests, where solitary walkers lose themselves in oneiric expanses of yellow and purple — and then to Cubism.

I wanted to see it for myself, this landscape of L’Estaque that I had known from so many paintings over the years, and that I had rediscovered in the Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou Center since moving to Paris last year. And so, one weekend this spring, I took a train to Marseille to look around. The sun was bright, but I was in a ruminative mood. My own picture plane was starting to shift. I wanted new vistas. I wanted, I think, to step into a painting.


L’Estaque’s harbor. The former sleepy fishing village is now part of Marseille. Credit Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times
But scenes change over time. While van Gogh’s Arles maintains much of its postcard perfection, and Monet’s gardens at Giverny theirs, L’Estaque, in spite of its significance in art history, is perhaps the least touristic and least romanticized of the locales that so inspired the great French painters. Today, L’Estaque is not the sleepy fishing village that Cézanne and Braque found more than a century ago. It is part of the 16th Arrondissement of vivacious Marseille, a working-class area absorbed into the busy larger city, with a pretty harbor, one main street lined with shops and cafes, and a dearth of parking. I was glad to be there anyway. After all, what is travel — or life, for that matter — but a continuing negotiation between expectation and reality?


A friend and I arrived at midday on a lazy Saturday. In the cafes by the harbor, people drank coffee or stirred glasses of cloudy yellow Pernod. There were market stalls with cheap socks, housewares and towels, and a flea market where women in abayas browsed for bargains. We settled into a waterfront restaurant and ate fish and got drowsy on dry rosé, watching boats bobbing in their moorings. Off a nearby dock, young boys, tanned and fearless, somersaulted off the rocks into the water, like so many of their kin around the Mediterranean, over so many centuries.

Rooftops and water in L’Estaque. Credit France Keyser for The New York Times
Up the hillside on the edge of town, the landscape opens up to a wide view of the harbor. You can see a small island, and the hills east of Marseille, bluish in the distance, just as they appear in so many of Cézanne’s landscapes, “Gulf of Marseille Seen From L’Estaque,” which are now scattered in museums around the world. On a lookout point near the Fondation Monticelli, which celebrates Adolphe Monticelli, a lesser-known Marseille painter who died in 1886, a group of young men were drinking beer and having a makeshift barbecue. Their car radios played Arabic-inflected hip-hop. On the beach below, people were sunning themselves on the rocks.

When Cézanne was here, there were no doubt 19th-century locals also picnicking nearby. But the artist willfully left out the quotidian, the bustling harbor, instead shaping the landscape to his own imaginative needs. “I have a lot of good points of view, but that doesn’t exactly add up to a theme,” Cézanne wrote of L’Estaque to his friend Émile Zola in a letter. It was Cézanne’s mother who had first taken a house in L’Estaque in the summer of 1864, when the painter was 25. Later, in 1870, he hid out here to avoid army conscription, and also to hide the existence of his partner, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, from his father, who disapproved. One wonders how the course of art history might have turned out had Cézanne’s mother chosen a house in a different town.


A bridge connects Fort St. Jean and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, or MuCEM, in Marseille. Credit Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times
For artists who found their way here, the village was a place of refuge, but also a place of nostalgia. In 1877, Zola spent time here, escaping the polemics directed against his novel “L’Assommoir,” about a working-class alcoholic. “The country is superb,” he wrote in a letter that year. “You might find it arid and desolate, but I was brought up on these exposed rocks and these bare moors, so I am moved to tears when I see them again. The smell of the pines alone brings back my youth.” While there, Zola wrote a short story, “Naïs Micoulin,” about a hunchback who works in a local factory, which Marcel Pagnol adapted into his 1945 film, “Naïs.”

In 1882, Pierre-Auguste Renoir came to visit Cézanne, and the two painted together. Renoir’s “Rocky Crags at L’Estaque” of that year shows the hillside and vegetation in his characteristically fuzzy style. Cézanne always stayed more angular, more intense. He painted like a man working out a mathematical problem. Each brush stroke, each painting, reveals how he reached his conclusions. Every painter had a different perspective. In 1908, Raoul Dufy arrived to paint with his friend Braque, after seeing Braque’s L’Estaque works displayed in Paris. The Fauvist André Derain painted colorful, happy harbor scenes that make Cézanne’s look melancholy in comparison.

The best way to visit L’Estaque is as an afternoon or twilight jaunt, by boat, from Marseille, that great Mediterranean port city — Naples meets Barcelona — famous for its blinding light, its bouillabaisse, its couscous, its close ties to the Maghreb, and, alas, its often violent organized crime. Ferries to L’Estaque leave every hour from Marseille’s Old Port, a deep harbor that has been in continuous use since the days of the ancient Greeks. The boat pulls out of the harbor and rounds the bend by the MuCEM — the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations — a spectacular new space designed by Rudy Ricciotti, an architect based in nearby Bandol.

Today, some of the best views of L’Estaque are from the roof of the MuCEM. With its dark cement latticework facade meant to evoke a casbah, the MuCEM is also a study in positive and negative space. (Mr. Ricciotti has said that in Marseille, the light is one of the strongest architectural elements.) From the top of an adjacent fortress, the MuCEM’s roof stretches just below the line where the ocean meets the shore. In the foreground, a sparkling new tower by the architect Zaha Hadid swoops up into the air, reflecting the light and straddling the highway running west toward L’Estaque. Along that road, a billboard for Panzani Zakia halal lasagna fills the entire side of a tall building. Huge ferries bound for Tunisia and Algeria sit in the harbor.

Kiosks on L’Estaque’s main street sell local specialties: chichi frégi, fried dough with a hint of crushed black pepper inside and coated in coarse sugar, and panisses, chickpea flour fritters. We bought a snack and a cold bottle of La Cagole, a Marseille beer, and strolled up the quiet back streets. They were empty of people, except for a few other tourists hoping to walk in the footsteps of the great artists, and looking a bit disappointed. There were posters for the coming European parliamentary elections, for the Greens and the right-wing National Front, which would later triumph. We sat in the square by the church, by Cézanne’s house, now marked by a small, unassuming plaque, and watched the sun set, turning the mountains behind Marseille a reddish pink. Some new buildings blocked the view of the harbor. Cranes rose high in the industrial port and the hulks of vast cruise ships lingered in the blue waters.

For years, Cézanne had ignored the parts of L’Estaque that he didn’t want to paint. By 1885, he stopped coming. The landscape was changing too much for his taste, becoming too industrialized, with factories and chimneys cropping up along the shore. Economic development and artistic development subtly intertwined. Braque saw the factories, with their smokestacks spewing sodium and sulfuric acid, as source of inspiration. In 1910, he painted “Rio Tinto Factories at L’Estaque,” a Cubist study in grays and browns that is now in the collection of the Pompidou Center.

Cézanne moved elsewhere, to find new vistas. I remember that one spring, in my early 20s, I took the TGV from Avignon to Nice. Out the window, fields of lavender blurred by. And then, in the distance, there it was: Mont Ste.-Victoire. I already knew it by heart, the mountain Cézanne had painted so many times — a study in form, an exercise of style, a realm of the imagination. Not just a mountain, but the idea of a mountain. It was even more familiar out the windows of the fast train, the perspective ever changing. “Magnificent in the distance, meaningless closer up, mountains are but a surface standing on end,” Joseph Brodsky wrote in “An Admonition,” one of my favorite poems. Like Petrarch in the 14th century, who opened the door to the Renaissance and to new ways of thinking when he climbed Mont Ventoux simply to take in the view, Cézanne, by power of his vision, also changed forever the way we think and see.

At a monumental retrospective of paintings by Georges Braque at the Grand Palais in Paris that I saw last year, I found myself unexpectedly moved by some of the artist’s late paintings, tiny landscapes from the mid-1950s, when he was in his 70s. His career had traced almost every new development in art for half a century, and then, nearing the end of his life, he returned to the beginning, to landscapes with rough brush strokes, more like van Gogh than Picasso. They seemed not just landscapes, but memories of landscapes.

In the end, the L’Estaque of the artists may outshine the L’Estaque of life. But the place still lingers in my mind. I revisit the paintings in the museums. I think back to the weekend — to the sun, to the crusted sugar on the fried dough, to the ferries headed for the Maghreb, to the rocky coastline. The boat glides across the harbor toward the village. Marseille is at our back, the limestone hills approaching in the distance. There is a cool breeze. The ocean opens up before us. It is filled with possibility — and with the memory of possibility.

Rachel Donadio is a culture correspondent for The New York Times, based in Paris.

Developments is Fusion Technology

Plasma physics: The fusion upstarts

Fuelled by venture capital and a lot of hope, alternative fusion technologies are heating up.

M. Mitchell Waldrop

Hubert Kang Photography
General Fusion’s reactor would use massive pistons to crush fuel in a spinning vortex of liquid lead.
To reach one of the world’s most secretive nuclear-fusion companies, visitors must wind their way through a suburban office park at the foot of the Santa Ana Mountains, just east of Irvine, California, until they pull up outside the large but unmarked headquarters of Tri Alpha Energy.


This is as close as any outsider can get without signing a non-disclosure agreement; Tri Alpha protects its trade secrets so tightly that it does not even have a website. But the fragments of information that have filtered out make it clear that the building houses one of the largest fusion experiments now operating in the United States. It is also one of the most unconventional. Instead of using the doughnut-shaped ‘tokamak’ reactor that has dominated fusion-energy research for more than 40 years, Tri Alpha is testing a linear reactor that it claims will be smaller, simpler and cheaper — and will lead to commercial fusion power in little more than a decade, far ahead of the 30 to 50 years often quoted for tokamaks.

That sounds particularly appealing at a time when the world’s leading fusion project, a giant tokamak named ITER, is mired in delays and cost overruns. The facility, being built in Cadarache, France, is expected to be the first fusion reactor capable of generating an excess of energy from a sustained burn of its plasma fuel. But it looks set to cost as much as US$50 billion — about 10 times the original estimate — and will not begin its first fuelled experiments before 2027, 11 years behind schedule.

With ITER consuming the lion’s share of the US fusion-energy budget, fans of alternative approaches have scant government support. But growing impatience with the tokamak technology has spurred the Tri Alpha team and many other physicists in the United States and Canada to pursue different options. Over the past decade and a half, these mavericks have launched at least half a dozen companies to pursue alternative designs for fusion reactors. Some are reporting encouraging results, not to mention attracting sizeable investments. Tri Alpha itself has raised $150 million from the likes of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the Russian government’s venture-capital firm, Rusnano.

But that success is bringing increased scrutiny of their bold promises. Tri Alpha “has got very tough problems to overcome as it starts scaling up to reactor size”, says Jeffrey Freidberg, a nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. For example, the company must prove that it can achieve the billion-kelvin temperatures needed to burn the exotic fuel it wants to use, and must demonstrate a practical way to convert the energy output into electricity. Similar questions could be raised about any of the other upstarts, says Stephen Dean, who heads Fusion Power Associates, an advocacy group in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “I don’t think you can honestly say that any of these things are at the stage where fusion can be demonstrated quickly,” he says.

Will alternative fusion companies be able to sustain their momentum and justify their founders’ optimism? Or will they fizzle like so many fusion dreams before them?

Follow the Sun
In principle, building a fusion reactor is just a matter of imitating the Sun. Take the appropriate isotopes of hydrogen or other light elements, add heat to strip the electrons from the nuclei and form an ionized plasma, then compress that plasma and hold it together for a while, allowing the nuclei to fuse and convert a portion of their mass into energy. But in practice, trying to mimic a star leads to horrendous engineering problems: for example, hot plasma trapped in a magnetic field tends to twist and turn like an enraged snake struggling to escape.

Fusion researchers have long favoured tokamaks as the best way to contain this plasma beast. Developed by Soviet physicists in the 1950s and announced to the West a decade later, the reactors achieved plasma densities, temperatures and confinement times much higher than any machine before them. And as physicists refined the design, they improved the way that tokamaks controlled high-energy plasma.

Illustration: Jasiek Krzysztofiak/Nature
But from the beginning, many physicists have wondered whether tokamaks could ever be scaled up to achieve commercial power output. They are dauntingly complex, for starters. The toroidal chamber has to be wound with multiple sets of electromagnetic coils to shape the magnetic field that confines the plasma. And more coils run through the doughnut hole to drive a powerful electric current through the plasma (see ‘Trapping fusion fire’).


Then there is the fuel, a mixture of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium (D) and tritium (T). D–T is widely regarded as the only sane choice for a power reactor because it ignites at a lower temperature than any other combination — only about 100 million kelvin — and releases much more energy. But 80% of that energy emerges from the reaction in the form of speeding neutrons, which would wreak havoc on the walls of a power reactor, leaving them highly radioactive. To generate electricity, the neutrons’ energy would have to be used to heat water in a conventional steam turbine — a process that is only 30–40% efficient.

Cost, complexity and slow progress have also dogged inertial-confinement fusion, the most prominent alternative to the tokamaks’ magnetic confinement. This approach, in which frozen fuel pellets are imploded by high-powered laser beams, has also received a lot of government funding. But despite decades of effort on inertial confinement, initiatives such as the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, are still struggling to deliver on their fusion-power promises (see Nature 491, 159; 2012).

Radical departure
Such concerns have sparked some enthusiasm for the stellarator: a toroidal device that simplifies certain aspects of the tokamak but requires even more complex magnets. But most mainstream plasma physicists have simply left the practical engineering issues for later, assuming that fixes will emerge after the plasma physics has been worked out. The fusion mavericks are among the minority who argue that a more radical solution is needed: first get the engineering right, by designing a simple, cheap reactor that power companies might actually want to buy, and then try to make the plasmas behave.

One of those upstarts is Norman Rostoker, a physicist at the University of California, Irvine, who co-founded Tri Alpha in 1998 at the age of 72. He and his colleagues proposed ditching D–T fuel in favour of fusing protons with boron-11, a stable isotope that comprises about 80% of natural boron. Igniting this p–11B fuel would require temperatures of about a billion kelvin, almost 100 times as hot as the core of the Sun. And the energy created in each fusion event would be only about half that released by D–T. But the reaction products would be practically free of troublesome neutrons: the fusion would generate just three energetic helium nuclei, also known as α-particles. These are charged, so they could be guided by magnetic fields into an ‘inverse cyclotron’ device that would convert their energy into an ordinary electric current with around 90% efficiency.

Burning a billion-kelvin p–11B plasma in a tokamak was out of the question, not least because unfeasibly large magnetic fields would be needed to confine it. So Rostoker and his colleagues designed a linear reactor that looks like two cannons pointed barrel to barrel. Each cannon would fire rings of plasma called plasmoids that are known to be remarkably stable: the flow of ions in the plasma would generate a magnetic field, which in turn would keep the plasma confined. “It’s the most ideal configuration you could imagine,” says Alan Hoffman, a plasma physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

To start the reactor, each cannon would fire a plasmoid into a central chamber, where the two would merge into a larger, free-floating plasmoid that would survive for as long as it could be fed with additional fuel. The α-particles emerging from the reaction would be guided back through the cannons by another magnetic field, and captured in the energy converter.

“Will fusion companies be able to sustain their momentum — or will they fizzle?”
By the time the team published this concept1 in 1997, it was becoming clear that the US energy department was not going to fund development of the machine, preferring instead to focus on tokamaks, which seemed to be a safer bet. “The big experiments have been funded for decades, so there’s little chance they won’t meet their milestones,” says John Slough, a plasma physicist at the University of Washington. “If they start funding these alternatives, all the uncertainties come back.”

So Rostoker and his colleagues decided to take advantage of the United States’ robust culture of high-tech startups and venture-capital funding. They formed a company, naming it Tri Alpha after the output of the p–11B reaction, and went on to raise enough investment to employ more than 100 people.

Dean suspects that the start-up mindset may explain why Tri Alpha is so secretive. “It’s part of the mystique of being a venture-capital-funded company: develop your ideas before anyone else can see them,” he says. But over the past five years or so, the company has started to let its employees publish results and present at conferences. With its current test machine, a 10-metre device called the C-2, Tri Alpha has shown that the colliding plasmoids merge as expected2, and that the fireball can sustain itself for up to 4 milliseconds — impressively long by plasma-physics standards — as long as fuel beams are being injected3. Last year, Tri Alpha researcher Houyang Guo announced at a plasma conference in Fort Worth, Texas, that the burn duration had increased to 5 milliseconds. The company is now looking for cash to build a larger machine.

“As a science programme, it’s been highly successful,” says Hoffman, who reviewed the work for Allen when the billionaire was deciding whether to invest. “But it’s not p–11B.” So far, he says, Tri Alpha has run its C-2 only with deuterium, and it is a long way from achieving the extreme plasma conditions needed to burn its ultimate fuel.

Nor has Tri Alpha demonstrated direct conversion of α-particles to electricity. “I haven’t seen any schemes that would actually work in practice,” says Martin Greenwald, an MIT physicist and former chair of the energy department’s fusion-energy advisory committee. Indeed, Tri Alpha is planning that its first-generation power reactor would use a more conventional steam-turbine system. Other fusion entrepreneurs will have to tackle similar challenges, but that has not deterred them. Slough is chief scientific officer at Helion Energy in Redmond, Washington, which is developing a linear colliding-beam reactor that would be small enough to be carried on the back of a large truck. The Helion reactor will fire a steady stream of plasmoids from each side into a chamber, where the fuel is crushed by magnetic fields until fusion begins. Within one second, the fusion products are channelled away just as the next pair of plasmoids hurtles in. “The analogy we like to make is to a diesel engine,” says the company’s chief executive, David Kirtley. “On each stroke you inject the fuel, compress it with the piston it until it ignites without needing a spark, and the explosion pushes back on the piston.”

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Helion has demonstrated the concept4 in a D–D reactor with plasmoids that fire once every three minutes, and it is now seeking $15 million in private financing over the next five years to develop a full-scale machine that could use D–T fuel to reach the break-even point, when it generates as much energy as it takes to run. The company hopes that its reactor could eventually reach the hotter conditions needed to fuse deuterium with helium-3, another combination that produces only α-particles and protons, with no neutron by-products.

Kirtley is optimistic about the money. “There is a giant market need for low-cost, safe, clean power,” he says. “So we’re seeing a big push in the private investment community to fund alternative ways to generate it.” And if the fund-raising is successful, says Kirtley, “our plan is to have our pilot power plant come online in six years.”

In a spin
Other alternative concepts stick with D–T fuel, but confine it in different ways. In Burnaby, Canada, researchers at General Fusion have designed a reactor in which a plasmoid of D–T will be injected into a spinning vortex of liquid lead, which will then be crushed inwards by a forest of pistons. If this compression happens within a few microseconds, the plasma will implode to create fusion conditions5. One advantage of this design is that the liquid lead does not degrade when it gets blasted by neutrons, says Michel Laberge, who founded General Fusion in 2002.

General Fusion has demonstrated the idea with a small-scale device, using pistons driven by explosives, and has raised about $50 million from venture capitalists and the Canadian government. If the company can win another $25 million or so, Laberge says, it will build a beefier implosion system that can compress the plasma to the levels needed for fusion — perhaps within the next two years.

Despite such optimism, Dean estimates that it will be at least a decade, maybe a lot longer, before any alternative fusion company produces a working power plant. There is simply too much new technology to be demonstrated, he says. “I think these things are well motivated, and should be supported — but I don’t think we’re on the verge of a breakthrough.”

It is not clear how much of that support will come from the US energy department in the foreseeable future. The department’s fusion-energy programme has provided a modicum of cash for Helion, as well as for some small-scale academic work on alternative reactors. And its long-shot funding agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy, has expressed interest in some of the alterative concepts, to the extent of holding a workshop on them last year. The fusion-energy advisory committee is preparing a ten-year research plan, due by the start of next year, that could conceivably lead to more backing for the upstarts. But funds are tight, and ITER continues to be a huge financial drain.

For now, the big money will probably have to come from the private sector. And despite the many technical hurdles, investors seem willing to take a chance.

“People are starting to think, ‘Hey, maybe there are other ways of doing this!’” says Slough. “Maybe it’s worth a few million to find out.”

Nature 511, 398–400 (24 July 2014) doi:10.1038/511398a

Paintings of Penzance


Authors on Museums: small and intimate, Penlee House is a gallery in tune with its Cornish setting—and the weather. For Jim Crace, it has even become central to his marriage

UK - Cornwall - Author Jim Crace in the room dedicated to paintings by the Newlyn School at the Penlee House Gallery

We cannot help but be concerned for the woman in the long grey dress and her reluctant dogs. The tide is high; there is a beating wind and sheets of rain—and she has promenaded far too close to the railings shielding Penzance against Mount’s Bay. If she does not turn about or, at least, move to the left into the lee of the buildings, before she reaches Battery Rocks and the quay below St Mary’s Church, there’s a chance the sea will sweep her off her feet. That black umbrella she’s holding over her hat and shoulders will hardly save her from the heavy, white loops of water, ten feet high, which, egged on by a lively Cornish gale, have struck and cleared the defensive walls above the shore.

This is “The Rain it Raineth Every Day” (below), Norman Garstin’s best-known oil painting and one of the most satisfying assets of Penlee House, the modest, richly parochial gallery and museum in the middle of Penzance which my wife, Pam Turton, and I have visited, on and off, in and out of season, and usually taking refuge from the weather, for 40 years. Our fondness for the place is as old and as cherished as our first holiday near the town in 1974. The setting is a pretty one: semi-tropical gardens with a fine 11th-century granite cross and an historic cider mill, marking the entrance to a plain Victorian merchant’s house with just six smallish exhibition rooms and an orangery (now serving as a café) to house the collection.Inside, Penlee House is without pretension. It is a space that knows its limitations and its strengths—and makes the most of them. The three ground-floor rooms ring the changes as much as they can with quarterly exhibitions, but they are invariably curated to a local theme in keeping with the gallery’s mission to be at “the artistic heart of West Cornwall’s history”. Nothing east of the Tamar seems to count in here. Devon could be Mars. Even the recent Graham Sutherland show, “From Darkness into Light”, was limited to his work as an official war artist at the Geevor tin mine, a few miles to the north-west. Other recent shows—Edward Bouverie Hoyton’s Cornish etchings, for example, and “In Memoriam”, a display from the stacks of the best gallery bequests—are not exactly narrow in scope but they are determinedly regional. There are two further rooms upstairs with cabinets of Cornish curiosities, assembled with no greater an organising principle than that they are from the neighbourhood. There are cases of Stone Age flint implements (axe-blades, chisels, scrapers, arrowheads), many found alongside burial urns nearby. Even the Bronze Age gold collar or lunula on loan from the British Museum in London has a local provenance; it was found in 1783—under some manure, it is said—in Gwithian, overlooking St Ives Bay. With the pleasing randomness of a bric-à-brac shop, the collar shares its space with railway posters—one promoting “THE CORNISH RIVIERA, land of legend and romance”, 
another “PENZANCE: GATEWAY TO WEST CORNWALL”; a display of locally made Troika pottery, the designs inspired by Paul Klee; and the loggerhead turtle washed up on Sennen beach in 1982. A couple of paces away, visitors can take equivocal pleasure in the battered fin of a 500kg German bomb which, in October 1940, blew off the foot of the bed in which three generations of the Richards family, plus two evacuee children, were sleeping in nearby Lannoweth Road. (Everyone survived.) Yes, to be devoted as I am to 
these rooms, which guilelessly and evenhandedly 
exhibit both the ephemeral and the momentous, you have to be prepared for lucky-dip.

AoM Crace 3

Up to this point, casual holiday-makers might wonder if they need to be Cornish by birth or at least long-term incomers to truly appreciate the doggedly indigenous displays of Penlee House. “Scraping the barrel” is a phrase that might come to mind. But what a barrel! For the very best is yet to come. The third and final room on the upper floor is the jewel in Penlee’s coronet. This is where the Newlyn School of artists, including Walter Langley, Stanhope Forbes, Frank Bramley and Fred Hall, has its dedicated home. It is a small but stunning collection, packed with feeling, colour and brightness, despite the room’s disorienting lack of natural light. Usually there are as few as 15 paintings on display and two hard cherrywood benches from which to view them. These works by a handful of painters, mostly settlers, record the beauty, sorrow and hard labour of local life from the late 19th to the early 20th century. They might be thought a little sentimental on first encounter, possibly because the landscapes and the seascapes that frame them cannot possess the grim brutality of the industrial north or Midlands. There is no furnace smoke, there are no 
abject slums in these fishing ports; for the most part, the people portrayed look clean and tanned and reasonably fed. But it is hard to view the work of Langley, the Birmingham-born “Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony” (the title is engraved on his tombstone in Penzance), without acknowledging the moral seriousness with which the best of these artists 
approached their work. His masterful and seemingly buoyant watercolour of 1886, “Departure of the Fleet for the North”, is narratively incomplete until it is compared with its companion piece, the crushingly austere “Among the Missing”, with its weeping mothers and widows; the fishing life was—and is—perilous and punishing for these Cornishmen, no matter how picturesque the sea might be for visitors.

UK - Cornwall - Detail of an early railway painting at the Penlee House Gallery

It pays, too, to look closely at the paint itself, especially the oils. Many of the Newlyn colony had travelled on the continent and would have rubbed shoulders with colleagues from the older Barbizon group near Paris; others would certainly have encountered the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the French master of naturalism. So it is no surprise that new techniques were imported into Britain partly via Newlyn and Penzance, including the en plein air conventions of the French school which had the artists standing on location, sharing a plane with their subjects, rather than sitting in their studios, and the expressive flat-brush techniques which add an impressionistic feathering to works of otherwise watchful realism.

There is a further reason why this small room is pleasing, and why for me it provides a pleasure that is both intense and personal. Of all the many paintings I have encountered in all the galleries that an amateur’s lifelong interest in art has led me to, there is not one I know better than “School is Out” by the Canadian Elizabeth Armstrong. Nor is there one more central to our marriage. Visiting it and seeing it, time after time, with increasing frequency, and in each other’s company, has been a bonding experience; galleries are kind to those who want to fall and stay in love.

Top Old familiar faces: Jim Crace studies “School is Out” by Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes. The descendants of some of the children still live in West Cornwall

Middle Life imitates art: Norman Garstin’s “The Rain it Raineth Every Day”, described at the start of this piece and re-enacted at the endPAINTINGS OF PENZANCE

This is the painting (detail, right) that my wife studied for the degree dissertation she presented to the Barber Institute in Birmingham (another favourite gallery). I ought to call Armstrong by the name Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes because that is the attribution given to the painting by the gallery. But it was painted just before she married Stanhope in 1889 and when she was still an independent woman, full of the promise and achievement that being married and female in prim Victorian Cornwall would rob in later years. Before Newlyn and Stanhope, Armstrong had been a spirited pupil and colleague of Whistler and Sickert in London and she had worked among the pre-Newlyn schools in Munich, Brittany and Holland. Indeed, her 1884 portrait of a Zandvoort fisher-girl, the smallest and most tender painting in the room, is a work of outstanding beauty and the piece that is most often chosen by the staff and docents at Penlee as the one they’d choose to put in their handbags if they thought they’d get away with it. “School is Out” provides exactly what the title promises, a picture of 14 pupils and two junior-school teachers packing up after a somewhat tearful day of study, but it has the added, weighty charm of portraying, almost brushstroke by brushstroke, the artist’s own love of children. It brought us down to Penzance and Newlyn many times as we tried to identify the building shown in the painting (it was, my wife established, an artist’s free amalgam of a couple of schools in Paul) and to put a name to the predominantly red-haired children in the picture, before finding those several surviving relatives still living in this far-flung toe-end of the country.

UK - Cornwall - Details of the painting School is Out by Elizabeth Adele Forbes at the Penlee House Gallery, Penzance

It’s possible to miss Norman Garstin’s “The Rain it Raineth Every Day”, often hung behind the door as you walk in. It takes its title from Feste’s song in “Twelfth Night” and records a day familiar to anyone who’s ever holidayed in Penzance, a day of unforgiving showers. It’s hard to imagine how this outspoken, one-eyed Irishman could have completed en plein air his preparatory sketches of this rain-soaked woman in the late 1880s, and then captured her in such vivid detail in oil when the weather was so evidently fierce.It’s hard to imagine, too, how my wife and I can have been so reckless, during last year’s Christmas storms, as to step outside Penlee House into the very weather we’d come indoors to escape. It is only a few hundred yards down a road lined with palm trees—its front gardens planted with species too tender, one suspects, to survive a winter anywhere an inch farther north—to Garstin’s promenade. His painting had prepared us for the dangers but, just like that woman in the soaked grey dress, we were blind and deaf to them, despite seeing that all the access roads had been coned off to drivers and pedestrians. The front was almost as deserted as it was in the painting. We were the only fools to have parked our car next to the sea wall. We leant into the wind, scarcely able to hold our footing, and pressed our foreheads against the storm. But we were also promenading far too close to the defensive walls. A great white heavy loop of water cleared the parapets above the shore. It did not quite knock us off our feet but it shook and drenched us. We had come through what Garstin’s woman has yet to arrive at, a beating from the sea. It was as if we’d stumbled out of two dimensions into three.

UK - Cornwall - Author Jim Crace at the Penlee House Gallery

That soaking on the promenade stands for much of what I value most about Penlee. This unassuming refuge from the wind and rain offers more than art, antiquities and archaeology; it encourages a familiarity with the county within its walls and the county beyond them. As we have grown conversant with its hinterland, we have also come to see how almost everything on display suggests a walk or outing somewhere close—when and if the sun comes out, that is. The quays and slipways of the Newlyn paintings are an easy stroll away and almost unchanged; and higher in the lanes of the town the net lofts where the paintings were completed and the slightly grander houses where the artists lived can be hunted, as can their tombstones in the village graveyards.

And then, inspired by the many Neolithic artefacts on display in the curiosity cabinets of Penlee, you can easily go in fruitful search of Stone Age flints yourself, as I have done. Or, seeing the shot and stuffed bittern from the 1840s or the startled-looking chough and vagrant hoopoe in their glass cases, set off in pursuit of the living birds—because the elusive bittern has recently been a winter visitor to the brackish marshes of Marazion, a single lost hoopoe fell exhausted in Church Cove on the Lizard last spring, and choughs are once again inhabiting the Pendeen cliffs. Penlee reaches far beyond its doors.

For all the splendours of the world’s greatest galleries, visitors are likely to be kept at arm’s length, spectators of a world that can seem too rarefied to let them in. There is no reason why the Louvre should be your favourite gallery just because it has the grandest collections in France, any more than Kew should necessarily be a favourite garden because it has the largest assemblage of plants, or Tesco your chosen shop because it has the widest variety of canned beans. Some place small and intimate, like Penlee House, where the associations are personal, private even, is bound to earn a deeper, fonder loyalty.

Next New Thing from Microsoft?

Microsoft’s Cortana Learns Some Home-Automation Tricks

Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant for smartphones, will soon be able to control some home-automation gadgets.

By Rachel Metz on July 16, 2014


As smart home devices become more common, we’ll need simple ways to control them.

Cortana, Microsoft’s vocal virtual assistant, is gaining the ability to control smart-home products like lights and thermostats.

Home-automation company Insteon, based in Irvine, California, is working on a Windows Phone 8.1 app slated for release later this year that aims to make it easier to do things such as turn on the lights or boost the temperature by issuing commands via Cortana like, “Insteon, turn off all the lights” or “Insteon, adjust living room thermostat temperature down.”

Cortana, which was announced in April and is built into Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8.1 (which began rolling out to Windows Phone 8 users on Tuesday), can answer spoken queries like “What’s the traffic like on my way to work?” and respond to commands like “Change my 10 a.m. meeting to 11” or “Remind me to feed the cat when I get home” (see “Say Hello to Microsoft’s Answer to Siri”).

In many respects, it’s very similar to Google Now and Apple’s Siri, but unlike these competitors, Microsoft is allowing third-party developers to create apps that can be controlled using Cortana—a move that could inspire app developers to dream up new uses for the voice interface.

In addition to its iOS and Android apps, Insteon already offers conventional apps that allow users to control the company’s Internet-connected lightbulbs, wall switches, thermostats, and outlets on Windows phones and tablets.

The addition of Cortana voice controls is still in the early stages. During a demonstration at a Microsoft Store in San Francisco on Tuesday with a Windows smartphone and array of Insteon gadgets, it could do only a few simple things like turn an Insteon lightbulb on and off or, in response to the spoken command, “Insteon, it’s hot in here.” The smartphone responded “Nobody likes being hot, want to adjust your thermostat?” while pulling up thermostat information.

Insteon cofounder and CEO Joe Dada said in an interview Tuesday that he has long been interested in bringing voice control to his company’s automation products. Yet while Insteon has tried voice-recognition technologies in the past, it found consumers weren’t interested enough and the technologies didn’t work well enough. “It was just too early,” he said.

Dada says he’s currently using Cortana at home to turn various things on and off.

Despite efforts to improve understanding of voices and language and filtering of background noise, though, usage of voice-recognition technology is still not all that common. Consumers expect voice-recognition software to work nearly all the time, and often get frustrated when it fails—which is still a common problem no matter which company is behind it.

More NSA Stupidity

Germany tells top U.S. spy official to leave the country

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014

(CNN) — Germany’s government has asked America’s top spy chief stationed in the country to leave.
It’s a punitive gesture usually reserved for adversarial nations in times of crisis and only very rarely for an ally, particularly a very close one.
But allegations of American spying have seriously injured German trust, Chancellor Angela Merkel has said. And it’s time for a reset.
Germany let loose the diplomatic slap, reminiscent of a Cold War rebuke, after news of two new possible U.S. espionage cases broke back to back in a week’s time.
Two Germans — one working at a German intelligence agency, the other in the Ministry of Defense — are suspected of spying for the United States.
Will spying now ruin US-German relations? New U.S. spying allegations anger Germany
Local media report that both cases involve stolen official German documents.
The U.S. official shown the door is based in Berlin at the U.S. Embassy, which followed up on Friday’s announcement with a note to journalists:
“The U.S. Embassy has seen the reports that Germany has asked the U.S. Mission Germany’s intelligence chief to leave the country. As a standard practice, we will not comment on intelligence matters.”
A German official confirmed that person was the CIA’s station chief and that the agency’s director, John Brennan, has talked multiple times with his German counterpart.
‘So much stupidity’
Top German government officials have candidly spoken about the decision to expel the U.S. official as they poured their disappointment over alleged U.S. spying into microphones and cameras for days.
Most pointedly, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble casually described the alleged U.S. actions as “daft” before a television talk show audience. “One can only cry over so much stupidity,” he said.
He based his remarks on the essential value of Germany’s cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies to fight international terrorism and complained that spying spoils the relationship.
Legal action
The latest allegations weigh densely on ties already burdened since Edward Snowden leaked indications that the National Security Agency tapped into Merkel’s own cell phone.
They have seemingly undone any of Washington’s diplomatic smoothing over previously alleged NSA intrusions.
One of the new cases has landed on top of an existing investigation on federal prosecutors’ desks into the possible spying on Merkel.
The NSA scandal has also prompted prosecutors to set up a new special committee to investigate and criminally prosecute cyberspying by foreign intelligence.
Merkel deferred to the pending results of those investigations, but it didn’t stop her from expressing on Thursday the disappointment she feels over the suspected acts.
“From a common sense standpoint, in my opinion, spying on allies is, in the end, a waste of energy. We have so many problems, and we should, I find, concentrate on the essentials.”
ISIS, Syria, terrorism — all take priority over spying on each other, she said. And trust between allies is vital.
Privacy is sacred
To understand Germany’s particular hurt over spying allegations, one need only to look at the country’s history in the 20th century, when oppressive fascist and communist regimes spied on citizens in order to persecute them.
During the Cold War, high-level spy scandals stoked division between then divided democratic West Germany and communist East Germany.
The scandals triggered government shakedowns and deep public outrage in the West.
As a result of the Nazi past, democratic, postwar Germany has instituted very strict privacy laws that prohibit government agencies, companies and private individuals from gathering or passing even simple information about citizens without their express consent. Or in criminal cases, without probable cause.
Data protection is so sacred in Germany that advertisers there are prevented from profiling prospective consumers.
Top U.S., German diplomats to meet
Amid the new allegations, the top U.S. and German diplomats are expected to meet in Vienna, Austria, this weekend during multination negotiations about the future of Iran’s nuclear program, a senior U.S. State Department official said.
While the official said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier will touch on topics such as the Middle East and Ukraine, it’d be hard to imagine the two ignoring the spy issue.
Across the Atlantic in Washington, the new allegations have also raised the eyebrows of some elected officials.
“I am concerned that we are sending the wrong message to a key ally,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado.
Otherwise, administration officials have countered their German counterparts’ candor with lips as sealed as those at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to comment on the reported intelligence activity as a matter of policy, to protect American national security and “intelligence assets.”
“I’m not going to have anything more to add on that front,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a journalist who asked if reports of Germany booting the U.S. intelligence official were true.
German journalists who contacted Washington officials for comment on the cases, when news of them first broke, reported receiving e-mail replies containing only two words, which they included in their articles in the original English: NO Comment

A Really Big Bird!

A newly declared species may be the largest flying bird to ever live

An artist’s drawing of the newly named species Pelagornis sandersi shows the discovered bone fragments in white. The strikingly well-preserved specimen consisted of multiple wing and leg bones and a complete skull. (Liz Bradford)
By Rachel Feltman July 7 at 6:58 PM
When South Carolina construction workers came across the giant, winged fossil at the Charleston airport in 1983, they had to use a backhoe to pull the bird, which lived about 25 million years ago, up from the earth.

But if the bird was actually a brand-new species, researchers faced a big question: Could such a large bird, with a wingspan of 20 to 24 feet, actually get off the ground? After all, the larger the bird, the less likely its wings are able to lift it unaided.

The answer came from Dan Ksepka, paleontologist and science curator at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn.

He modeled a probable method of flight for the long-extinct bird, named as a new species this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If Ksepka’s simulations are correct, Pelagornis sandersi would be the largest airborne bird ever discovered.

Pelagornis sandersi relied on the ocean to keep it aloft. Similar in many ways to a modern-day albatross — although with at least twice the wingspan and very different in appearance, Ksepka said — the bird probably needed a lot of help to fly. It had to run downhill into a head wind, catching the air like a hang glider. Once airborne, it relied on air currents rising from the ocean to keep it gliding.

Paleontologist Dan Ksepka examines the fossilized skull of what may be the biggest flying bird ever found. Its telltale beak allowed Ksepka to identify the find as a previously unknown species of pelagornithid, an extinct group of giant seabirds known for bony, toothlike spikes that lined their upper and lower jaws. (Courtesy of Dan Ksepka)
Like the albatross, Pelagornis sandersi spent much of its time over water.

“It was a bit warmer 25 million years ago,” Ksepka said, “and the sea level was higher. So even though the Charleston airport, where the fossil was found, is on dry land today, it used to be an ocean.”


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