Down To Earth(March 01-15)
Blue Hydrogen: Colored hydrogen refers to the source of energy used for electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen, so that the latter can be further used as a fuel.
Fukushima Water Disposal: It refers to the Japanese plan of releasing radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.
1. space for Nuclear
Topics covered from the syllabus:
Nuclear Suppliers Group: It is a multilateral organization which controls the export of technology, equipment and nuclear fuel to other countries.
UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs: It is an office of the UN which is working in the area of peaceful use of outer space.
Context: World is looking to explore the potential of nuclear energy in sectors like Outer Space. At the same time, Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) market is expected to grow to $300 billion by 2040.
Use of Nuclear Energy in Outer Space
- Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs): RTG is another name for nuclear powered batteries. They serve two functions in a space mission viz. powering the on-board instruments and supplying heat to the spacecraft in the cold environment of space.
- RTG powered Missions: RTGs have been used in space exploration missions for almost six decades. The first mission to use an RTG was Transit 4A, which was launched by the US in 1961. In 2013, China launched the RTG-powered Chang’e 3 robot on the moon. Similarly, Perseverance rover to Mars by NASA was launched in 2021.
- Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG): MMRTGs are the eighth generation of nuclear batteries, currently being used in space missions. They provide almost 110 watts of electric power, which is sufficient to power the on-board instruments.
- Other Nuclear power based Technologies: Space agencies and space scientists are conducting research on other technologies to power the space missions:
- Nuclear Thermal Propulsion: Nuclear Thermal Propulsion is a technology which is under development. Under this technology, liquid hydrogen is used as a fuel. It is heated by the process of nuclear fission (using uranium), resulting in the conversion of liquid hydrogen into hydrogen gas. The gas is expanded through the nozzle, providing the necessary thrust to the vehicle.
- Hybrid Fuel Systems: These engines are a combination of convention power as well as nuclear power. Such systems start with existing chemical fuel and switch to nuclear propellants after leaving the Earth’s atmosphere.
- Other Technologies: Another technology which has potential is based on solar sails based propulsion. It has mirror-like bright surface installed on sails, which are pushed by the momentum of photons emitted by the sun. The technology has already been demonstrated in two separate missions: Ikaros, by Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency in 2010, and LightSail 2, a private spacecraft.
- Beam Powered Propulsion: This technology is under study. It uses ground based laser beams to propel the spacecraft forward.
- Usage of Nuclear Power in Outer Space: Space agencies like NASA and ISRO are contemplating the usage of nuclear energy for longer duration missions in space. Recently, there has been a renewed interest in RTGs for the purpose of establishing nuclear reactors to power astronauts’ base camps on moon and nearby planets.
- Protecting National Assets: Countries like US and China are planning to send nuclear-powered spacecrafts into orbit. These spacecrafts will jump into action whenever the national satellites are being targeted and nullify the threat.
- Small Modular Reactors (SMRs): At the same time, many countries are also trying to develop SMRs with a production capacity up to 300 MWs, for the production of commercially-viable electricity. It is expected that the global market for SMRs will be worth $300 billion by the year 2040.
- Safety: The intention behind making small reactors is also to address safety concerns regarding the production of nuclear energy, as large plants are prone to bigger disasters. It is also expected that mass production will make the SMRs cheap and available for common use.
Benefits of Nuclear Energy
- Efficient: Nuclear power has higher energy density as it requires lesser quantity of fuel than other sources of power like coal or natural gas based power plants. Energy density of nuclear fuels is approx. 4 million times than that of Hydrazine, which is mostly used for outer space missions. Therefore, it is especially suitable for space missions which must not have bulky cargo, making it difficult for them to escape the earth’s gravity.
- Independent of Location: At the same time, nuclear energy works efficiently even in the far away regions from sun, unlike the solar energy, for which the efficiency decreases as space missions move farther from the sun.
- Available Round the Clock: One of the benefits of nuclear power is it is not dependent on the location or orientation of the reactor. This is critical as evident from the example of European Space Agency’s Philae lander, which did not work as per expectations as it landed on the sun-shadow side of the comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.
- Longer Life Span: Nuclear energy is also suitable for unmanned missions as it does not need to be physically monitored frequently. Similarly, there is no need to continuously recharge or replenish the batteries of the reactor. For e.g., NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 space missions have been sustaining operations since 1977 and have now reached outer solar system.
- Climate Change: As mentioned above, governments around the world are investing in SMRs for the production of electricity. Once operationalized, SMRs would be useful for production of energy aboard commercial ships, reducing their carbon footprint.
- Blue Hydrogen: At the same time, SMRs will be used for the production of blue hydrogen as a source of clean energy (see inset). Hydrogen burns to produce water as a by-product, thus negating the phenomenon of climate change.
- Fast: SMRs are also useful for the production of energy in nuclear powered submarines and naval ships. They contribute to making a naval force into a blue-water navy, as it lets the navy capable of operating at longer distances from the national shoreline. For outer space missions, nuclear fuel can decrease the duration of missions leading to a decrease in the exposure of astronauts to harmful space radiation.
Limitations of Nuclear Energy
- Safety Concerns: The world has already seen three nuclear disasters viz. Three-mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. There is a global discussion going on how to dispose of the radioactive water left from the Fukushima disaster (see Prelims Focus). Therefore, any further advancement in the field must satisfy the global concerns over the safety of usage of the nuclear power.
- RTGs: Failure of any space mission may lead to leakage of on-board nuclear fuel, contaminating the atmosphere. For e.g., in 1964, the failure and subsequent destruction of Transit-5 satellite led to the ejection of Plutonium fuel into the atmosphere over the southern hemisphere.
- Availability of Nuclear Fuel: Nuclear fuels like Uranium and Plutonium are not globally available. Their availability is controlled by some countries by forming a group known as Nuclear Suppliers Group (see inset). From the perspective of some countries, NSG is a cartel, limiting the advancement in nuclear energy in the third world, while they, themselves, have continued research on the development of technology.
- Safety: As mentioned above, nuclear plants and even, RTGs are prone to disasters. Therefore, there is a need to build safeguard features into such devices. For e.g., after the Transit-5 disaster, the space agencies now seal RTGs inside hard, radiation-proof shells, which prevent accidental spillage of radioactive particles in the case of disasters.
- Lack of International regime: The global regime is silent regarding the use of nuclear energy in outer space. Although the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (see inset) has issued a set of principles, there are no guidelines for the deployment of nuclear energy in outer space. This makes it prone to disasters. There is a need for establishing a specialized regime which can regulate the peaceful use of nuclear energy in outer space, while being acceptable to the members of international community.
- Indigenous Capability: At the same time, there is a need for sustained efforts by the Indian government and scientific community to not only catch up to the global bandwagon in the sector, but also to establish itself as a frontrunner.
- The world is moving towards the sources of clean energy. Nuclear energy is a promising candidate as a fuel of the future. However, there is a need to establish it as a safe fuel by innovating new technologies which can harness the power of nuclear energy while safeguarding the environment even in the case of disasters.
- At the same time, it is imperative that the global scientific community keeps looking at alternate energy sources which are more efficient and safer than conventional energy sources.
- Discuss the evolution of nuclear technology as a source of power for the space missions of future. Also, outline the alternate energy sources which are under development as potential candidates to act as fuels for the upcoming space missions.
- What is India’s plan to have its own space station and how will it benefit our space programme? (GS3: 2019)
- India has achieved remarkable successes in unmanned space missions including the Chandrayaan and Mars Orbiter Mission, but has not ventured into manned space mission, both in terms of technology and logistics? Explain critically. (GS3: 2017)
- Discuss India’s achievements in the field of Space Science and Technology. How the application of this technology has helped India in its socio-economic development? (GS3: 2016)
2. Bullish Turn
Topics covered from the syllabus:
Context: Indian Agriculture sector is looking at the revival of bullock-based agricultural practices. This is being promoted to increase the annual income of the farmers and other associated benefits.
Reasons for decrease in the number of Bullocks
- Increase in Mechanization: As estimated by the Rural Technology Action Group, draught animals used to contribute almost 71% of the farm’s energy requirement in 1961. However, it has now been replaced by machines like tractor. Therefore, the share of draught animals has drastically fallen to 23% in the year 1991.
- Government Policy: To increase productivity, the successive governments in India encouraged the deployment of machines on the farms. Various steps were taken in this direction, like provision of government subsidy for the procurement of farm equipment, as well as encouragement to the agricultural equipment manufacturers, so that they are able to reach even the remotest villages.
- Growing Urbanization and Modernization in Agriculture: With more and more people moving towards urban areas in the search of better opportunities and facilities, lesser hands are available for animal rearing. This has led to a decline in the number of people keeping bullocks for agricultural uses. For e.g., India’s bullock population has decreased from 55.76 million in 1997 to 30.77 million in 2019, as per the livestock census.
Revival of Bullocks
- Prioritization of Millets: The government has declared 2018 as the year of millets. This has led to the farmers looking into increasing the productivity of the fields to increase the production of crops in the existing farmlands. Combined with innovation in equipment like vithinigalla (equipment for line-sowing of crops), there is a renewed interest in the farming community towards the usage of draught animals for sowing and weeding.
- Small Holding Size: As per the reports published in the media, large farmers, though accounting for 75% of the land area, constitute hardly 15% of the country’s farmer population. Rest of the farmers, who own less than 2 ha of land, do not have the necessary resources to pursue mechanization in agriculture.
- Absence of Cooperatives: There is a prevalence of land fragmentation in the country, which has left the landholding size unviable for heavy mechanization. This can be countered by land pooling and formation of cooperatives leading to the consolidation of land holdings and use of heavy machinery. However, in India, the idea of cooperatives has failed to take off.
- Costly Equipment: Land fragmentation and the prevalent poverty due to small holding size and excessive dependence on agriculture do not leave scope for heavy mechanization of agriculture sector in India. Despite its efforts at land consolidation and provision of credit to farmers, the government has been unable to provide contiguous plots of considerable size to support machinery. Therefore, the return on investment has not been enough to make farmers buy costly farming equipment.
- Promotion of Mixed Farming: Due to its substantial population of cattle and draught animals, the government has touted animal husbandry as the answer to doubling the farmers’ income. Farmers can sustain the animals by growing feed on their farmlands, while selling their by-products to earn extra income, making agriculture remunerative.
- Demonstration of Technology: Traditionally, the draught animals have been used for ploughing and transportation. However, new innovations have been made by the agriculture based startups working in this area, which have also made weeding and sowing possible with the use of bullocks. This has made the draught animals more useful for small farmers.
- Harnessing the Untapped Potential: India has one of the largest cattle population, which can be harnessed to carry out myriad tasks in Agriculture, ensuring support to agricultural farmers. For e.g., in 2014, India had almost 12 million bullock carts, which were capable of transporting 6 billion tonnes of freight annually. In comparison, Indian railways’ capacity is hardly 1.03 billion tonnes per annum in 2021.
- Capacity Building: There is a need for training programmes to make farmers learn about the use of new innovations, which can increase the productivity of fields. For e.g. new equipment is available for sowing the crops (vithinigalla) as well as spraying pesticides in the field by using bullocks. However, a very small number of farmers know how to use such equipment. This needs to be corrected by frequent training and demonstration programmes.
- Financial Support: At the same time, it is critical to ensure support to farmers in the initial period in the form of subsidy on equipment as well as insurance for ensuring an assured remuneration for a season, in case the new equipment is unable to sustain the productivity in the fields. This will encourage farmers to try out new equipment on their fields and would lead to enhancement in the productivity of the fields in the long term.
- Research and Development: There is a need for research in cross-breeding and development of new varieties of bullocks, which are more efficient in the agricultural activities. For e.g., recently All India Coordinated Research Project on Increased Utilization of Animal Energy (AICRP), under Indian Council of Agricultural Research, developed a nutritional feed which claims to decrease fatigue in animals and enhance their energy output.
- India is the largest producer of milk in the world by virtue of its cattle population. However, there is a need to ensure that animal husbandry evolves in multiple directions and the usage of draught animals is beneficial to the farmers, in the processes of pre and post-harvest agriculture. This will go a long way in ensuring the dream of doubling farmers’ income and making agriculture remunerative
- What are the reasons for the revival of bullock-based farming in India? Also, discuss what are the steps required for further improving the productivity in agriculture.
- How far is the Integrated Farming System (IFS) helpful in sustaining agricultural production? (GS3: 2019)
- In view of the declining average size of land holdings in India which has made agriculture non-viable for a majority of farmers, should contract farming and land leasing be promoted in agriculture? Critically evaluate the pros and cons. (GS3: 2015)
- Livestock rearing has a big potential for providing non-farm employment and income in rural areas. Discuss suggesting suitable measures to promote this sector in India. (GS3: 2015)