nuclear fission

Waiting for a green light at Alchemy, St Pauls

8 Ludgate Broadway, St Pauls

Alchemy Coffee

Alchemy, “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation or combination”, is certainly a cafe that lives up to the dictionary definition of its name. The branch, on Ludgate Broadway near St Pauls, is the outlet that ‘showcases’ the coffee of Alchemy Roasters. On walking into this cafe, I was presented with a menu of two types of beans for espresso based drinks or two different beans for filter/aeropress. Both sets of coffees came with tasting notes. After a brief chat with the friendly barista I went for the San Sebastian with aeropress. Notes about the origins of the coffee are dotted around this superbly sited cafe (its location is ideal for people watching). The coffee is directly traded (where possible) and, if lattes or cappuccinos are your thing, there are also details about the farm that produces the milk.

Although there were cakes on the counter, I had just had lunch and so had to pass on what looked to be a good selection of edibles. The coffee though was certainly very good and definitely an experience to be savoured. As, perhaps I should have expected, when the coffee arrived it came in a beaker reminiscent of chemistry laboratories. From my chair in the corner, I could watch the preparation of the coffee behind the counter, the people coming into the shop to order their coffee and the crowds passing by outside.

E=mc2 Einstein relativity in a cafe

Scales at Alchemy. Weights on one side, chocolate on the other, it can only mean one thing: energy-mass equivalence

Close to where I was sitting was an old style set of measuring scales. This see-saw balance had weights on one side and chocolate on the other. Perhaps this connection seems tenuous, but for me weights on one side of the scales and an energy bar (chocolate) on the other side could only mean one thing:


The equation relating energy and mass for a particle at rest derived, and made famous by Einstein. The equation comes from Einstein’s theory of special relativity which states that nothing can be accelerated to faster than the speed of light (in a vacuum). First set down in 1905, the theory has some very odd predictions, among which the best known is probably the twin paradox (details here). The idea is that a moving clock will be observed to run slowly by a stationary observer, a prediction that has been confirmed several times by experiments using atomic clocks (here).

San Sebastian via Aeropress

Coffee is served at Alchemy

Moreover, the equation states that mass and energy are equivalent and that a small amount of mass can produce an awful lot of energy, (details here). A detail which will bring this story of a cafe-physics review nicely back to the Alchemy cafe, to London and to the importance of slowing down. The connection is through a set of traffic lights in Bloomsbury. Back in 1933, Leo Szilard was waiting to cross the road at the traffic lights at the intersection of Russell Square with Southampton Row. Szilard had recently escaped from Nazi Germany and was spending his time as a refugee in London pondering different aspects of physics†. That September day, Szilard was thinking about a newspaper article featuring Ernest Rutherford that he had read earlier. In 1901  Ernest Rutherford, together with Frederick Soddy, had discovered that radioactive thorium decayed into radium. The changing of one element into another could be considered a type of modern day alchemy. However Rutherford did not believe that there could ever be a way of harnessing this nuclear energy. In the article read by Szilard in The Times, Rutherford had dismissed any such ideas as “moonshine”. Szilard was forced to pause his walk as he waited for the traffic lights to change. Those few moments of pause must have helped clear Szilard’s mind because as the light went green and Szilard was able to cross the road, a thought hit him: If every neutron hitting an element released two neutrons (as one element was transmuted into another), a chain reaction could be started. As part of the mass of the decaying atom was released as energy, it would mean that, feasibly, we could harness vast amounts of energy; E=mc².

This idea, a consequence of spending five minutes waiting for a traffic light rather than checking Twitter (not yet invented in 1933), proved to underpin both the nuclear fission which we use in electricity generation and the nuclear fission that we’ve used to develop weaponry. It makes me wonder what alchemy we could conjure in our minds if we stopped to enjoy the transformations of the coffee beans at Alchemy.


Alchemy (cafe) is at 8 Ludgate Broadway, EC4V 6DU

† A book that some may find entertaining is:

“Hitler’s Scientists”, John Cornwell, Penguin Group publishers, 2003. The book contains this anecdote about Szilard: As Szilard was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, he fled Germany to Britain via Austria on a train a few days after the Reichstag fire of 1933. On the day he left, the train was empty. One day later, the same train was overcrowded and the people leaving Germany were stopped at the border and interrogated.  An event that prompted him, a few years later, to reflect “This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier than most people.” Something to reflect on in today’s refugee crisis perhaps.

On nuclear fusion and making tea

tea bag, tea cup, diffusion, turbulence

How not to prepare tea

Although largely a coffee drinker, occasionally I will order tea in a café. When I do so, one of my pet hates is being served a cup of hot water with an individually wrapped tea bag sitting on the saucer beside it. Quite apart from the unnecessary environmental cost of individually wrapping tea bags, there is the problem with the resultant cup of tea. Hot water poured onto tea (preferably in a pot) allows the tea to infuse by a mixture of turbulence, convection and diffusion as the hot water swirls around carrying the tea with it. A tea bag placed into hot water on the other hand relies on infusion by convection and diffusion only and so takes a lot longer to brew. Oddly enough, there is at this moment, a major scientific project being built in the south-west of France that has the opposite problem. The aim of the project is to generate electricity by nuclear fusion in extremely hot clouds of gas that are confined into the shape of a doughnut. To achieve this, they must reduce the turbulence within their doughnuts. Unlike the tea, nuclear fusion seems to require diffusion and convection to prevail over turbulence.

Supplying the growing energy demands of the planet is a major problem for us all. How can we simultaneously generate the electricity that we want while limiting our carbon dioxide emissions to levels that will cause minimal damage to our planet? Renewable energy is part of the solution, some have argued that nuclear fission could be another part of the solution (all of our current “nuclear” power plants run by nuclear fission). The “ITER” project in the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur region of France aims to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion to supply our energy needs instead.

Sun, heat, nuclear fusion

The Sun is powered by nuclear fusion. Could we generate electricity on Earth with a fusion generator? Image © NSO/AURA/NSF

Unlike nuclear fission which works by exploiting the decay of radioactive elements, nuclear fusion ‘fuses’ elements together to produce energy. Gazing up at the sky you can see thousands of nuclear fusion generators: Each star (including our Sun) produces light and heat, by nuclear fusion. First the stars fuse hydrogen into helium (as our Sun does now), then, as the star ages, the heavier elements combine until finally iron is formed in the core of the dying star. All the elements found on our planet and elsewhere in space have, ultimately been formed in the core of a star (or in reactions as the star dies in a final explosion). Every atom in us has been formed by such reactions in stars and so it is very true to say “from dust you came and to dust you will return”, the dust in question being star dust. If we can exploit it on Earth, nuclear fusion offers a method of providing energy with no long term radioactive by-products and limited carbon dioxide emissions. It is a possible, but very long term, route out of our quandary about energy generation.

doughnut tokamak

A photo to demonstrate “doughnut shaped” was probably unnecessary, but it did provide a good excuse for an unhealthy breakfast.

So why can’t we start using it immediately? A clue comes from the fact that the nuclear fusion reactors that we know of (stars) are very hot and relatively dense. It is not easy to smash two hydrogen atoms together such that they fuse, it requires them to have a lot of energy (ie. be very hot) and be quite close together. To build a nuclear fusion reactor requires us to heat a gas until it becomes a ‘plasma’ which means heating the gas to temperatures of around 150 million ºC. At this temperature we need to confine the plasma with very high magnetic fields so that it does not hit the walls of its container and it turns out that the best way to do this is to manipulate the plasma into a ring doughnut shape. This doughnut confinement, known as a ‘Tokamak’ has become the standard way of confining the plasma. At the moment, we cannot keep the plasmas hot enough for long enough (the current record is 6min30 sec confinement) for fusion to generate more energy than is required to form the plasma in the first place. One of the things limiting the lifetime of the plasma is the fact that the plasma cools down and one of the things that cools the plasma down is the turbulence in the plasma carrying the heat energy from the centre to the edge of the doughnut. Increasing the time it takes for the heat to escape from the centre of the doughnut to the outer edge is one of the challenges facing the ITER team. Just as with the pot of tea, were the cooling by diffusion and convection only, the plasma would take a lot longer to cool down. Understanding the turbulence inside the plasma is one of the challenges facing the team at ITER.

Our method of making tea can tell us a lot, not just about the problems for nuclear fusion generators, but also about diffusion and turbulence generally. It is worth pondering that brew a little more deeply next time you make your pot.