Thorium Base Load Power Supplies
War on Carbon Dioxide
We know from our physics that in order to do work, a force is required. Just like my Mom used to say, “Your room will not clean itself so get to work!”. Indeed, I needed to force myself off the bed and force all those clothes onto hangars and then force them into the closet. They just wouldn’t do all that work by themselves. (Although that was my dream) They needed me to apply the force and do the work.
Nature needs forces to do its work too whether it is to power a star or to make a butterfly’s wings move.
There are four forces we currently know about that nature uses to do its work:
Gravitation force is the result of material substance changing the characteristics of space. Since we are so close to the earth … a huge amount of material substance … the space here on the earth’s surface has been altered greatly. You discover that every time you trip and fall. In this altered space, there is an UP and DOWN. A volume of space that is far away from any material substance has little alteration. If we were in that space we would experience weightlessness … like the astronauts or we can if we are in an airplane that flies a specific pathway at a certain speed through the sky. In either case, there is no such thing as tripping and falling ... there is no place to fall too. There is no UP nor DOWN. In fact the idea that we can perceive an UP and DOWN is proof we are in altered space.
Electromagnetism force is a force we all can understand because we use it to communicate over our cell phones. Ever been out of cell coverage? Sure we all have … although those places in cities are getting fewer and fewer. The reason we are out of coverage is that the cell phone’s radio can’t find a cell tower to talk too. Electromagnetic force does the work: in all electronics, in our bodies and in all forms of light whether it is the kind that we can see or not and of course, in heat transmission.
Of the four forces of nature Gravitation and Electromagnetism are the most pervasive and ubiquitous for us.
The nuclear Weak Force operates at very small distances as compared to the other two forces of Nature we have discussed. In fact it works over the minute distances of the nucleus of an atom. Consider this illustration of this force. We all have packed our clothes to go away on a trip. We have packed, and packed, and packed stuff into our luggage so that we have to sit on it in order to close it up. And if we mistakenly open it again, the result is chaos … clothes fly out and we have to pack them in again. Atomic nuclei sometimes do the same thing … they have too much packed into them, so much so, that they have to release stuff in order to become normal. The nuclear Weak Force keeps the atom’s nucleus together but sometimes it is overwhelmed when atoms are over packed either because they where created that way or because nuclear material crowds into them from the outside. In either case, it is only a matter of time before their over packed nuclei go ‘pop’ and release energy. When energy is released the nucleus re-turns to normal or there still may be too much stuff in the nucleus such that many 'pops' have to occur before the nucleus is stable never to pop again. Of course if it is invaded by external stuff the whole process of 'popping' begins again. The Weak Force is used by atom bombs and nuclear power plants. The internal heat that keeps earth's insides molten comes from Thorium and Potassium (among others) Weak Force radiation. So when we build a geothermal generation plant we in a very real sense are using Thorium power.
The nuclear Strong Force is another force that works over very small distances. It prevents the nuclei of atoms from mixing together to produce new kinds of atoms. Just think of what would happen if you settled into drinking your morning coffee and the water molecules changed from H2O into F2O or oxygen diflouride. The hydrogen and hydroxyl ions decided to aggregate together in your coffee and make fluorine. What a surprise as you fall to the floor coughing as your soon to be useless lungs fill with liquid. Indeed what a strange world it would be if the nuclei of atoms did not have a force that protected them (and us) from this kind of change. The nuclear Strong Force may operate over a very small area but it is huge in magnitude. Since the Strong Force is very powerful, it takes lots of energy to force two nuclei together to make a new atom. However, there is always at the end of this process energy left over … just like packing your suitcase. This energy release is HUGE. This is the process that energizes the stars and thermonuclear bombs. The Strong Force also provides us with solar PV, solar heat energy and of course provides the energy source for photosynthesis.
As an aside there may indeed exist a fifth force of nature but physics is not exactly sure how to characterize it. I’m talking about Dark Energy … the force that is within “empty” space itself. We may find that there is no such thing as empty space: that Dark Energy is part of space itself and therefore “empty” space is really full of material substance mediated through the constant speed of light squared.
Anyway, let’s say that Nature uses these four forces to do all its work, subject to revision, for now.
Human civilization requires all kinds of work to be done as well. Chief among this human work is electrical energy generation which provides the backbone for modern civil life. Is it possible to harness the four forces of Nature to do the work of electrical energy production? Let’s look at a short history of the human use of the forces of nature to do work..
In ancient times we used gravity and electromagnetism to power our civilizations limited by the technology we employed. Using the wind for sailing ships is one of those ancient technologies that still are very relevant today.
During medieval times there were about 5,600 water mills operating in England by 1086 AD. By the 1790s Europe had a generating capacity of about 2,250,000 horsepower in watermills alone. Windmills which at the time were ubiquitous averaged about 30 horsepower each. Power generation amounted to an extra 25% of the human population if human power had to do the work (today that number has increased to 59 extra people per population in the First World countries ... and increase from 25% to 5,900%). Wind power is generated by heat radiation creating high and low air pressures (Electromagnetic Force) and water power by water falling (Gravity and also using the Electromagnetic Force to lift the water to a higher elevation through evaporation and precipitation).
In modern post WW2 times the other two forces have been considered as a power source for humanity.
The Strong Force, the force that accounts for fusion that powers the stars has always been 25 years away and still is. No help there.
The Weak Force, the force that accounts for nuclear fission, has been used to create bombs and power plants. The problem we see to this day is that the technology was always geared to making bombs using Uranium. It started out that way and continues that way producing radioactive transuranic materials that will be poisonous for millennia. This is a dead end technology.
So how much new power generation will we need going forward in this century? According to MIT, we currently generate about 14 Terawatts (1 TW = 1,000,000,000,000 Watts) of power. We will need an extra 14 to 30 TW of power to support another 2 to 4 billion people on the planet and about 3 billion people moving from the third world into the more energy intensive second world, plus those moving from the second world into the much higher energy usage first world. So in short we will have to double our current power generation capacity in the best case or even triple it in the worst case by about 2050. You can use other numbers here, they all will be huge as well. The take away is that we have to double or triple our current generation capacity as energy requirements skyrocket because of demographic and economic changes in populations
However, here is where serendipity comes into play when considering the future.
Global Warming and the associated climate change / local weather disruption will become all too obvious in extent such that the common person on the street will realize that something has to be done quickly. Politicians will respond to this and quickly try to do something to mitigate the situation. Their efforts will fail initially because the problems and solutions are decadal or longer in term. Panic will become more apparent among people generally and the demand for something to be done will increase after these initial failures in the face of the unabated rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
Place yourself in that political milieu and try to make the argument that humanity will not try anything ... anything at all to stave off the coming doom. One does not have to argue too hard to make the point that all ultra low carbon sources of energy will be used over a generation to help out in the world wide crises. That means fission energy will be used ... pulled off the shelf and implemented along with all other clean technologies to help in the crises.
Note, that if all we have on the shelf are Uranium based power plant designs, they will be the ones we roll out, along with all the nasty baggage that that obsolete technology entails.
What world wide clean energy fission strategy makes sense for the future when panic sets in?
We see the development of Thorium based fission power generation technology as one of strategic importance in the basket of clean power sources we can bring to bear in the War on CO2.
Here are the criteria that we think, as a minimum, should be part of the engineering parameters for Thorium power reactor development.
If these goals can’t be achieved with a greenfield R&D effort, then we don’t use the Weak Force at all to power our civilization in the 21st C and thereafter. It’s just common sense. But the effort should be made to see if these above goals can be achieved. Having another Force of Nature on “our side” in our War on CO2 would be a huge advantage for humanity. And of course, having a source to power our civilization and burn the current stockpile of transuranic radioactive waste from our Uranium reactors is a huge bonus of this new research.
So are there other arguments to be made for Thorium power plant development?
The North will be opening up for development in a huge way over the next 50 years. It will be the ‘gold rush’ of the 21st C.
In a carbon restricted world, with few other clean sources of power north of 60 Latitude, fission power is almost a necessity to power the economy of these future northern cities. The choice, we see, is quite stark. To solve this energy problem we either pull off-the-shelf the only fully developed fission based power supply we currently have, which is phenomenally dirty, inefficient and a proliferation nightmare OR we are proactive. We start now to develop the technology that relies on a cheap abundant source of power designed to be that off-the-shelf technology we go to when the War on CO2 is not going well for us.
On top of all these reasons ... there is huge nuclear expertise in many countries. We should leverage it to produce a safer fission based power supply for world use because humankind will need it. Our nuclear engineers are getting old. It will take the best part of a generation to ramp the new expertise, do the research and devise / certify the technology.
When future times get very tough for humanity on a world wide basis, Thorium based baseload power supplies will be the technology that's ready to go to help out.
If we do this correctly, from an economic point of view, exporting cleaner, non-proliferable, efficient Thorium based power supplies to the world will be a major item on the balance sheet of any country who has had the foresight to develop, certify and implement this new technology. China is starting now as you can see in the talk below.
So bottom line, in a drastically carbon reduced world, we need ALL the forces that nature supplies us with to solve our energy problems. Nature gives us four forces we can exploit. Why should we confine ourselves to only two? We are in a War with CO2 … a War to the death. I’m not being overly dramatic or over-the-top because our Physics informs us. And Physics being as it is, always bats last and always bats 1000. So if civilization wants to get into a battle with Physics, it is a guaranteed losing proposition with the end result being cataclysmic for humanity.
Kirk Sorensen has taken the time to investigate the history of Thorium power development. He answers the question, "Why didn't molten salt reactors succeed the first time?". It's about 35 minutes long and well worth the time because it provides an excellent context for the Thorium development being done today.
Here's a talk by Jiang Mianheng given as the lead-off speech at the 2012 International Thorium Energy Organization Conference in Shanghai.
Here is a talk by Kirk Sorensen covering the whole spectrum of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs) and the benefits to society going forward into this century. This is a very comprehensive talk on this topic. If you are ramping up on this technology and its concepts, this is a great place to start.
Here is a 20 minute conceptually rich talk which goes over in detail the core design technologies that can be used to generate energy using Thorium in the War on CO2. For a quick 'ramp up' on the topic, it's a great piece.
Here is a mash up of two presentations about the problems mining companies have in the USA when mining rare earth elements. A good supply of these rare earth elements is key to development and manufacture of many of our most advanced new technologies. There is a problem with Thorium as an undesirable by-product of the mining and extraction operations that provide these rare earths. Yes ... Thorium is seen by many as a waste product today. One startling piece of information with this piece is that China is doing research into Thorium Reactors and intends to patent all output from their Research and Development efforts.
Here's a TEDx Talk by Kirk Sorensen who when he was working for NASA designing a nuclear power supply for space colonies, discovered Thorium as an energy source.
We mentioned above on this page the development of 20-50 MW Thorium modular power sources. Here's a talk by Charles Holden who has designed a 40 MW Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) on paper using computer simulation and other software. Note that no reactor is built without first being built virtually first just like aircraft. The virtual build allows engineers to weed out bad design and uncover problems.
Kirk Sorensen has started a new company called Flibe Energy. In this talk he goes into all the other offshoots that LFTR Thorium reactors enable. It's not just about electrical power generation. The by-products of the reactions can be harvested on the fly as the reactor is in operation. Many of these products are very valuable. This talk opens up the whole spectrum of social usefulness for Thorium based LFTR reactors.