Monday, April 27, 2009

Toward a Thorium Economy: the Future of Nuclear Energy Part II: the technology. A discussion with D. Walters.

Toward a Thorium Economy: the Future of Nuclear Energy
Part II: the technology. A discussion with D. Walters.

"So, David, can you explain more on the "Thorium Economy" and what you mean by that now that we pave the basics of the technology down?"

Sure. Just remember what was part of Part I was only the basics, it can be a far more complex system and one should read more. Going to will help increase your knowledge of the subject so will you do that?

"Sure, thanks."

Not a problem. So, let's continue.

Given that the LFTR can provide energy based on the abundance and easy processing of it's fuel, Thorium (Th), we need to talk some more about the technology.

"...but you said..."

I know, but there is a bit more. Because of the design of the LFTR, it can produce the same amount of power as a Light Water Reactor for a much, smaller footprint. Probably 1/3 or even smaller on a megawatt to megawatt basis. This is important because it will lead us to discuss how we can deploy the LFTR and for what kind of usages.

"Usages? You mean to make electricity."

Yes, but there is more. The LFTR can produce a tremendous amount of heat, and this heat can be used directly in a variety of energy intensive industries, like oil refining and chemical production, desalination of sea water, synthetic fuels and a variety of other purposes. And, of course generate electricity. And, do it very cheaply.

So we have smaller sizes of LFTRs and, it's process heat, we can deploy these reactors in thousands of industries around the world.

"Wait. Go back. What's this 'synthetic fuel' you mentioned?"

Syn-fuel can be made by combining hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms in the proper chemical compound. With enough process heat from nuclear power plants, specially our thorium powered LFTR, we can "thermo-chemically" crack hydrogen from water. The H2 can then be used directly as a fuel, or, be combined with carbon drawn from atmospheric CO2 to create either methanol, a gasoline substitute, or di methyl ether, a diesel substitute. Most estimates see approx $2/gal to make this. Not to shabby.

In effect, we can replace all liquid fuels, which is about 50% of the worlds energy form, for cars, trucks, trains, planes and even motorcycles, with synthetic fuel made in part from water and atmospheric CO2. A totally carbon neutral, zero particulate, fuel regime for the world.

Additionally the LFTR can be mass produced in factories, that is the smaller, 50 MW or there abouts, size, or as big as the biggest any turbine-generator around, the 1800 MW Alstrom. The scalability is, basically 'total'...from 30 MW (or smaller) totally sealed "LFTR batteries" that are fueled once and run for, say, 30 years, to the bigger plants.

Because of the ability to use what is called a "Brayton cycle" turbine (like the design of a jet engine), much less cooling water is needed. In fact, the waste heat from the bottom of this cycle can actually be put to use directly in flash-distillers to crack fresh water from sea-water. Not to shabby, huh? The LFTR can actually solve, almost completely, the major world wide issue fresh water shortages (for drinking and irrigation).

"OK, I'm impressed".

Is that why you are down on one knee?

"No, I have to scratch my ankle"

OK. So, do you want to hear more?


The Thorium Economy concept is a paradigm of the physical economy of the planet that can say, with optimism if not certainty, that the planet can be fueled totally by one form of energy derived from the use of the element Th in the form of molten salt reactors, called the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor or LFTR for short.

"Yeah but what about "diversity", "conservation/efficiency" "sustainability" and "decentralization? What about that, huh?"

What's with the attitude? Look, lets define what the issues are vis-a-vis energy before we get into catch-phrases and haikus, OK?

"Alright, sorry".

Don't worry about. The issues are these, but they are not ranked in order of importance, they are all important:

1. Carbon particulate. This is what kills people everyday as the result of the burning of coal and, diesel fuel. It's the cause of mercury and other heavy metal poisoning world wide, on land and in the oceans. See those warning signs about mercury at fish stores? Coal. It kills, in the U.S., 30,000 people a year and at least 10 times that number are made ill.

2. CO2. If you don't know this as an issue, please turn your computer off and go away, I don't want educate you on this. Thank you for reading this far.

3. Energy abundance. Every advance in human culture has come about as the result of the development of the productive forces, that is, increasing skills in labor, the number of workers, the efficiency of applied technology in industry, the ability of industry to produce commodities and higher technologies that make our lives better and less drudgery, in a healthier and safer lifestyle. This has been, historically, dependent upon the increase in energy efficiency through the use of denser and denser, more efficient generation of energy. The more abundant the energy, the more more advanced civilization can become.

The world is awash in poverty and underdevelopment. It is most easily measured in two ways:

A. Calorie intake and
B. Kilowatt hour usage over a year.

The average KW usage in the developed world is around 2,000 - 6,000 a year. Yes, it's used inefficiently and we can talk about that, but over all, this is about 10 times the amount used in the underdeveloped world. What does this mean practically?

"No flat screen TVs in Gabon or margarita mixers in Nepal?"

Don't be an idiot.


It means that simple things like a light-switch, which gives students the ability to read after the sun goes down, or the use of a refrigerator, to prolong foodstuffs longevity and store medicines, are simply absent, with the resultant lowering of life spans and increases in diseases. That's what it means. The more electrical energy there is, the healthier we can become, the more prosperous our a society, the higher the cultural level our people can achieve.

Oh, and the internet, home and school computers, vaccine production, operations, recordable music, etc etc. We don't think about that often in the U.S. or other better developed countries but electricity provides the material basis for advanced civilization. Without, our life expectancy drops, education drops, health care drops or disappears.

This is whey the catch phases you use above are completely secondary to the the points A. and B. I noted after that. We should be for conservation and efficiency simply because it's a cheap thing to do. Why waste resources? But it should be done in the frame work of a massive, truly massive expansion of the productive forces as I described above based on the ability to produce super-abundant sources of energy. Everything else should be subordinate to that and that alone.

"...diversity and decentralization?"

Oh, yeah. OK. So, there is nothing intrinsically 'good' about diversity. Many, especially those on the political left, tend to see diversity of energy as some sort of liberal paradigm extended from our multi-cultural society. It's a false analogy by them to do this. Brazil, to site a VERY culturally diverse society, derives almost ALL it's electrical energy from hydro-electric power. What is wrong with this? Absolutely nothing. It's essentially carbon/particulate free and it's totally renewable. Remember the two issues that are really under discussion. This was my point "1." Diversity of energy sources is a paradigm brought on by those who reject the vision of energy abundance and believe that either we have no choice and we have to ration energy (those that believe in energy scarcity) or those that advocate intermittent and unreliable sources of energy in the renewable crowd, like wind and solar. The renewable energy paradigm is basically based on energy scarcity, not abundance, thus a major difference.

Decentralization is basically the same as diversity. There is no intrinsic value in 'decentralization' as it's often not defined and can mean anything to any one. Does it mean people "living of the grid and cutting wood for warmth"? Does it mean every community having it's own wind farm some place praying for the wind to keep blowing? Does it mean having wind and solar farms spread about the land tied together by so-called "smart grid" technology and high voltage DC lines?

Nuclear energy, especially LFTR nuclear energy, can be anything anyone wants as it can be located almost anywhere and give reliable power 24/7 365 days a year.

"How do we get there, then, from here...?"

Good question. That will be part III


Marcel F. Williams said...

Good post. And I'm glad to see new post on Left Atomics again.

Why wait for the LFTR when CANDUs can utilize thorium right now? The new ACR-1000 reactor is supposed to be ready for sale as a commercial reactor by 2016.

The urgency for uranium or thorium breeding technologies only becomes necessary if global commercial nuclear capacity increases by 5 to 10 times current levels.

But even under stressed terrestrial uranium supplies, there's enough marine uranium to supply total energy for the entire planet for more than 3000 years using current nuclear technology.

David Walters said...

I agree 100% Marcel. But this was to focus on Th only. Between now and the LFTR, the CANDU/DUPIC can and must play a role.

Rod Adams said...

I am not sure if you read Marcel's comment thoroughly. He stated that the ACR-1000 can use THORIUM now. It is has great fuel flexibility and is not limited to using natural uranium or a DUPIC cycle.

That is one of the reasons that Indian nuclear engineers have always paid a lot of attention to heavy water reactors.

David Walters said...

Ah, yes. I support this and we should do this in any event, LFTR or no LFTR. The transition to even solid form thorium fuel would be a boom to the market for nuclear.

Indian's are not the only ones interested in heavy water reactors using Th. The Koreans, to my knowledge, are the only ones working on a full scale DUPIC model. Know of any others?

Alex De Maida said...

[ we have smaller sizes of LFTRs and, it's process heat, we can deploy these reactors in thousands of industries around the world.

"Wait. Go back. What's this 'synthetic fuel' you mentioned?"

Syn-fuel can be made by combining hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms in the proper chemical compound....
In effect, we can replace all liquid fuels, which is about 50% of the worlds energy form ]

I think the right number is more in the range of 40% or less...
However, have you, David, ever deepened the numbers of the process? Do you have a rough estimate of the heat/electricity required to produce an unit of volume (liter or gallon) of methanol, and the operating conditions needed (pressures and temperatures), for example?

I suspect that having an high temperature reactor allow a great degree of flexibility in using low temperature heat (with almost no loss in electricity production) for many industrial and civil purposes, for example, district heating, seawater desalination and indeed liquid fuels production (besides, of course, using directly and very efficiently the electricity to power electric heat pumps and plugins vehicles or electrified trains)

Marcel F. Williams said...

Using the 'green freedom' concept, an existing generation 3 nuclear reactor (1.1 GWe) could produce 18,000-bbl/day of gasoline or 5000 tonnes a day of methanol.

Alex De Maida said...

From the "green fredom" paper, it's far clear (at least to me) which are the energy inputs of the process, they claim the net electrical consumption is about 55 kJ per mole of CO2, including the hydrogen produced as byproduct, plus about 100 kJ/mole of low level heat (at which temps?). But I don' t understand which is the energy input (electricity or/and heat) of the global process and if for a certain extent it's possible to use low temperature heat, rather than electricity, given the high availability of "free" low grade heat from LFTRs (if used in cogeneration with production of heat + electricity)

Barry Brook said...

Marcel writes:

"The urgency for uranium or thorium breeding technologies only becomes necessary if global commercial nuclear capacity increases by 5 to 10 times current levels. "

As it must do, in just the next few decades, if we are to rapidly decarbonise our energy supply and avoid even more serious global warming.

The imperative to reduce emissions is NOW, so the LFTR and IFR technologies must be pursued NOW. I totally agree that we should also be deploying HWR technologies that can use Th, like the ACR-1000. But we cannot afford to sit on our laurels and delay RD&D of the LFTR and IFR for another decade or two because we imagine demand for new nuclear on a large scale will take that long to materialise.