Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Rare earth minerals, safe nuclear reactors and the energy crisis solved?

As I look in the internet today and put on my Nostradamus hat to loosely predict some future or have something to say on my blog today. I have to see global news and what's been happening lately. I have a basic understanding of technological trends. But to remain on a level of comfort like driving cars and living on powered homes that has gadgets and labour saving devices requires a power source. Yes, you can have solar powered homes and generators but what about us poor ordinary folk?

40% of the United kingdoms power comes from natural gas 32% comes from oil, 17 % comes from coal.
Its predicted that oil and gas are to last about 40 years or so, while coal reservers many continue to run until 300 years. Nuclear energy is an alternative to fossil fuels, it doesn't use carbon-dioxide in its energy generating process. It does have a dangerous element of being radio active and if not contained or controlled in the proper way we could have some incident like Chernobyl or 3 mile island. The coolant system didn't contain the nuclear reaction sufficiently which ultimately release radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Its because of these accidents that has limited the numbers of reactors, and even now the current state of British reactors are over 25 years old. todays reactors relay on uranium 235 to split and cause a thermal energy to heat and circulate the water to turn the turbines. Using high pressure water to help cool the core temperature and neutron poisons or neutron moderators to effect nuclear reactions. Though common there other types of reactors using liquid metal or gas, even molten saltMolten salt reactors originally developed for the cold war effort for deep penetration bombers. Alvin M Weinberg headed the pioneering research into molten salt rectors at Oak ridge National laboratory. Successfully designed and built two successful prototypes from 1965 to 1969.

Molten salt reactors has the advantages of

  • Meltdown proof
  • Does not produce weapons grade plutonium
  • Has inherent non-proliferation features
  • Thousands of years of energy
  • Simplified fuel cycle (no fuel elements nor reprocessing required)
  • Its wastes are simpler and less toxic than current nuclear wastes
    • Only hundreds of years of storage versus thousands for the current wastes
    • Can completely destroy military plutonium
    • Can burn the existing wastes (spent fuel)!
  • Higher thermal efficiencies (operates at a "Red Heat"; ~700° C [1,260° F])

Alvin Weinberg was fired by the Nixon Administration from the ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory)
despite being research director. This was because he continued to advocate the increased safety of Molten salt reactors over liquid metal fast breeder reactors. A breeder reactor is cable of generating more fissile material than it consumes, because of its neutron economy is high enough to breed fissile from fertile material like uranium 238 or thorium 232(weapons grade uranium).

Its seems that over the years China has be exporting rare earths out into the world. Rare earths may contain some amounts of thorium. they are divided in to 2 sub groups. Heavy rare elements and light rare elements. The heavy rare element are ore sort after and more valuable, while light elements are more abundant but its often used in the electronics industries.(95% of chinas rare earth comes from the Mongolia)

It is likely that China will be curbing exports to redress the environmental damage done by decades of mining. A concerted effort to build an entire industrial chain means that China already export to 90% of the world supplies of rare earths is now consuming 65% of output compared to 25% a decade ago.

80% of the magnets produced in the world come from China and that is growing tremendously every year. They have half of the global rare earth reserves of 55 million tonnes, compared to Russia's 19 million and America's 13 million. China has been research into Thorium reactors and announced last year at the Chinese Academy of Sciences,China's ultimate target to develop a pilot scale thorium based molten salt nuclear reactor in 20 years. 
With the research under away and possible stock piling of Rare earths, with the opportunity to monopolize the market for electronics, batteries and lighting. I see a significant role that China has to play. America had within its grasp the opportunity and research of thorium reactors for relatively safe abundant energy.
Dr Alvin Weinberg could of easily have solve the energy crisis with his designs for a safe thorium reactor over 50 years ago. Instead fired him and the US government went on to use Breeder reactors for increase production of weapons grade material round the time of the cold war. It saddens me how opportunities are lost, and mistakes could have large consequences.
The US seem to be a shadow of its former self, though its own political short sightedness. China's forward thinking in the development for future fuel sources will establish a firm footing on the worlds economy.

For me social trends and fads seem insignificant compared with the global chess pieces that are moving in the background. In the few decades that are yet to come, we will find fossil fuels are depleted and a new age of alternative measures to cope with the lack of energy. Who knows where we will be?, I had hope nuclear fusion would be coming along nicely but results are painfully slow. And while I like solar energy and large fans on the horizon, it wouldn't be too powerful. I genuinely think the future of molten salt reactors could be a realistic possibility. Its now up to the scientists to develop this technology, the chinese have the fore sight but does any one else?.

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