Thorium Plug

February 27, 2013

As I emerged from my slumbers this morning, I absorbed the latest radio chatter about British Gas – investing wisely, or fleecing the consumer ? All a bit sensitive because of the Government “dash for gas”, what with those EDF Frenchies sueing protesters and so on. (See this Monbiot article). Contrast yesterday morning, when Sue Ion was featured on the rather wonderful Life Scientific. I came across her on PPARC Council when I did my tour of duty – she was a sane and useful voice. (Wommers – get her back !)   She is a stalwart of BNFL, and made a strong case for a mixed energy strategy, with off-shore wind accompanying nuclear. Many greenies are reluctantly backing nuclear – despite its problems,  a window is closing, and we may have no choice.

Meanwhile I am finally reading a book I got for Christmas – Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku. Mostly this is about nanobots and tricorders and ubiqitous computing in our socks and so on, but there is also a chapter about energy, which is distinctly less upbeat than the rest of the book, and indeed may make the rest of the book pointless as civilisation collapses. Kaku is a fan of the hydrogen economy, and that may cure us of our oil addiction,  but of course you need an energy source behind it. Kaku assumes that it pretty much has to be nuclear, but starkly spells out the problems – dealing with waste, and nuclear weapons proliferation.

So what puzzles me is – why does nobody ever mention Thorium? Since the 1940s we have known two things. (1) Molten salt reactors have many advantages over fuel rods – no meltdown problem, no high pressures, basically far safer. (2) Using the Thorium fuel cycle has to be the best way to go. You bombard  Th-232 with neutrons and get U-233, which is the fissile material. Thorium is much more abundant than uranium, there is much less waste, the lifetime is much shorter, and there is no weapons grade material for terrorists to steal.

So now we get to the depressing part. That last advantage is why governments are not interested – there is no weapons grade by-product. It seems to be why the US government abandoned this technology in the 1970s. We are ignoring the technology that will save civilisation because we want bombs. Hey, wouldn’t it be easy to solve the Iran dilemma ? “We only want nuclear technology for peaceful purposes”. “Okey dokey – here, have this LFTR design. Its dead easy, You don’t need any of those tricky centrifuges! Our guys can come over and help you build it.”

Here is a wikipedia page about the Thorium fuel cycle, and here are two useful web sites about sane nuclear energy : here, and here

Interestingly, the two governments that are investing in this technology are China and India. I feel the future-train whistling past our ears.

Shank’s Pony versus Decadal Supertanker

March 30, 2009

It looks like Tom Shanks is gearing up for the rumoured review of UK ground-based facilities. This is is what some of his cryptic allegories refer to. Meanwhile the US Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics in full swing. The community involvement is intense. Considerable numbers of people are involved in the various panels and sub-panels of course, but there are also multiple open submission requests – for white papers on science, on the state of the profession, on theory and computation, and for information on “activities” i.e. telescopes, missions, laboratories etc. As with the European Astronet Roadmap process, the idea was to debate the science first, and concrete facilities later.  The science white paper deadline already passed, and resulted in 334 submissions. These make fascinating reading, or at least the tiny fraction I have dipped into do so. The “State of the Profession” call was also intriguing, producing 69 submissions. Some of these are pleading for special areas of expenditure, like the ballooning program, or “Strategic Theory” but others cover a strange variety of topics, including the loss of physical contact with telescopes, open source software in astronomy (see Sarah’s post), and the energy consumption of astronomers. This last one, led by Brit ex-pat Phil Marshall, also has an associated wiki site, where you can sign up to be a supporter. The general conclusion is that we travel too much so we should have more virtual meetings. I am thinking of re-creating Aspen in Second Life and charging you all for coming to my Institute. What d’you think ? Bicycles free of course.

There are two calls open now – one for white papers on Technology Development, Computation, Theory, and Laboratory Astrophysics, and another for information on “activities”. The latter is a two stage process. At first anybody can submit anything; but then the panel will request more detail on some activities… This is where the blood will start to flow, as the tension rises on the big ticket items – TMT, SKA, LSST etc. So at the end of the day the process will be intensely political, but people have really tried to focus on the science questions first; and absolutely nobody has an excuse to say they weren’t asked, or its all a stitch up etc.

Its a very expensive process; directly in terms of panel members time and associated administration, and even more in terms of how many community brain-hours are used up, that could have been spent writing papers for the Astrophysical Journal.  Could the right answers be concluded much more efficiently with a few wise heads in a room ? This is the problem that STFC will face again….

The Oil Age : nearly over

November 11, 2007

Our world is an illusion. Ah, thinks reader, ageing hippy post about maya and zen and all that on the way. Nope. I am talking about oil. Civilisation is about to crack, but nobody seems willing to stop the party until the police are actually hammering on the door. We are not talking centuries or decades, we are talking years.

A few brave souls have been trying to tell us this for a while (check out the Oil Drum; Peak Oil News; and Guardian articles here and here) but its finally seeping into the mainstream media. Partly this is because the price of oil is at a record high – not just the highest ever in cash terms, but the highest ever in real terms – higher than the early 1980s panic after the Iranian revolution. Now at $96 per barrel, it is about to burst the magic $100 dividing line, which of course is the kind of thing the media like. At the same time, in the UK, we are hiiting another psychological line – £1/litre at the petrol pumps.

The market is a complex thing – a high price does not prove scarcity. The real point is supply drying up. Now the level of oil reserves is a notoriously contentious subject, but a recent report by the Energy Watch Group (EWG) takes a different approach, looking at the rate of discovery. Oil fields follow a characteristic curve, with the rate of supply being a time-delayed copy of the rate of discovery. You can see this effect in US oil, which peaked in the 1970s. Applying this analysis to the world’s supply, the Energy Watch Group show that the peak of supply is basically NOW.

The report is very clear. Two key figures are reproduced below. The first figure shows that the rate of discovery peaked in the 1960s, and that the rate of production is now much larger. We are using more than we are finding. The second figure shows the EWG forecast for future supply, and the grossly contrasting “World Energy Outlook (WEO)” forecast of the International Energy Agency.

Oil Production versus discovery (EWG report)

Oil supply forecast (EWG report)

Well, somebody is being dumb. I think I know where my guess is. The WEO forecast of growing production nicely matches the growth of world demand of course. Dr Pangloss lives on.

The traditional question people ask is “when does it run out” ? Reserves are generally reckoned at around 1200Gb (Giga-barrels); current consumption is around 30Gb/yr, so thats 40 years left… On the optimistic side, some industry analysts claim we will hit something big and there is maybe more than 3000Gb .. so thats a century of oil. On the pessimistic side, EWG reckon the truth may be more like 850Gb, and by 2020 demand will be 45Gb/yr, so we have more like 20 years. We can get/make more oil, from tar sands, shales, and biofuels, but if we do that our energy consumption and climate change problems get even worse.

The correct question is “how long before supply fails demand ?” The answer to that looks like during the next few years. This seems hard to escape even if some vast new discovery is made. The world will start fighting over the resource.

Which country’s oil production peaked in the 1970s ? US. Which country’s oil production peaked in 2000 ? UK. Which countries led the invasion of Iraq ? Hmm. Let me think now.

Of course, once Iraq has a nice stable democracy the troops will be leaving. Well apart from the odd fifty thousand or so needed to man the fourteen permanent bases. Maybe Bush ain’t so dumb after all.


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