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Monday, January 5, 2015

SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR HUMANITY'S MOST IMPORTANT PROBLEMS: #7--The Ultimate Energy System (Part 2A), Overview

In time, fossil fuels will soar in cost, partly because someday there will be a severe carbon tax, but also because there is only so much of it left.  Peak Oil has been delayed, there is a goodly amount of coal left, certainly nasty tar sands and a lot of shale oil.  The USA is the Saudi Arabia of shale.  But well within a century, fossil fuels will become history.  To the left, the sources of electricity.  Unknown to many, most of the fossil fuels are at the bottom of the ocean as methane hydrates, my concern as the trigger for The Venus Syndrome.


The problem with most renewable energy sources is the intermittency.    Our Sun (energy produced by the fusion of  hydrogen) is only effectively available for an average of 8 hours/day and our winds come and go.  Plus, there are questions of something called Energy Returned from Energy Invested (EROI).  As this heat comes from the Sun, you could say that both solar and wind energies are nuclear power.  Energy storage makes sustainable resources more amenable, but the total cost factor argues for other options.  

Drill down to some distance and you will eventually encounter heat, which, by the way, comes from the radioactive decay of elements like uranium and thorium.  Hot dry rock geothermal is, thus, intriguing.  At 660 km (which is deeper than 400 miles) the temperature reaches 3000 F.  While that is far too deep for current and future technology, Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers have speculated that there is 300 times more accessible (down to a little more than 5 miles) geo-energy than all the fossil fuels still available.  Keep an eye on this pathway, but don't hold your breath.

About ocean power, I long ago dismissed tidal, current, salinity gradients and wave resources as viable for mega-applications (certainly, here and there with exceptional natural conditions, a few sites will be commercialized) for a variety of reasons. Like geothermal, ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is base load, and has the potential to equal the current usage of energy in the world.  I will cover this promise in a later posting on the Blue Revolution.

So what about nuclear power?  As you know, there are two different kinds:

  • fission (which depends on the splitting of large atoms like from Uranium and Plutonium--or, the Atomic Bomb):  this is the process used by all commercial nuclear facilities today
  • fusion (fuses small elements, like Hydrogen--think Hydrogen Bomb--yes, this is the much bigger bomb, but think of the potential for peace--plus it's much cleaner)
    • our Sun and all stars generate heat through fusion
    • on Earth, scientists are tinkering with magnetic confinement (ITER in France) and inertial confinement (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory):  I cannot report on anything optimistic today, but the future of Humanity will depend on success here
    • then there is Lockheed Martin's compact fusion machine
    • there is also a concept called Cold Fusion, where the reaction occurs at room temperature, as compared to 15 million degrees C in our Sun, 150 million C for ITER and 100 million C for laser fusion, and here is just one opinion:
Cold fusion with palladium requires heavy water (deuterium oxide). Cold fusion with nickel appears to work as well with ordinary water as with heavy water. I expect nickel will become the dominant cathode material, in which case the fuel cost will be as close to zero as any fuel imaginable. Even heavy water fuel would be cheap. Heavy water costs about $1000 per kilogram retail, even though it is ubiquitous (it is 1 part in 6000 in every drop of water on earth). It is expensive because a lot of energy is required to separate it from ordinary water, and because demand is limited, so new separation technologies have not been developed.6 But you get a fantastic amount of energy out of a fusion reaction. Even at $1000 per kilogram, heavy water would be thousands of times cheaper than oil. In a heavy water cold fusion economy, a fraction of a percent of the fuel would have to be recycled to keep the heavy water separation plants working, whereas today 7% of oil goes to refinery use and loss.7 There are some indications that the cathode metal itself plays a role in the reaction. It may be transmuted, in which case it would be used up. A cold fusion reactor may require new metal from time to time, the way a fission reactor requires new uranium. Palladium and nickel are cheaper than uranium, and all three produce energy cheaper than oil does.

So let's return to today and you could have missed this piece of news, but the 42-year old 600 MW Yankee nuclear power plant in Vermont, with Federal approval to operate for 17 more years, quietly shut down for good yesterday.   Just this facility had provided 70% of all the electricity generated in Vermont since 1972. There was no danger to the community.  It was just too expensive to operate.  The average age of a U.S. commercial nuclear reactor is 32 years.  

Could this be an end to the fission nuclear era?  Probably not, as the Tennessee Valley Authority Watts Bar 2  (WB 1 came on line in 1996) nuclear generation unit is a year away from operation, and five more are on track for powering up by 2020, all in the South.

According to World Nuclear Association:

Nuclear Power in the USA

(Updated November 2014)
  • The USA is the world's largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity.
  • The country's 100+ nuclear reactors produced 822 billion kWh in 2013, over 19% of total electrical output. There are now 100 units operable and five under construction.
  • Following a 30-year period in which few new reactors were built, it is expected that six new units may come on line by 2020, four of those resulting from 16 licence applications made since mid-2007 to build 24 new nuclear reactors.
  • However, lower gas prices since 2009 have put the economic viability of some existing reactors and proposed projects in doubt.
  • Government policy changes since the late 1990s have helped pave the way for significant growth in nuclear capacity. Government and industry are working closely on expedited approval for construction and new plant designs.
So we it is clear that fission nuclear power is making a renaissance.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will do everything he can to restore as many of the 50 nuclear facilities in Japan as he can, and, frankly, those units are available, so why not use them as a bridge to their future?

Tomorrow, or so, I will present Part 2B:  The Ultimate Energy System.  I can provide a hint of what this will be:
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