"What if energy was cheap again? Would we still be in this economic mess? Maybe the Democrats and Republicans both have it wrong, and it isn’t politics that will get us out, but the same kind of concentrated research and development work towards a goal that got us to the Moon. There are new and old technologies that would make that possible.
Not too long from now, we may very well have another Sputnik moment when China develops thorium reactors before we do. It used to be our technology. Is it something that we want to have to buy back from them?
The health risks of thorium are on par with radon gas, not directly toxic in small quantities, but able to stimulate tumors years after significant exposure. You are living with it right now; it’s everywhere, even in ordinary soil. The industrial risks of, and hazardous waste from, a liquid salt thorium reactor are many times less than a uranium reactor. No Chernobyl, no Three Mile Island, no China syndrome, no hydrogen explosions, no flood of neutrons to make all the surroundings highly radioactive, no bomb-grade material production, and much lower and safety shielding requirements. The reactor essentially burns all of the thorium, producing up to 1000 times less waste. So no Yucca Mountain storage site needed. Eventually, you might have one in your neighborhood or utility closet.
There is about four times as much thorium in the world as uranium. Together, Australia, the U.S. and Canada hold from 35 to 56% of those reserves, depending on who is doing the estimating. At current power consumption, the reserves in North America could last well over 500 years. Long enough to develop other energy sources and start mining the asteroids for it.
Because the reactor does not require all of the safety requirements and inspections, or highly trained and paid personnel to run, or the heavy shielding and pressure containment of a uranium reactor, it is much cheaper to build and run. At 1000KW per person, five of the proposed reactors, about the size of a railroad tanker car, could supply the greater Tulsa area. One estimate puts the initial cost of those reactors at 125 million dollars, once the new-technology costs have been reduced. The personal cost of the fuel and maintenance thereafter is estimated to be less than a dollar a year.
The U.S. Navy is putting modest amounts of R&D money into another technology it wants for use on its ships, called aneutronic fusion. A proton and a boron11 nucleus combine to produce three very energetic alpha particles, or helium nuclei. These positively charged particles can be used directly to produce electricity. Potential efficiencies could be in electricity production could be very high, estimated by one source at 80 to 85%. Since no neutrons are emitted, the process does not generate radioactive waste. One estimate puts operating of a commercial plant at 2020. There is even more boron in the world than thorium.
And guess who else is working on it? Iran. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing – a Sputnik moment with Iran.
How could this energy be put to use? One technology can kill several birds with one stone, the artificial synthesis of methyl alcohol or methanol. All it requires is electricity, carbon dioxide and water. The Indianapolis 500 has required its use in Indie cars since a fiery and horrific multiple-car pileup of gasoline engine cars. With some modifications to internal combustion engines to account for extra corrosion problems, it can be used now. It has already been used in a fuel called M85, which is 85% methanol and 15% gasoline.
Furthermore, fuel cells are being developed that can turn methanol and air back into electricity, carbon dioxide and water. According to Wikipedia, methanol has ten times the energy density of the highly compressed hydrogen proposed for hydrogen-powered cars, and 15 times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, the current technology used in electric cars. Methanol can be dispensed from current service station pumps, and does not depend upon the foreign importation of lithium from Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and, you guessed it, China. I think that it could eventually replace natural gas in existing pipelines, and reduce the environmental problems caused by fracking.
Notice that it also removes carbon dioxide from the air. It can also be used as a feedstock to synthesize other organic compounds. So that part, not either burned or consumed in a fuel cell, if used in the production of solid compounds like plastic, paints and construction materials, could take carbon dioxide out of the air almost permanently.