Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Better Nuclear Fuels; Better Biomass to Fuels Approach

Conventional nuclear power plants are able to burn only a small fraction of nuclear fuel. They are then forced to store the lion's share of this expensive fuel indefinitely, as "nuclear waste." Far from being waste, most of this unused material is incredibly valuable. How could nuclear reactors burn fuel more efficiently? Two candidates suggest themselves: thorium and depleted uranium, burned in safe, advanced breeder reactors.

Los Alamos National Labs has devised a new approach for refining thorium for nuclear fuel, which shaves almost 99.5% of the cost of processing -- reducing the cost from $5000 a kg to only $30 per kg. This LANL breakthrough is just one of several which will be necessary, before thorium can become the dominant nuclear fuel.

NextBigFuture presents an exclusive interview with Robert Petroski -- engineer for the Terrapower "traveling wave reactor" approach being spurred by Bill Gates and other Microsoft luminaries. Petroski discusses how abundant depleted uranium -- U238 -- can be used efficiently in advanced nuclear reactors, to replace the more rare and expensive fuels which rely on highly refined U235.

These breeder reactor approaches use much cheaper and safer fuels than are used in conventional reactors, and burn them almost completely, with far less waste left over. If all the money being thrown down the rat hole by governments for programs of carbon hysteria -- big wind, big solar, climate hysteria bureaucracies, etc -- were devoted to more rational energy strategies, these advanced nuclear approaches could stave off global energy shortages for many centuries or longer.

More: The Integral Fast Reactor has much in common with the evolving Terrapower approach. It is another approach to burning almost 100% of nuclear fuel -- primarily depleted uranium.

And for those who would like to believe in biofuels, but who cannot separate the idea of biofuels from the wasteful green agendas of the Obamas, Merkels, etc. -- there is the up and coming IH2 technology from CRI Catalyst. IH2 is "integrated hydropyrolysis and hydroconversion," an advanced biomass-to-liquid fuels approach which has been covered favourably at Al Fin Energy in the past.

Now New Zealand algae company Aquaflow is working with CRI Catalyst of Texas, to efficiently convert algal biomass to liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Prolific species of algae are far more easily grown for their biomass -- at very high rates. Contrast such cheap and dirty high-yield algal biomass production with the more expensive, finicky, and complex process of trying to grow algae for oil production. All that was missing was a practical way of converting prolific algal biomass into valuable liquid fuels -- and IH2 appears to be a promising approach.

Advanced pyrolysis and hydro-treatment of biomass is not as sexy as breeder reactors, of course, but far more practical for decentralised production almost anywhere on Earth -- at a far cheaper price than nuclear reactors would cost.

It is good to know that science and engineering are working on several different fronts to provide the abundant energy that the future will demand.

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