There’s been some interesting develops in technology recently that I just thought I would share.
For the last few years, thorium fuel cycle reactors have been touted as the answer to our power needs. The thorium fuel is very different from uranium-based reactors and thorium offers several advantages over uranium. Thorium is more abundant, it is easier to work with, it has slightly better physical properties. However, thorium also has slightly worse nuclear properties and this leads to some issues with using it in light water reactors (which, by far, are the majority of reactors).
However, one of the big advantages of thorium fuel is that it would be very, very difficult to weaponize it. Thorium can’t be made into a nuclear weapon. And because any uranium-233 is deeply mixed with thorium and uranium-232 it is safe to use, even for countries that we wouldn’t like to see develop nukes of their own.
Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. A recent study has shown that it is actually trivial to extract a particular decay product from the thorium fuel cycle (protactinium-233), which does decay into uranium-233. What’s worse is that this is so easy to do, that no special equipment is needed and it can be done in almost any reactor in use today… including small research reactors. According to the research, it would take 1.6 metric tons of thorium to get 8 kilograms of uranium-233, which is the minimum required to build a nuclear weapon.
I continue to maintain that nuclear power is ecologically and politically no longer feasible. Yes, you can gets lots of electricity, but the potential bad things are just too bad. If a wind turbine falls over, it’s bad, but you don’t run the risk of contaminating square miles of land for the next 3,000 years. Personally, I think that any country, especially in the Middle East where there is lots of mostly useless land and lots of sun, that is trying to get nuclear reactors instead of installing solar panels is really looking to build nukes. I very well may be wrong, but solar (especially solar thermal) is safer and easier to install than any nuclear plant.
That’s in quote because I honestly don’t understand why gasoline, diesel, kerosene, etc that are made from fossil fuels should be called synthetic. But I get ahead of myself. We all know that fossil fuels are bad. Carbon dioxide, toxic chemicals, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, plus oil spills, refineries, etc all horrible things. Even without global warming, we need to get rid of fossil fuels.
One thing that some people would like to do is take non-crop plants and use them to make fuel… not like ethanol, but actual long-chain hydrocarbons like octane that makes up gasoline.
There are some advantages to this. First, if it’s chemically the same as gasoline, then we don’t have to change all the cars that are in existence now to get the advantages. A lot of the pollutants (sulfur and heavy metals) can be removed. The use of at least 50% plant matter (along with some coal) will reduce effective carbon emissions by that amount.
In terms of carbon dioxide, the problem with fossil fuels is that we are adding a lot of carbon to the carbon cycle, instead of using carbon already present in the carbon cycle. By using freshly grown plant material, we’re just reusing carbon that’s already in the system.
Now, this ‘synthetic fuel’ thing can be used with pure coal, but that doesn’t do anything to help with carbon reduction. And it’s not a carbon reduction, we’re just reducing how much carbon we’re adding to the carbon cycle. Plus, we’re not getting rid of refineries… just moving them to farmland. And we’re not making efforts to reduce use of gasoline with this method. All we’re doing is changing from oil derived gasoline to coal/plant derived gasoline. I don’t think that this is good idea.
Powering Electric Cars with the Road
Now this idea is one that I can support. Electric cars are heavy (because of the batteries) and have a low range and a long recharge cycle, so they are pretty useless for family trips to the beach. But these researchers have figured out a way to power electric cars using the road itself.
Most cars have steel belted tires. Steel is a good conductor of electricity. The tires are also covered in rubber, which is good insulator. By planing electrical cable in the road (underneath really), the researchers have created an electrical field on the surface of the road. This field interacts with the steel in the tires producing a current that can be used to power the electric car.
If highways and other major roads had this electrical cable buried in them, then electric cars, even with a tiny battery could travel thousands of miles on the highway.
I’d want to seem more information about the safety measures in place, because we are dealing with high frequency current. But the test car was getting 75% of the electrical energy that the road wires generated (that’s a lot better than a gasoline engine efficiency).
I really like this technology. We need infrastructure improvements anyway. Why not just add this to a highways redevelopment project? It’s more jobs. It reduces (and almost eliminates) the major concern about electric vehicles (driving range). It’s very efficient. I have heard about a few electric semi-trucks. This would be fantastic for truckers and transportation. No more diesel.