One of society’s foremost concerns in the modern age is the compounded cost and danger of the energy sources for which it has drawn the power used to light, move, and enjoy the many technological advances of modern life. Petroleum with the geopolitical conflicts, rising cost, scarcity, and environmental pollution it has produced is undoubtedly going out of style like the dinosaurs whose bodies the fuel is made out of. Nuclear energy appears to be not much better, except for in the sun, as it has produced radioactive and hazardous waste deposits with an estimated decay rate of millions of years. Reaching out of the shambles of these decaying energy systems is a break through nuclear technology option that may just end up being just the solution the Earth. This alternative is none other than liquid fluoride thorium reactors, a ‘green’ nuclear technology that is fueled by Thorium, a vastly more common energy substance than plutonium which may give power outputs 200x greater in efficiency. The true genius of liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR), is however in their radically safer methods for harnessing the nuclear energy through fluoride salt crystals rather than pressurized water flows. The mechanisms, outcome, and importance of these devices are reviewed in this essay.
The world’s nuclear energy is created by the radioactive process whereby an atom is split at its nucleus to bring even smaller nuclei. Usually, the atom that is split is a highly dense element on the periodic table such as Uranium 235 and/or Plutonium 239. Splitting such atoms causes enough power to reach the power outage equivalent of burning 3 tons of coal (Aref 2). In order capture the enormous energy output of the nuclear blasts, water is compressed and used to move and cool generators that produce electricity. Nuclear is helpful in many regards as an alternative to fossil fuels since nuclear does not supply the same degree of greenhouses gases like coal and oil do (Aref 3).
There are however by products that are equally if not more harmful to the Earth such a nuclear radiation and toxic waste deposits that last for thousands of years. When the nuclear reaction is complete, generally, there is a waste left over of expended isotopes that releases highly unstable particles which as they are released penetrate and damage organic life forms that they may come into contact with (Aref 4). The estimated decay rates vary on the element used, however it is suspected that the Uranium isotope’s half-life, the time it takes for it to decay half of its potency, is about 4.5 billion years (Aref 6).
Even with such incredible long-term waste which has not yet been found a suitable place, the world has been steadily and increasingly been using nuclear power to meet its energy needs. Nuclear power has given roughly 15% of the world’s electric power and 6.3 % of its total energy supply since 2005 (Rajput). Despite the benefits, the upkeep of nuclear is shown to become increasingly difficult. For example, Rajput writes that with the long lead times of 1 to 2 decades, even if dozens of countries begin right now building nuclear tech, the number of operating plants may decrease considerably over the following 20 years (Rajput). Hence an energy crisis on several levels requiring new and inventive ways to break the chains of resource scarcity and outdated energy production methods.
About half a century ago when the race for nuclear power was being developed, the world’s scientists made a choice whose repercussions could be felt for years to come. They decided to use Plutonium and Uranium as a power source for emerging nuclear technology because these materials could also be weaponized in nuclear technologies in addition to providing energy (Topf). Thus they left out the superior nuclear option of Thorium, a nuclear fuel cell material whose efficiency can reach as high as 200 x more efficient than traditional nuclear (Clements). According to Kirk Sorensen, a person can hold a golf ball sized sphere of thorium in their hands and this will be the equivalent, once harnessed in a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, of a life time’s worth of energy (Clements). Beside having several dozen times greater efficiency than old isotopes, Thorium is also extremely more available in the World’s crust. Where as uranium is as rare as platinum, thorium is as common as tin (Clements). The other half of LFTR reactors is their use of liquid fluoride in place of water. Liquid fluoride is just if not more effective as a coolant and operating liquid (Clements).
While ‘green nuclear’ may seem a fairy tale to some, the methods and materials used by LFTR technology presents a radically more accessible and environmentally friendly way for harnessing the benefits of nuclear. LFTR technology offers this demand in a myriad of ways. First of all, the power cycle is tremendously more capable and efficient than the other forms of nuclear. The LFTR reactor is 200x more sound in burning up the radioactive isotopes that are necessary for nuclear energy outputs. This is achieved not only through the different substrate being burned but also through the fluoride salt employed which is vastly more stable than the extremely pressurized water systems used in modern nuclear reactors (Clements). As there is a very high rate of metabolism used in the consumption of the power source used, this means that far fewer radiated waste materials will be created in the process of extricating nuclear energy than is presently observed in traditional nuclear or regular fossil fuel systems (Hargraves & Moir 309). The efficiency of the LFTR is like a person who knows how to take a shower with a single natural soap which can take care of their whole body and do it in 30 seconds as opposed to a person who uses several oils, scrubs, and soaps, most of which are artificially sourced, to get themselves clean in an hour. That is a pretty big difference in materials, energy, and waste expenditure.
Furthermore, LFTR research has presented evidence that the waste by-products of LFTR technology are significantly less lethal and long-lasting than traditional nuclear. Whereas plutonium and uranium make waste products that last for thousands upon thousands of years, LFTR waste, expended thorium composites, become 10,000x less toxic in just 300 years (Hargraves & Moir 308). The traditional nuclear power causes enormous sores in the Earth that will be the problem of hundreds generations to come where as LFTR gets the job done quicker and better than ever before.
The LFTR engine is also several times more effective in the processing of thorium. The fluoride salt crystal designs have made it so that while harvesting the nuclear energy there can be a substantially smaller facility being used that is many dozen of times safer than traditional nuclear. The nuclear energy of traditional reactors use of outrageously pressurized water conduits that act a transfer medium for the energy in question. Water is actually condensed thousands of times to cool and harness the nuclear energy making a hazard system that requires an enormous amount of energy and work to keep safe, stabilized, and cool so that an explosion of hydrogen does not suddenly occur (Clements). The LFTR system instead relies upon the fluoride crystal production system, a natural metal liquid, which can act as a superior transfer and/or cooling medium for the energy cycles in effect. A medium, the Fluoride Salt crystal does not demand excessive pressurization or cooling to keep from exploding and causing nuclear meltdown or leakage. In fact, the LFTR systems are so safe that with the addition of a subterranean storage container, the fluids that it runs with can simply run out into the facility which is impervious to damage from radiation or many natural disasters (Clements).
The benefits of LFTR go on and on. Within a thorium reactor, other types of isotopes can be burned including the radioactive wastes from the other traditional reactors. Thus, liquid fluoride thorium reactors can act not only as a helpful energy source for world but also to eliminate the harmful waste which, at the present, is planned to basically carry on forever (Topf).
Sorenson gives the energy equation that the energy bond of thorium has roughly 100 million times the energy potential of a hydrogen-carbon bound which is the basis for oil (Clements). Since oil is emitting enormous amounts of greenhouse gases and is wrapped in geopolitical conflicts, the fact that an alternative process for creating high outputs of energy are being discovered is cause tremendous hope (Carbon 1). Nuclear energy is given by some sources to be 50 to even a 100 times lower in greenhouse gasses than coal (Landau). France, a country heavily invested in Nuclear, has been given the rating of having some of the cleanest air out of all industrial nations despite the fact that it is one of the most densely populated (Rajput).
Nuclear power is also a helpful solution in some respects for the world’s power sources since it is able, especially in its LFTR form, to give huge amount of energy consistently without having to rely on the natural solar, hydro, or wind forces which oil-alternatives must use. In the United States, Nuclear technology is already at 20% and many believe that it is a useful source meeting its energy demands (Landau).
The expectations for eventually nuclear technology are entirely valid as nuclear technology is the very same natural process through which the stars make their energy, heat, and light. It is entirely reasonable to assume that humanity will discover and replicate this awesome power within the scope of their own devices and imaginations in a way that similarly will raise many possibilities and certainties for creation. China is already well gearing up for the production of LFTR with investment of $350 million and 140 scientists into the creation of this new and innovative technology (Topf).
With the enormous hope and energy output that Thorium offers to the world, there may be many changes, subtle and gross, in the ways that energy is used and that people live their lives. When oil was introduced in to society, enormous changes began to take place including a reliance upon technology rather than slaves to get work done. The implications for LFTR may be similarly profound. The world could learn to get along better, reduce the undercurrents of paranoia associated with unsustainable resource harvesting and spending activities, and begin a new age of radically more available energy. Soon, China will have the LFTR technology in working order with hopefully successes that will inspire the rest of the world to follow suit. Ideally, these systems will be used to dispose of energy waste and to renew the places and situations that were beginning to become much to scary and hazardous to maintain at their present trajectory. Perhaps societal revolutions of a new magnitude will begin as all begin to see and use energy in an abundance magnitude like never before.
Aref, Lana, (----), Nuclear energy: the good, the bad, and the debatable. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. August 26, 2016. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/assets/docs_f_o/nuclear_energy_the_good_the_bad_and_the_debatable_508.pdf.
Clements, Ross. LFTRs in 5 minutes- Thorium reactors. Youtube, 2012, Mar 10. Web. August 24, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK367T7h6ZY.
Hargraves, Robert & Moir, Ralph. “Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors”. American Scientist 98, 2010. Web. August 27, 2016. http://www.americanscientist.org/my_amsci/restricted.aspx?act=pdf&id=36745203226947.
Landau, Elizabeth. Why (or why not) nuclear energy?. CNN: Cable News Network, 2011. Web. August 27, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/03/26/nuclear.energy/index.html.
Rajput, S.K , Nuclear Energy. Pinnacle Technology, 2009. Web. August 26, 2016.
Topf, Andrew. Thorium: Energy savior or red herring?. OilPrice.com, 2014. Web. August 27, 2016. http://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Thorium-Energy-Savior-or-Red-Herring.html.