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Thorium and inefficient solar power? That's good enough for me

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Comment So we're all back from our hols, noses down to the grindstone for the run into Crimble: time for some idle speculation on the future of our energy production systems. Or if we're to be purist about it, our energy production/transformation systems.

We will, thankfully, leave entirely aside the complete dog's dinner that our current Lords and Masters are making of it all and try to look at technological trends rather than political actions.

The most cheering thing I've heard recently on this subject is that the price of thorium is now positive. That might not mean much without explanation, so here goes: There's thorium in all sorts of minerals from which we already extract interesting metals. The tantalite and columbite that we make our capacitors from for example: there's enough in the wastes from their processing that old factories that used to do this are now Super Fund sites in the US.

Vast sums of money being spent carting off the lightly radioactive wastes into secure storage (actually, just to piles by uranium mills). And if you actually happen to have any thorium around, as I do, getting rid of it is a very expensive proposition.

The usual solution to this sort of problem is that you refine whatever it is up to a useful commercial purity then sell it. But there's almost no one out there still using thorium: thus the price of thorium, given the disposal costs, is actually negative. Until just recently, that is.

Lynas, which has built a new rare earths refinery in Malaysia, will have thorium as a byproduct (there's always Th in your rare earth ores). They've announced that they're getting offers to actually buy it from them: the price has turned positive.

Now, OK, that's possibly only a matter of interest to metals geeks like myself: but what it actually means is that someone, somewhere, is being serious about starting up test runs of thorium reactors. It's the only possible use for the material these days in any quantity.

If someone's buying then someone is at least considering filling up a test reactor. My best guess is that this is the Indian research programme: although it could, possibly, be the Russian one and there are rumours of a Chinese as well.

Which I take to be cheering news: for there's no particular problem with thorium reactors. The engineering's pretty well known, it can't go bang, all it really needs is someone to actually build and test at size the technology. And, as I say, if thorium has turned positive in price then I have to assume that that's exactly what someone is doing.

I am making the assumption that we'd all like to have some method of generating electricity that doesn't involve pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere. Assuming that, a safer and cheaper form of nuclear as above sounds like a pretty good idea.

Some of the other technologies that are being touted don't look so good though. We've had windmills in Western Europe since the 12th century so we could assume that they're a pretty mature technology. And certainly, no one is predicting that there's going to be any great advance in their efficiency in the future. Which is a problem given their cost and intermittency. There are some marginal gains possible (they're the largest market for scandium, my particular metal, at present. Adding it to the aluminium alloy of the blades allows you to run them in higher wind speeds) but no more leaps forward.

And as to offshore wind: it is more expensive – and there's no marine engineer I've found who thinks that anyone has looked seriously at the problem of maintenance of metallic structures in the salt water of the North Sea.

Much the same problem seems to afflict the various ideas for trapping wave energy and the like. The sea is simply a harsh environment. Anything metallic does not last all that long out there.

Tidal, well, the problem there is that it just doesn't stack up financially. Looking at the Severn Barrage, the second largest tide in the world, we find that the bigger we build it, the more money we lose. Absolutely every design anyone's come up with (including that being pushed by Peter Hain at present) has a negative net present value. In plain English that means it loses us money.

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