December 23, 2007

Atomic GET!

One of the Brickmuppet's crack team of science babes brings us an overview of several recent, not so recent and recently noted developments on the energy front.

There has been a bit of buzz regards the  recent announcement of Toshiba's "Mini Nuke". A very tiny reactor with no moving parts (aside from convectioning sodium) that has great potential for decentralizing the power grid.

Despite some confusion, this reactor seems to be different from the little reactor that was first discussed at Brickmuppet Blog in '03, namely the Toshiba 4S reactor or  "nuclear battery". This is the  reactor offered to Galena Alaska  and is now slated to be operational there by 2010 ...(a PDF  from Galena's public info office is here). The dimensions given for the mini nuke reactor are much smaller than those given for the 4S at 20 ft x 6 feet....about a third the size of the 4S....close enough to 1/3rd the height that  a metric conversion error is possible.

A perusal of the Toshiba nuclear website produces no info on the English site but slogging through the Japanese side produces this page on the 4S and the miracle of Babblefish indicates that the design now comes in 2 sizes 10 and 50 MW. There is no mention of the small reactor mentioned above. However, as I was posting this I found that  Brian Wang believes this is indeed a separate reactor and points to this article from 2001. If this is right (and Wang seems to be on top of this stuff) then this is a pretty big development. It also explains why the Next Energy News Article has the first operational one slated for use in Japan rather than the US.

The potential for these two reactors is tremendous. It could be a boon to the developing world. Pollution free power in isolated locations with little or no infrastructure. Power that can be used for applications as diverse and vital as clean water, irrigation, refrigeration, air conditioning, communications (internet access) and everything else. The unit is sealed and the fuel is not weapons grade, so the proliferation issues are minimized.

In this country as it allows a HIGHLY decentralized (and therefore robust) energy grid. Single point failures like the 3 big northeast blackouts would be a thing of the past if little reactors were dispersed around areas more than 60 feet above sea level and not subject to explosive vulcanism...IE most of the country. These two reactors are highly efficient and would be swapped out at the end of their lives ( 40 YEARS!) and have their contents taken to other larger reactors for reprocessing and recycling.

With a plant height of only 20 feet, the smaller reactor might well have civil marine applications especially given the recent concern about merchant ship pollution (ironic since marine diesels are amongst the most efficient internal combustion engines on the planet... notwithstanding their smokey start-ups).

As Brian Wang Points out, these 2 reactors are not the only small nuclear reactors reaching the end of their development and he has a link rich post on several of these here.

There are other overviews of these smaller reactors here, here and here. Brickmuppet Blog commented briefly on one of them here .

On the big reactor front, General Atomics has a pebble-bed reactor similar to those being developed in South Africa and Japan. The General Atomics reactor is the GT MHR

Longtime readers know that thanks in part to Kirk Sorensen's excellent website I am particularly partial to thorium reactors both because of their efficiency, low waste and the commonality of thorium. Well, there is a liquid salt reactor that runs on the sort of U233 and thorium mixture that Kirk Sorensen has long advocated the FUJI MSR. This is a molten salt reactor being developed by Fuji Electric a Russian firm and General Atomics. This reactor is complementary to the above mentioned in that it is somewhat flexible in its diet of fissionables and can actually "eat" some nuclear waste!

There is more from  here...

In the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) the fuel is a molten mixture of lithium and beryllium fluoride salts with dissolved thorium and U-233 fluorides. The core consists of unclad graphite moderator arranged to allow the flow of salt at some 700°C and at low pressure. Heat is transferred to a secondary salt circuit and thence to steam. The fission products dissolve in the salt and are removed continuously in an on-line reprocessing loop and replaced with Th-232 or U-238. Actinides remain in the reactor until they fission or are converted to higher actinides which do so.

The FUJI MSR is a 100 MWe design operating as a near-breeder and being developed internationally by a Japanese, Russian and US consortium.

The attractive features of this MSR fuel cycle include: the high-level waste comprising fission products only, hence shorter-lived radioactivity; small inventory of weapons-fissile material (Pu-242 being the dominant Pu isotope); low fuel use (the French self-breeding variant claims 50kg of thorium and 50kg U-238 per billion kWh); and safety due to passive cooling up to any size.

There is a long list of papers on high temperature reactors here and spirited and lettered discussions in Kirks discussion forum here.

These developments in atomic power are really a fish or cut bait moment for the greens. Either they really believe global warming is a problem...or they don't.

Lets look at their actions regards windfarms ...ummm..they oppose WIND FARMS!?!

This indicates that the answer is "don't". Rather, it seems, it is just a political tool for them. This is unfortunate. While we at Brickmuppet Blog don't think AGW is the most serious environmental crisis facing us , it is certainly non- trivial Even if the skeptics are right and the major reasons for the warming of the planet are natural, it is stupid to add to the issue and create other problems through pollution. We are on the cusp of being able to solve most of the problems relating from emissions...bring clean power to the developing world and raise the standard of living across the planet  over the next 20 or so years...only the hairshirt luddites are standing in the way.

 More thoughts along those lines, and yet more analysis of the Galena reactor here. (via Ubu)

Alcohols have been getting a good deal of attention lately and to that end, Alan Boyle has a fine and link rich article on this here, (HT Instapundit).

That post and much discussion has been sparked in part by Bob Zubrin's new book. Zubrin advocates methanol, which is unexciting because of its very low energy density, but is easier to make and shouldn't displace food crops. It's big drawback (aside from being corrosive) is that it reduces cars to near electric ranges.  His proposal is interesting in that he wants  to mandate flexfuel vehicles.

This opens the market to competition not just amongst suppliers, but commodities.

For the reasons outlined here I think steam cars (!?) may be the best solution for this. Weather the engines are external or internal combustion, the flex-fuel idea is certainly doable and a practical way of getting around the chicken/egg problem of alternate fuels.

 As to recent developments in those fuels....

Shell is building a biofuel refinery in Hawaii.

There is a pilot program in Arizona to use the CO2 from a coal plant to grow algae for oil production.

A huge new biodiesel refinery has opened in India.

High density liquid fuels are still necessary for aircraft, and have lots of advantages as far as energy density and quick refueling especially as opposed to batteries....but wait.

....On the battery front Pixy points to this article. Possibly the biggest energy story of the year.

A lithium ion battery with 10 TIMES the capacity!

This is revolutionary!

This is big, from laptops to APUs to cars. If this pans out it makes electric cars practical, and makes portable battery packs for computers and other applications last 120 times as long...or gives 10 TIMES the power for processing or whatever you need to do!

More here and here.

In other battery news, Toshiba (remember them?) has developed a lithium ion battery that can be recharged in a minute! If the two Lithium Ion developments are in any way compatible, this could really speed up charging of electric cars!

It would also put a strain upon the energy grid which is another reason why we need to start building those dispersed little nuke plants we started out with. 

You see, Nuclear power is actually the key to most of these energy independence proposals.

*That is, electric cars require power for their batteries.

*Hydrogen must be manufactured through electrolysis or other means.

*Biofuels, even if they are algael biodiesel, biodiesel from waste, or alcohols require some energy input to produce their fuel in industrial quantities. 

There is no such thing as a free lunch and these technologies are no exception. These are interesting technologies, but they are energy carriers for the most part, and that energy must come from someplace. Solar, and and other fairly clean non nuclear sources have niche applications but for the power generation needs of an industrial society atomic power is really the only clean option.

Whatever path secondary power and energy carrier systems take, Atomic Power is the key to the future.

Those that oppose it are the futures enemies

Science babe is, of course,  Emma Skye, the freelance forensics expert from the Phoenix Wright Game

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December 15, 2007

We Must Explore Far More Radical..Indeed Cutting Edge Technologies...

...Steam Power for instance.

It seems that steampunk lives beyond alternate history novels or the pages of Ninja High School, for one of the Brickmuppets' crack team of science babes brings us this series of links on a recent spate of interest in external combustion applications.

Steam power, you see, has one advantage that is quite appealing in an age where the future of liquid fuel seems to be in a state of flux. Steam is inherently flexible in its fuel.

The reason for this is simple enough. The inner workings of an engine work over a fairly narrow range of tolerances. You can expand the range of fuel types in an internal combustion engine somewhat by sacrificing a bit of efficiency. In this regard the comparatively efficient Brazilian style flex fuel vehicles are a great innovation in being able to burn ethanol and gasoline which have rather different properties...yet even they are far more alike than different. For instance, you can't run diesel in a gasoline is too viscous, and you can't run gasoline (or most alcohols) in a diesel because they will explode both prematurely and too hot, damaging the engine.

In a steam engine, the engine is optimized for whatever working fluid the boiler uses (usually dihydrogenmonoxide). However, the actual fuel is burned externally to the working fluid. All that is required is that the fuel provide heat. This fuel can theoretically be any heat generating substance from buffalo chips to fissioning metal, but for practical automobile purposes we'll confine ourselves to liquid or compressed gas fuels...the only adjustment required at for accommodating a wide range of fuels from oil to natural gas is the configuration of the burner (and in the case of compressed gasses the container of course). This is orders of magnitude easier to fix than the intricate workings of an actual engine. Steam engines can be in pretty much any configuration from reciprocating to rotary to turbines, though turbines generally give lower fuel efficiency.

This might sound like a hairbrained scheme...but as I am bald such schemes have appeal to me...they also have appeal to a company called Cyclone Technologies who (via Green Car Congress), is marketing a high efficiency Rankin Cycle steam engine for cars. This particular engine has twice the horsepower per given volume of a gas engine and produces all kinds of torque. Not mentioned in the article is the time needed to get up a head of steam. Of course if your vehicle is a hybrid you can make your fast getaway from the inevitable hoards of zombies on an electric motor while your main engine builds pressure.

A less exciting idea (but still using steam) Is this BMW concept, it has none of the flexfuel advantages, but rather uses waste heat from a regular engine to run a small steam powered generator, increasing overall efficiency. This, however is a detour from the other steam powered innovations that have been mooted recently.  

The German Firm of IAV has produced the Ezee engine, a steam engine that can go from cold start to full power in 30 seconds. It is also exceedingly efficient producing diesel like fuel economy! There is an APU that keeps the boiler from freezing if left in the arctic for several days, however the engine and boiler have, astonishingly, been designed to be frozen solid without damage...requiring only starting it to melt the ice and run...though this is rather likely to take longer than 30 seconds (so watch out for the ice zombies!) . More analysis of this from the heat engine department of Okyama University in PDF form here and there is a PDF of a short Rutgers University paper on steam developments and their potentials here.  

As to alternatives to oil, notwithstanding my lack of qualifications in this area, I've recently declared myself  in favor of algae-generated biodiesel to most other biofuel alternatives. I say this because of their potential efficiency of generation, the energy density of kerosenes and because they are less likely to directly and indirectly impact food consumption. But whatever we eventually replace/supplement oil with, steam engines can use it and we can actually have the sort of direct competition between ethanol, gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, methanol and even natural gas that Dr. Zubrin so rightly calls for.

Note that steam cars are not at all far fetched, the Stanley Steamers I joked about in this post were real. In fact, steam powered cars were once considered a real competitor to the internal combustion powered automobiles, in part because of their comparatively high torque (for dealing with hills).

Of course these engines might have maritime uses as well as emergency generator applications and a whole range of other uses. Remember, the primary way we are able to get useable power from atomic fission is via steam... steam IS the technology of tomorrow!

("Science Babe" art by Formalhaut)

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