A wee particle accelerator in the English countryside could be a harbinger of a safer, cleaner future of energy. Specifically, nuclear energy, but not the type that has wrought havoc in Japan and controversy throughout Europe and the U.S. It would be based on thorium, a radioactive element that is much more abundant, and much more safe, than traditional sources of nuclear power.
Some advocates believe small nuclear reactors powered by thorium could wean the world off coal and natural gas, and do it more safely than traditional nuclear. Thorium is not only abundant, but more efficient than uranium or coal — one ton of the silver metal can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal, as the Mail on Sunday calculates it.
The newspaper took a tour of a small particle accelerator that could be used to power future thorium reactors. Nicknamed EMMA — the Electron Model of Many Applications — the accelerator would be used to jump-start fissile nuclear reactions inside a small-scale thorium power plant.
Thorium reactors would not melt down, in part because they require an external input to produce fission. Thorium atoms would release energy when bombarded by high-energy neutrons, such as the type supplied in a particle accelerator.
Providing that stimulus is one obstacle to building small thorium reactors — but a new generation of accelerators like EMMA, and someday potentially even smaller, luggage-sized ones — could do the job.
EMMA is the first non- scaling, fixed-field, alternating-gradient (NS-FFAG) accelerator, qualities that make it easier to operate and maintain, more reliable and compact, more flexible and more efficient, according to British researchers. Other particle accelerators use alternating electric fields, which require special safety measures to guard against microwave exposure, for instance. EMMA's alternating magnetic field gradients are a more efficient and cheaper way to accelerate particles to higher energies. (Brookhaven National Laboratory explains in more detail here.)
EMMA operates at operates around 20 MeV, or 20 million electronvolts, a paltry amount for an atom accelerator. The Tevatron, for instance, accelerates particles to 1 tera-electron volts. The Large Hadron Collider is designed to speed them to 7 TeV. But thorium reactors would not need such high energies to initiate fusion.
British scientists are already working on a successor called PAMELA, the Particle Accelerator for Medical Applications, which will be used to treat cancer.
Click through to the Mail for a full tour of EMMA, its sister apparatus ALICE (Accelerators and Lasers In Combined Experiments), and a description of British efforts to produce thorium power.
pocket sized, huh...
"Thorium reactors would not melt down"
It's a nuclear reaction and no safety systems are foolproof. They will design them to feed power into themselves I guarantee that. Most meltdowns are caused by loss of power to systems that control the reactions and they cant guarantee that won't happen. If it can happen it will.
It also produces uranium and other materials as waste. A minor fluctuation in power could split that waste rather than fuse materials and you've got a meltdown on your hands.
@corwinb It is a fission reactor, not a fusion reactor and thus would not produce any uranium. However, I do agree that a meltdown is still possible even though it says it requires an external input to produce fission. Fission reactions are chain reactions; after the initial input they are designed to power themselves until further external input stops the reaction. If it is not self sustained than it won't have very much of a risk of meltdown but it would also produce very little energy as it would require constant external input to keep the reaction in progress.
@Smith2031 & corwinb
The possibility of a meltdown with a thorium reactor is extremely improbable. Why? Thorium reactors need a CONSTANT input of an outside energy source. The particle accelerator featured in this article produces the high energy particles that will excite thorium. If that flow of particles is stopped, or the accelerator itself is shut off, the thorium reaction stops.
Thorium, unlike uranium can't go into a self-powered meltdown. Even should a thorium reactor "partially melt down" which is highly unlikely, as soon as that meltdown damages the particle accelerator or the energy feeding that particle accelerator, the meltdown itself will stop.
In fact, in a way, thorium reactors are over-unity machines in that they output more energy than what is input. They do use a nice amount of energy to feed the particle accelerator, to excite the thorium and produce energy, but they ultimately produce more energy than they consume. Machine might be the wrong word b/c that implies they are doing work, and they are not, but they do produce more energy than consumed.
Uranium on the other hand it just raw energy, kinda like fire. Most uranium reactors are some version of a steam turbine generator, the heat output of uranium converts water to steam that turns a turbine, producing energy. That steam is condensed, and either fed back into the system (for a limited # of times and eventually stored) or its outright stored. This contaminated water is one portion of nuclear waste.
So guys, a few things... Any heavy element fission reactor that produces enough power will be capable of melting down. Why? DECAY HEAT. Shutting down a nuclear reactor is really easy. All of the Japanese reactors shutdown at the start of the earthquake, that wasnt the problem. Even if a reactor is shut down, it still produces heat from the super radioactive fission products that are a result of fission. For U235, this amounts to ~7% of the long term steady state operating power. Depending on Thorium's spectrum of fission product yield (something I bet is not well characterized anyways) it should be about the same. If you have a 1000MW plant then max decay heat would still produce ~70MW, still a ton of heat. If you cant continue to cool, the plant heats up until the core melts. Though my knowledge is with pressurized water reactors using highly enriched U235, I venture to say that you would still have the potential for a meltdown.
Uh, none of this matters because the oil gods will never allow it.
LOL @ old-scratch
i agree. with the money currently in oil this seems unlikely on a mass scale.
@Smith2031 FYI,you switched the two.FUSION does not produce Uranium.FISSION does.The thorium reactor is,I think,a kind of fission reactor,but more complexe and apparently less dangerous(remain to be seen).But anyway,as fusion reactors(the TRUE close-to-totally-safe nuclear reactors,and one possible future of energy)are still far away,any fission update that can replace the old reactors are good.I guess.Better than fossil fuel anyway.If there is no accidents.
Thorium is not U235 its apples to oranges.
they work nothing alike on almost any level I can see so the assumptions you're making make little sense to me.
sure there will be byproducts but not likely at the high energy levels of the ones made by U235 so they won't make as much heat nor make heat for as long.
Remember that the problem in Japan wasn't the heat of the fusion products but the decay heat of the U235 itself. That self generating heat caused it keeps getting hotter and hotter as time went on. I would expect that Thorium doesn’t do that or we would be using that instead of going through the trouble of making highly enriched uranium. so the Thorium itself should act as a heat sink small amount of heat made by any fission byproducts
whatever heat is left in the system after its shut off should only fall over time not raise like a fusion reactor.
... Duuude.... What is a melt down by your definition? is it jsut when things go bad? The more radio active elements (insert here) radiate so much heat that they have to me activly cooled.... When power is lost and all the coolant (heavy water) evaporates the solid metal heats up drasticly and actually melts. It can reas high enough temps to melt though the foundation and into the ground. Bad stuff and kinda cool. So thorium isnt not goin to do this. Not in its properties to do so.
No research is bad research. The japan facility was really old any how. 40-50 years old. Feel free to correct me because that is what science is all about. No research is bad research. I still like polywell fusion that is funed by the navy.
Tell you what id love to have this device just so i can say i have an Iron Man 2 particle acceterator in my back yard ;-)
Have a good day yall and have fun reading
oh ps I like how you can split atoms and make heavier elements...Your sir must be a grand master wizard ;-)
Am I really the only one who looks at this an thinks "Whoa, Iron Man."?
Not another one of this nuclear crap... There's no guarantee that thorium is completely safe. Plus the nuclear technology is just expensive as hell to research, this money is better spent on renewables. The nuclear energy dream always start as some fantastic ideal energy that supposedly powers up the entire world's electricity at a fraction of the cost, but then it ends up as a gigantic money-sucking mess. It has already happened in Japan.
Yay for nukes, but I seem to recall that "conventional" nuclear power was expected to be too cheap to meter. Why wouldn't all of the same very expensive safety, security, control, regulation, storage, transportation, and transmission issues apply to this technology, as well?
Thorium reactors operate as a fission reaction, NOT fusion; there is a huge difference. Also, most thorium reactors operate as breeding reactors (like the CANDU reactors in Canada), meaning that they produce more fuel than they initially have. It doesn't specify in the article what type of reactor it is, it specifies the neutron source(the particle accelerator). If it works like a molten-salt breeder reactor, that would be awesome! Of course there are risks; accidents can still happen. @gorash: the problem with PV's is that no matter what you do, you will never ever ever be able to produce more than one free electron per photon that hits the surface of the PV. Ever! That's what Einstein told us in 1905, and guess what!? He was spot on. So even though we are not near that efficiency yet, once we near 100% efficiency(gotta find superconductors that hold up at normal temperatures), that will pretty much be it. With nuclear, the sky is the limit. Fission has much room to be improved, and someday we will be able to harness Fusion and energy will e changed forever.
Tidbits: Nuclear decay process of Thorium-232: Th-232 absorbs a slow neutron which produces Th-233 --> beta decays to Pa-233 --> beta decays to U-233 which is non-fissile material!
I really feel the need to point a few things out.
There are NO commercial fusion reactors. If you are describing events like what has happened in Japan and using the word fusion, you are wrong.
The artical describes a fission process, where neutrons are used to split atoms of thorium. Fusion does not split atoms, it combines them. If you are using the word fusion to describe anything from this artical, you are wrong.
Fusion, as mentioned, is a process of taking 2 lighter atoms and combining them into 1 atom. Most fusion research revolves around fusing hydrogen into helium because hydrogen is abundant, its safer than radioactive elements, and its easier to fuse lighter elements than it is to fuse heavier elements like uranium and thorium. So if you're using words like uranium or thorium to describe the fusion process of generating energy, you are wrong.
Bullet point: there should be no mention of the word fusion in any of these comments.
I feel better now.
I thought about that too, lol!
WTF?!? Is it fission or fusion now?
According to Wikipedia, Thorium 232 absorbs a neutron (some sort of fusion), then becomes Uranium 233, which is fissionable.
So please stop screwing up about if it is fusiono or fission, and read a bit about the subject before posting stupid comments!
Have a great day,
EDIT: I am really sorry, it absorbs a proton, not a neutron, silly me!
fission or fusion: As IcplTom said there are no commercial fusion reactors but as dhagan said (but did not categorize as fusion; I believe you meant "absorbs a proton" dhagan) there are fusion processes in our typical fission reactors. Check wiki on the decay of U-235 and you'll see that Thorium is a intermediate product to U-235 decaying to U-238.
Fusion reactions for elements above Iron typically absorb energy, those below typically yield energy. To date, the energy required to create the conditions for light element fusion have required more energy in than we can harness from the reaction (when that changes... WOOHOO!).
The melt down question is really about whether any of the intermediate steps generate enough self-sustainable fission product (there may be NONE of it) from start to finish. I have no idea of the entire range of element-isotopes produced but guess there are many.
On the face of it though, this is one of the most hopeful articles I've seen on nuclear energy for a while. Many of us who have prayed to the God of Fusion (Hydrogen to Helium) for decades have only had silence in return. All the best to the Brits, may the Gods of Fission smile upon them.
@Smith2031 -- Someone needed to correct corwinb, but you are not the person to do it... Why? Because you don't know the difference between fission and fusion reactions.
To wit; fusion reactions, such as the nuclear process that occurs in a star, like our Sun, FUSES lighter elements into heavier ones. Ie; hydrogen fuses into helium. Fission reactions are just the opposite of fusion; fission reactions split heavy elements into lighter elements. Ie; uranium into barium and krypton.
To all the people trying to point out trying to point out the inaccuracies being uttered by people confusing fusion and fission; THANK YOU! You're lone voices of intelligence in a wilderness of ignorance.
To all the people who think a thorium reactor can "melt down", you did NOT read the article, but if you did, you obviously didn't understand hardly any word you read.
@gorash -- You're simply ignorant beyond measure. As people with an understanding in physics: ie; engineering, chemistry, have been trying to get the ignorant to understand, "green" energy isn't GREEN. It consumes more resources in land and materials than any of the traditional methods of generating electricity.
your a fool, renewable energy will never beable to replace fossil fuels, the only way to replace it is through nuclear power, there are safe and reliable nuclear technology out there, but everytime someone like you comes around and hears nuclear you think of the incredible hulk and japab and think, "NO NO we can't use nuclear energy its dangerous" yes it WAS dangerous, 30-40 yrs ago, now we have very safe technology that we aboslutely need to be using......you fool
Hit ctrl+F and type in the word fusion. Scroll back to the top and type the word fission. The article says it's a fusion reactor. Any fission reactor will melt down whether there is input energy or not because fission is a chain reaction whereas fusion requires a sustained input of force.
For those others saying it doesn't produce uranium you should look up Thorium fuel cycle.
Aww, look at all the sensitive people who can't deal with the facts...
The fact is that there are 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to power the entire world's electricity. And as the solar panel technology improves, and the manufacturing cost decreases as it is happening right now, it just makes economic sense to go solar, while nuclear and fossil-fuels' cost will skyrocket in the future. Renewables are inevitable, and it just makes sense. Sticking to out-dated, polluting 19th century technology like fossil-fuels and nuclear is not going to cut it, and they're not going to save us.
Continuing with nuclear is just an act of insanity, since we haven't even figured out a way to deal with the radioactivity and nuclear waste. Once they have figured out a way to properly deal with radioactivity, then we'll talk. Otherwise, it's just another Fukushima and Chernobyl waiting to happening. And no, nuclear plants are NOT "safe"... rofl. You should really stop drinking the kool-aid offered by the nuclear industry, and stop buying into their marketing hype.
Besides, like I said, nuclear is just expensive as hell. And it takes DECADES just to build new nuclear plants. So even if we somehow wanted to use and expand nuclear, it's just not a viable solution. To power up the entire world with nuclear alone it'd require 1000's of new nuclear plants, and that's just not possible, even just from a financial point of view. Plus if we accelerate the pace of nuclear power then the precious uranium will deplete in as early as 40 years. Anyone who thinks that nuclear is the future is insane and has not done their homework.
Nuclear plants aren't safe, huh? That explains why almost a quarter of Europe's power has been supplied by them for decades now without a single incident, not even with the older plants. Mmhmm. Yep, that's unsafe all right. Sounds to me like you're the one drinking the kool-aid here, only from the solar power industry, instead.
While it's true that the sun produces way more energy than we could possibly use at once, harnessing it on a large enough scale to be our ultimate energy solution is simply not possible yet. For that, we need to start working on orbital solar power generators that beam energy back down to Earth, so that we can keep the power supply flowing 24/7. Our current technology level isn't anywhere near good enough to produce truly efficient solar panels right now, and besides, if the things are on land, they're subject to cloudy weather and will always shut down at night. That's not gonna cut it, no matter how sensitive we make them or how much we spread them around.
Anyway, I don't think nuclear fission is the future of power generation, either, simply because the fuel is not the easiest to obtain. It's a nice stopgap, but nothing more. For the long haul, give me either nuclear fusion or something that harnesses interstellar radiation. Nothing else is going to cut it if we ever want to get off this rock and move to other plants.
Again. It doesn't make a damn. Modern industrial civilization will end when we squeeze the last drop of oil from the earth and dont have the energy needed to build new infrastructure. The people in power right now could give a rip because they're withered old white men that will be dead in 20 years at best. Our entire modern society is started with oil and it will end with oil.
@frong Just because we don't hear anything in the mainstream news about severe nuclear accidents on the scale of Chernobyl and Fukushima doesn't mean that there aren't dozens of small to medium nuclear plant accidents occurring every year that could have lead to another Chernobyl and Fukushima.
And we can store the energy in nano-engineered fuel cells, which are already available today.
Actually, you don't hear about them because they don't happen. Yes, there are mistake but very few ever get.reported because the safety masures work as intended, so no harm done. Yes, nuclear is dangerous, but even after Fukushima, which was bad, all the lives and environmental damage caused by coal mining and its missteps makes it no more than a drop in the bucket.
Also, it is a form of fission, but itvery different from the more standard ideas of a fission reaction, because this one requires an accelaratorto start and maintain the reaction and the reason meltdown risk is mini. Power failure is the main cause of meltdown and if the accelerator loses juice, there's no more reaction.
As for solar, I agree it would be optimal, if it were economically feasible, which it is not currently. It probably won't be til we can get them into space, as a previous poster stated. Current solar cell and battery tech simply isn't. Efficient enoug, or cheap enough, to provide continous power through the entire day for an average person. Not for a couple of decades still. It would be awesomeif if smeone started buildng.sunsats sometime in my lifetime, but I'm not going to hold my breath about it.
@Shooky56 and @kherzul: There is actually on fusion taking place. Fusion is when two elements combine to produce a new element. ex. hydrogen combining with hydrogen to create helium. It's the basis of nucleosynthesis! Awesome cool! Anyways, the thorium fuel cycle consists of Thorium-232 absorbing a slow neutron(not proton) to become thorium-233. If it absorbed a proton, it would become protactinium(i believe. whatever element has 91 protons). The second step in the thorium fuel cycle is the beta decay of thorium-233 into protactinium-233. This is not fusion; it is nuclear decay (yes, it does involve the absorption of a proton, but it is not two elements combining). The next and final step in the thorium fuel cycle is another beta decay into uranium-233, a fissionable fuel. tadah!
I love PV's. I think harvesting energy from light is wonderful...however, if you truly understand what is going on inside on a nuclear scale, i don't understand why anyone wouldn't want to go nuclear! You are adding a neutron to a nucleus to cause instability and force it to split into two, releasing gargantuan amounts of energy! Come on now, don't tell me you aren't impressed by something so small!
@Maybe Please stop kidding yourself and everybody else... If you do a simple Google search, then you will see that there are hundreds of nuclear accidents occurring every year all over the world. I mean that's the problem with you nuclear folks, you think that nuclear is perfect and has no flaws, and completely ignore the dangers of nuclear. You just cover your ears and go "la la la la, I cant hear youuu, nuclear is safe, safe, safe, safe because I say that it is safe so it must be safe!" Then you go ahead and ignore all the warnings that people make against the nuclear plants and let something like Fukushima happen.
And after Fukushima and Chernobyl, we KNOW that it isn't safe. We KNOW that something CAN go seriously, catastrophically wrong with nuclear. There is no denying that nuclear is not safe by any chance. Please, so stop fooling yourself.
@dhagan If you truly understand the effects of this thing called radiation released from the nuclear reaction which are harmful to humans, then I don't see how you would WANT to go nuclear. You have only bothered to look at all the good things about nuclear, but you ignore all the bad ones, such as dealing with potential radiation releases, which would potentially be catastrophic to us human species and the world. Radiation released into the environment would be IRREVERSIBLE, as it would remain in the environment for 100's, 1000's, or even millions of years. The fact is that we haven't even figured out a way to deal with all the radioactivity. Nuclear is still an experiment that has pretty much failed. We should not be using nuclear until we have come up with a way to clean up the radioactivity. Mindlessly promoting nuclear and ignoring its dangers that it poses to the humankind is just plain irresponsible