Why Haven’t We Been Back to the Moon?

Many explanations are given for the reason why we haven’t returned to the moon, ranging from general apathy to extraterrestrials warning us off.

I believe what we’re really seeing is a symptom of having reached peak society.  July 20, 1969 represents peak society.  That’s the real peak that should concern us, not peak oil.

The reason we made it then and can’t make it back now is that the coherence of society has decreased since that time.

In my view, society is a living thing, and like anything it reaches a peak and then declines.  We’ve hit the peak, just barely made it to the moon during that peak, and now we’re on the downside.

I, in my mid-50’s, have come to realize that most of my decline has been more from apathy than from physiology, and so it is also with our society.

Right now we’ve got some serious illnesses in our society, ever increasing prison populations, a loss of civil rights, privacy, individual autonomy, unsustainable energy production methods, unsustainable agriculture, unsustainable water usage patterns, unsustainable mineral extraction and usage, unsustainable disposal of waste products.

All of these are these things are solvable with current technology, only the will to solve them is lacking.

Take prison populations, science tells us that longer sentences actually result in higher recidivism rates, and this shouldn’t be surprising.  You take someone away from living in society for a period, they forget how, they lose access to the resources necessary to do so, so what alternative do they have except to return to what they know to survive?

Science tells us that for every dollar spent in genuine rehabilitation programs, job training, chemical dependence treatment, sex offender treatment, schooling, providing the resources needed for felons to get back on their feet, three dollars in future prison costs are saved.  The savings aren’t just economic though, the social benefits of helping to keep families intact, the human savings, are enormous.

What to do about crime then?  One thing that influences crime significantly is the distribution of incomes.  The greater the economic diversity, the greater the crime rate.

Another thing that doesn’t seem to get much note, is mental health.  Having spent time at Airway Heights correctional facility, it is obvious that a large percentage of the inmates there are either bipolar or schizophrenic, not in a subtle way that might be difficult to diagnose but in a blatant “these people are just plain not functional” way.

One person I was with there was a Vietnam veteran who has been hit with a mortar or some form of explosive and it was estimated flew some 250 feet in the air.  He suffered severe brain damage which left him in a coma for six months.  After coming out of the coma he joined the Hells Angles where while drunk he shot and killed someone and was sentenced to life imprisonment.  He had been there for 27 years when I was there.

Now maybe my thinking is distorted, but he didn’t volunteer to go to Vietnam, he was drafted and sent there against his will, severely damaged as a result, and then punished with life imprisonment for his damage.  Maybe it’s just me but that’s screwed up.

Lacking treatment, they will still be non-functional when returned to society.  It costs approximately $46,000 a year to house an inmate in prison, I have to think treatment would be less expensive economically, and certain less expensive socially.

Take the issue of civil rights, those are being eroded because we allow them to be, we decide it’s okay to silence our opponents through the law, it’s okay to spy on everyone in the name of “safety”, it’s okay to take half of what we produce and do what mostly benefits the powerful elite.  We have to disarm ourselves from any weapons that might be effective in fighting a totalitarian regime.

Energy production, a decade ago we were told that solar and wind would never be economically competitive with fossil fuels, today solar and wind are both competitive with the cheapest and most environmentally damaging fossil fuel, coal.  They keep telling us that neither wind nor solar can contribute more than 20% to our power grid because of their unreliability but both Germany and the Netherlands have been able to exceed a 30% contribution largely through geographical diversity, and yet the United States which has the potential for much greater geographical diversity only gets about 2% of it’s electrical energy needs from solar.

The argument is made that wind and solar can’t provide baseload capacity and thus have to be backed up by an equal amount of conventional generation.  This would only be true if there were no diversity and there were no relationship between peak production and peak load.  With both there is very much diversity available in the United States and with Solar the generation closely matches electrical load.

Then there is Geo-thermal, we have ample resources in this area although the most ample, those in Yellowstone, aren’t allowed to be tapped.  In terms of overall environment, we should not only allow but encourage geothermal resources in Yellowstone to be tapped.

Unsustainable water usage is another problem, there are two big things we can do to greatly improve this situation.  The bulk of our water usage is for agriculture.  The first thing we need to do is plant crops that are suitable to their environment.  The second, is switch from aerial sprayers for irrigation to drip irrigation with soil sensors that shut off water when it reaches appropriate depths.  This will not only reduce wasted water but it will also stop leaching valuable minerals out of the soil.

I could go on but the bottom line is all of these problems we are experiencing, there are social and technological fixes, the one problem we don’t seem to get over, is the same one that is keeping an extra fifty pounds around my mid-section, and that’s apathy.


Earth 2100

Search the Internet for the year 2100, and what you will invariably find are post apocalyptic scenarios where civilization has been destroyed by a combination of resource depletion, starvation, and environmental destruction.

It might turn out that way, if we make poor choices, but I do feel there are alternatives.

In 2013, 30+% of new energy infrastructure installed was renewable.  We have reached the tipping point in which renewables are often the least expensive energy option, even cheaper than coal.  As fossil fuels continue to deplete and renewable energy technology and scales of production continue to improve, this trend will continue and accelerate.

If Lockheed Martin makes good on their plans for a working prototype 100MW compact fusion reactor by 2017, and commercial units by 2022, then energy will become a non-issue, cheap abundant non-polluting energy.  The only waste will be helium which actually is industrially quite valuable. Even without this, the trend in renewables will change our future drastically for the good.

If the energy issue is resolved, then so are many of our other resource depletion issues because with adequate energy recycling of many materials, now considered too energy costly to recycle, becomes viable.  Metals, plastics, concrete, asphalt, paper, all are recyclable if adequate energy is available.

Food production is limited by the amount of arable land.  What prevents much land from not being arable is lack of water.  We have no shortage of water, just most of it happens to be salty and therefore not useful for things like growing crops or human or animal consumption.  However, with adequate energy, desalinization becomes trivial, more land becomes arable, and food production ceases to be a problem.

Destruction of our environment is still an issue, carbon dioxide is probably still the number one issue, becomes a non-issue with these new energy sources.  Other issues remain, medical wastes, industrial wastes, sewage, these are things we still need to address.  Again energy helps.

Nuclear waste, what can we do with that?  Well, a type of reactor that has the fuel dissolved in liquid salt, and uses on site reprocessing, can ‘burn’ the actinides, that is the waste products heavier than Uranium.  In the process it can provide almost 100 times as much energy as the first past through a conventional reactor provided.

It leaves only fission products, most of which decay to safe levels in days to decades, not in 100,000 year time frames that many of the long-lived actinides require.  Of those, only a couple of isotopes have significant half-lives, and those could be destroyed in accelerators, if we were willing to invest the energy to do so, and that investment would not seem to significant if we had adequate renewable or fusion energy available.  It would be a bargain compared to trying to find a safe way to dispose of or contain this stuff for 100,000 years.

All of these gives me reason to believe that all the doom and gloom sites might be wrong.  We need not run out of energy or destroy our environment creating it.  We need not run out of other resources if we stop wasting them.  And we need not glow in the dark and die an early cancer death from high radiation in our environment.

There are other concerns that I do have, like ZERO privacy as surveillance technology continues to improve, or a totalitarian government, a much larger difference between the haves and have-nots in society if greed continues to prevail, a society where the small percentage that are wealthy can live in near perfect health almost indefinitely owing to continued advancements in medical technology while the rest of us live an unhealthy life and die an early death.

These aren’t things we necessarily must experience, it’s a matter of choice now.  I keep hoping that people will wake-up and make better choices than they are now.

Fusion – National Ignition Facility – Lawrence Livermore Lab

There are some fusion developments I can get excited about but the recent news from Lawrence Livermore isn’t one of them.

Although they achieved technical break-even, which is the point at which more energy came out of a fusion reaction than went into initiating it, it’s a long ways from real break even, given the inefficiency of the lasers, and certainly from economy break-even given that 192 extremely high power lasers need to be fired, and a single firing can’t be repeated with any frequency, certainly not the frequency that would be required for practical power generation.

The NIF is primary a research facility for understanding how a nuclear fusion bomb, that is a hydrogen bomb might work, given that we aren’t testing the real thing now.  It likes to present itself as a peaceful energy development resource but really it’s not a practical route to peaceful fusion energy.

On the other hand, Lockheed Skunk Works, which traditionally has created military hardware, expects to have a prototype 100MW trailer sized fusion reactor by 2017, and commercial production of same by 2022.  Skunk Works reactor is a magnetic confinement reactor similar to Tokamak, but unlike a Tokamak reactor where the magnetic field decreases as you get away from the center of the plasma, and thus is inherently unstable, Skunk Works design has a magnetic field that increases as you get away from the center of the plasma and thus is inherently stable.  It is also much more compact than a Tokamak design, and therefore likely to be less expensive.

False Flag

Last night I had a dream where I was in an area of large rolling hills.  It was a suburban area with houses and a lot of open grassy area.

My wife and I were walking and all the sudden a couple of military jets flew over at a low altitude and then they started dropping bombs.  On another pass I saw they were Russian MIGs but somehow I knew they were not being flown by Russian pilots.  It was a false flag operation intended to start a war with the Russians.

Up on top of the hill were some institutional buildings, one of which belonged to the Federal Reserve.  It was a 4 or 5 story very heavily built stone building.  It had a large arch entrance way that I felt would be safe from the bombs.  I also felt it would be safe there for another reason, I believed the same people behind the Federal Reserve were also behind this false flag operation.

As we were running for this building my alarm clock went off.  What a lousy way to wake up!

2014 Here We Come

2014 is already here in most of the United States, less than an hour away where I am.

I’m looking forward to the new year, I see many positive signs.  Two things have been dragging the economy down, energy shortages and education.

Where energy is concerned, anytime the economy would heat up, so would energy consumption, demand would exceed supply, prices would skyrocket, and the economy would recede.  This is beginning to change.  First, fracking, with all it’s environmental problems, is temporarily expanding the availability of fossil fuels.  This is only a temporary fix however.  The second thing is that both wind and now solar have reached the point where they are becoming economically viable and competitive with conventional energy sources, and as a result their adaptation has been increasing exponentially.

Where education is concerned, we’ve run into a situation where there are jobs that go unfilled because we don’t have enough people trained in new technologies that are being widely deployed, while we are artificially creating ditch-digging jobs to employ people with inadequate education but this is not sustainable.

Artificial intelligence is starting to supplement human intelligence in technologically demanding areas and technological education is becoming widely available online and as competition expands, there are educational bargains to be had.  More and more information is available online allowing people to self-educate more effectively.  Conventional colleges and universities are also going online, which broadens their perspective audiences and forces them to be more competitive.

In 2014, I see both of these trends continuing and expanding.  As our energy supplies become more sustainable, predictable, and environmentally sound, I believe we’ll see our economy continue to expand.

I also believe we will be seeing more technological developments that will make new energy sources available to us and allow us to use existing sources more effectively, such as improvements in batteries, electrical transmission, and developments in fusion, both cold and hot, and understanding of physics.

We will see some of these developments come out of China, which more than any other nation, has an urgent need to develop cleaner energy sources.  Their pollution is so bad that it is actually reducing agricultural output.  They have made significant advances in their fusion research program, particularly the EAST nuclear fusion tokamak reactor proved the super-conducting magnet technology necessary for commercial power producing tokamak fusion reactors.

Another thing that has hurt our economy is “The Fed”, which has intentionally held the money supply at levels that keep the unemployment rate above 6% and the inflation rate below 1.5%.  I believe more reasonable inflation rate target would be 3%.  I believe that BitCoin and possibly other electronic currencies will lift the cap off the Feds ability to restrict the economy.  I believe this will contribute to a stronger world economy.

God or whatever label you might want to call a greater power or awareness is tweaking things beyond our control in ways that save us from ourselves.  For example, if we look at the subject of global warming, global temperatures has been increasing at a rate of about .1ºC per decade, but this is masked by changes in the solar radiation over the 11 year solar cycle that result in about a .3ºC swing between the solar minimum and maximum, so during times when the solar activity is decreasing, global temperature decreases happen faster than global warming caused by increased carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor and people point at that and say global warming isn’t real.

Well, for those of us who actually understand this cycle we know that it is real, however, this solar cycle, the peak has been extremely weak, and perhaps it will remain weak long enough for oil from fracking to run out.

I’m going to make another prediction, Fukushima won’t significantly impact our health, even those of us on the West Coast, except maybe mental, and perhaps dietary changes that people make because they’re afraid they’ll get radiation poisoning from eating seafood. This isn’t to say that it’s a good thing, it’s just that the ocean and the world is a huge thing and by the time the radiation reaches us here it is very dilute.  People that are nearby where the radioisotopes haven’t been heavily diluted will be more affected.  I’m not saying Fukushima is a good thing, but it’s not the end of the world, and in many ways might even be good, for example by pushing us to saner sustainable energy sources.

Another positive I see this year is that sales of electric cars and LED lighting will grow and this will contribute towards a positive energy situation.  17% of the electricity in the United States is used for lighting and LED lighting is even more efficient than compact fluorescent, doesn’t contain mercury, is longer lasting, can be dimmed, is available in non-flickering varieties, and almost any color you could want.  Prices are rapidly coming down and as they do we’ll see the percentage of energy used for lighting come down significantly.

With respect to electric cars, because most will be charged overnight, and there is enough surplus generating capacity at night that if the entire US fleet went electric they could be charged without adding any additional capacity, switching to electric will save huge amounts of energy.

Many people will tell you electric cars just move the pollution source but this isn’t true because most power plants can’t be rapidly throttled so at night huge amounts of energy are just dissipated as heat into the atmosphere when there isn’t demand for it on the grid.  The exception to this is hydro and to a lesser degree natural gas plants.  But for the most part, electric cars will use energy that otherwise would have just been dumped as heat in cooling towers.  They will allow the electricity generated to be used more efficiently and should result in a reduction in the cost of electricity.

On an energetic level; if you take a metal plate and put it on top of a speaker and sprinkle some salt on it, and feed it with an amplifier fed with an audio signal generator, at various frequencies the salt will form various geometric patterns as resonances in the metal plate are found.  As the frequency increases, the complexity of the patterns increases.  Between resonant frequencies the salt takes on a very chaotic state without a clear pattern.

Now I think something like that happens in terms of the kind of spiritual energy of the planet, and as time goes on the energy frequency increases.  In the 50’s and 60’s we had low frequency resonances and patterns that were rather simple.  Then in the 70’s we went through a period between resonances and things were rather chaotic.  In the 80’s we went into another kind of resonances, a bit more complex than the 60’s and kind of ugly where greed became not only socially acceptable but popular.  In the late 90’s and the early 2000’s, we went through another chaotic period, and now we’re entering another higher frequency resonance and clear patterns are begin to emerge again but they are even more complex than those in the 80’s but also to me at least, they feel more positive.  I think a lot of the apathy we’ve seen in the last 15-20 years has been a direct result of this chaotic energetic pattern, and now that a new resonance pattern is starting to materialize, people will want to take an active part in shaping it to be a more beautiful one, and I see this as a positive.

One of the outcomes of this is that I think people are going to start to reject negatives like war, hatred, greed, restrictions on creativity, freedom, and I think this will be a natural aspect of the new resonance we’re coming into. I think this will have a positive impact on things like music, literature, and other forms of art.

I think it will become apparent that what is bringing us through these new energies is bigger than us and I think this will be a positive thing for the planet.

That’s not to say that we don’t have significant challenges in the coming year but I feel much more positive about our ability to confront and tackle them.

Here Comes The Sun!

Getting there may be ugly, we will undoubtedly experience more energy shortages as we delay investing in our future until the combination of fuel shortages and environmental ruin force our hands, but I am optimistic we will make the transition.

Solar panel production has reached a critical point where the economies of scale have brought costs down to where solar is economically competitive with conventional energy sources.  In 2013, 36 Gigawatts of new solar energy was installed.  In 2014 that number is projected to be between 45 and 49 Gigawatts.

The image below is taken from NASA’s Earth Observatory.  It illustrates what happens when we depend upon fossil fuels, especially coal, for our energy needs.

Heavy Smog covers Eastern China

Heavy smog, resulting primarily from coal, covers Eastern China.

This is not the future I want, but if we don’t ramp up renewable capacity to displace fossil fuels, this is the future we’ll be getting.

I’m not suggesting solar should be the only source in the mix, I think we have lots of clean options, wind, liquid-salt nuclear reactors that can burn the transuranics in existing nuclear waste, hydrogen fusion, Geo-thermal, but solar has reached the point where it is economically competitive with conventional sources, and that gives me cause for optimism.

Solar has the additional advantage that solar output tends to track grid demand fairly well, especially in southern states, and it can be installed anywhere, close to where demand and transmission facilities exist.  Wind is often cheaper to produce but the best wind resources, in the US that would be in the Midwest states, rarely coincides with where demand or transmission facilities exist, and wind tends not to track demand.  That may change somewhat as more electric vehicles hit the roads.

Fracking Very Short Term Fix

Fracking is a much touted technology for pushing off our need to wean ourselves from oil, environmental concerns aside, for another twenty years or so.  But recent indications in the depletion rates of Bakken field wells suggest otherwise.  They are showing very rapid depletion rates.  Maybe we’ll gain an additional five years of environmentally disastrous oil production, certainly not twenty.

I urge you all to take this short interval as an opportunity to prepare for days when oil is scarce to non-existent.  Instead of investing in the big SUV, consider a small hybrid or all-electric vehicle.  If you’ve got a good southern exposure to sunlight, consider installing solar on your roof.  If you’ve got room to grow some of your own food, do so, because not only is it the only way to get non-genetically engineered pesticide and herbicide free food, when the oil runs out, the farm machinery that these mega-corporate farms depend upon is going to sit and rust and so with it the food they produced.

If you have the money to become independent of fossil fuels, do so, you’ll allow others who don’t have that ability to survive a bit longer by reducing the demand and stretching the reserves that we have and you’ll provide for part of a functional economy that can help continue the conversion after the oil runs out.

Ocean Acidification

There is a lot of focus on CO2 and it’s affect on our climate.  While those concerns are legitimate, I believe a more legitimate concern is the acidification of the ocean that results when CO2 dissolves in it.  We are in effect turning our oceans into big glasses of soda-pop.  Carbolic acid inhibits the ability of shell fish to produce shells and that could severely disrupt the oceans Eco-system.

We should be concerned about this as three quarters of the worlds food supply comes from the ocean.  Oyster beds are failing along the Washington coast.  It is difficult to separate the effects of CO2 from human activities from other effects such as natural upwelling events and the inflow of fresh water. It is clear that in time the effects of anthropogenic CO2 emissions will overwhelm other variables. It is not just a matter of coral reefs that are threatened, it is our own food supply.


Unlimiting an Energy Limited Economy

We’ve all experienced the economic booms and busts, the ups and downs, and the feeling that sustained growth is something of the distant past never to be experienced again.  Some would argue that it’s better that it not be experienced again because the more the economy grows, the faster we destroy our environment.

These assumptions are both not necessarily true.  I mean that literally, they perhaps are true the current way we’re going about things, but they aren’t necessarily true if we do things more intelligently.  It used to be common wisdom that organisms would multiply to consume the available food supply and that humans were no exception.  Thus if you improved the economic conditions in impoverished regions of the world, their population would multiply as food supply permitted, until they were again impoverished.

More recent studies have shown that, where good economic conditions exist, people have fewer children, and in the United States, were it not for immigration from more impoverished regions, we would have negative population growth.

I would argue that another way that poverty hurts our environment is that it results in desperate measures to survive.  The future seems less important if we are in immediate danger of starving to death.

Right now the US economy, and to a large degree, the global economy, is limited by energy production.  As the economy grows, it reaches a point where it is consuming energy faster than it can be produced, the price of energy soars, and clamps economic growth.  Thus we are locked in this cycle of economic oscillation around energy supplies.

This not only locks us in a cycle of unnecessary misery and suffering, but it also results in unnecessary environmental harm.  When energy prices go through the roof, highly polluting sources like coal or fracking for hydrocarbons become appealing.  We’re willing to dirty the air or water table in order to meet our immediate needs and avoid starvation.

There are long term clean solutions.  If we analyze where all of our energy ultimately comes from, it is either hydrogen fusion, or to a lesser degree radio-active decay and fission, and even to a lesser degree than that, energy from the gravitational collapse that created the Earth.  Energy that we release through burning fossil fuels is energy stored that was originally created through fusion of hydrogen in our Sun.  When we build a Geo-thermal plant, we are using heat that is both generated from radio-active decay, some fission, and left over heat from gravitational collapse.  Wind farms capture energy that originated from hydrogen fusion on our sun.

Releasing the stored carbon in fossil fuels results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide entering our atmosphere.  When the Earth last had an atmosphere that was mostly carbon dioxide, the Sun was hotter but smaller so it’s effective radiation less.  The additional carbon dioxide kept the Earth from being a frozen ice ball but it didn’t provide for an ozone layer that blocked ultraviolet light.  That’s why early life on Earth was under water.  Under a few feet of water was the only place where ultraviolet light didn’t immediately destroy it.  Returning Earth to that environment wouldn’t be healthy for existing life forms, including humans, but now with the Sun a larger more mature star giving off more heat than it did in it’s early days, the Earth would also be much hotter, approaching Venus like temperatures.

Clearly, we need an alternative to fossil fuels, and going to the sources of the stored energy, nuclear fusion and nuclear fission, are the most promising solutions.  We can collect solar energy as it arrives at the Earth.  The problem there is that it is diffuse.  Solar energy when it strikes the surface at 90º, which only happens within 23º of the equator, and then only for a small fraction of the year, amounts to about 900 watts / square meter at sea level.  Still, this is enough for the rooftops of many homes to provide sufficient energy for that homes electrical needs.  Wind and hydroelectric power are basically using nature to concentrate energy collected over a larger area into a smaller area to harvest.  Germany and The Netherlands both derive a substantial portion of their electrical needs from wind power.

A more concentrated form of energy is desirable, that derived directly from releasing a portion of the nuclear binding energy in atoms, either in the form of nuclear fission or fusion.  Nuclear fission thus far has been an unreliable and extremely dangerous technology which produces a hazardous waste which must be stored 100,000 years before it decays back to a level which is safe.  Nuclear fusion hasn’t yet produced a watt of commercial power.  But there have been promising developments in both fields.

In the area of nuclear fission, a type of reactor which rather than putting the fuel in solid rods, suspends it in liquid salts, called a molten salt reactor, promises to change the nuclear industry in ways that would make it compatible with people, both in terms of safety and in terms of radioactive waste.  Conventional pressurized water and boiling water reactors have solid fuel in fuel rod assemblies. The solid fuel is usually in the form of uranium oxide and sometimes plutonium oxide is also used as a portion of the fuel.

The Uranium used is a combination of U-235 (the fissile material) and U-238 (the fertile material).  Natural uranium is around 99.3% U-238 and .7% U-235.  It has to be isotopically enriched to around 3-5% U-235 for use in most commercial power reactors (Canadian CANDU reactors can operate with as little as 2% enrichment).

In a newly fueled reactor, if an emergency occurs and control rods are used to shut down the reaction, the fuel quickly cools because the natural decay rates do not provide large amounts of heat.  After a reactor has been operating a while, several things happen, U-235 is split into fission products, atomic fragments, many of which are unstable and have short half-lives.  Uranium also captures neutrons and forms transuranic elements (elements heavier than Uranium) some of which have short half-lives and some very long half-lives.  Now, if an emergency occurs and the reactor is shut down, these fission products and short-lived transuranics, continue to decay emitting a large amount of heat which is sufficient to melt the fuel and the reactor vessel in the absence of active cooling.  This is what makes these reactors so dangerous, even if they’re shut-down, that doesn’t stop them from melting down.

The long term transuranic elements, especially plutonium, are what make the radioactive waste from these reactors such a problem.  Because it takes 100,000 years for this mix to decay to the point where they are safe, it creates a storage problem that no civilization including ours can hope to solve. On the other hand, the fission products are mostly short-lived and within a couple hundred years will decay to a safe level, making them a less tractable storage problem.  Because conventional uranium fueled reactors produce one particular isotope of plutonium, Pu-239, in preference to others, and that isotope is ideally suited for making bombs, conventional reactors are also problematic in the area of nuclear proliferation.

Since conventional reactors hold their fuel in solid fuel rods, the fission products are also held in those same rods.  Many of those fission products absorb neutrons efficiently and poison the nuclear chain reaction.  As a result, these rods must be removed and reprocessed when only a small portion of the fuel is “burned”.  The fuel has to be stored in on-site ponds until the radiation level cools to the point where it can be transported and reprocessed.

New molten salt design reactors address all of these problems.  The fuel is suspended in molten salt rather than in solid fuel rods.  This allows waste products to be continuously removed so that they do not continue producing heat if the reactor is shut down.  Reprocessing takes place on-site so there is no need to store fuel rods or to transport them offsite for processing.  This reduces the potential for accidents and terrorist actions.

The molten-salt reactor naturally has a negative temperature coefficient, which means, as the temperature increases, the reaction rate decreases.  This is caused by two physical effects.  As the temperature rises, the salts the fuel is suspended in expand, and as they expand, it moves the fissile atoms farther apart decreasing the reaction rate.  The second effect is related to Doppler shifting of the neutron energy level.  Only neutrons of a specific energy level are readily absorbed by fissile atoms creating a fission.  As temperatures increase, the relative movement on one atom nuclei to another increases, causing the energy spectrum of the neutrons emitted by one atom as seen by another to be broader, and as a result, a smaller percentage of neutrons fall within the energy window where they can be efficiently absorbed maintaining the chain reaction.

If the temperature rises too high, a melt plug in the bottom of the reaction tank melts allowing fuel to drain into a much larger holding tank.  The geometry of the holding tank is such that fuel is dispersed over a much larger area by gravity.  It can no longer maintain the reaction, and since it’s not carrying a large amount of fission products with it, quickly cools and solidifies.  This makes the molten salt reactor an inherently safe design in that, if cooling is lost, it shuts itself down and contains the fuel.

The molten salt reactor, in addition to being able to burn uranium fuel, can also function with a thorium fuel cycle.  Thorium, which is four times as abundant on the Earth’s surface as uranium, also does not produce large quantities of Pu-239, and does provide many other isotopes which render it’s transuranic produces much less suitable for bombs than uranium fueled reactors.  In addition, molten salt reactors can be configured as “burners” rather than “breeders”, using fast rather than thermal neutrons, to burn transuranic waste products produced in other reactors, leaving only short lived fission products and transforming the 100,000 year nuclear waste problem into a more manageable 200 year problem.  It is estimated that we could provide for 70-100 years of the worlds electricity needs by using existing waste alone and not mining another gram of uranium.  Just to be clear, you can’t run a molten-salt reactor on just transuranics (except for Pu-239), because, with the exception of Pu-239, other transuranics have a less than 50% probability of fissioning after absorbing a neutron so they won’t sustain a chain reaction alone.  They can only be used mixed with U-235, U-233, or Pu-239 fuel.

The problem we face with nuclear fission isn’t a scientific problem, it’s a political and economic problem.  With all of the problems we’ve had with conventional reactors, there is significant resistance to building more conventional plants.  This makes investors less willing to back something new, but something new is really necessary, not only to address our energy problems but also to clean up the huge mess that we’ve already made.

Are molten salt reactors completely safe with no potential problems?  Well, no, plumbing still breaks.  Anytime you have something mechanical, things break.  Putting that much energy into a small area stresses materials, things break.  But they can be designed to be passively safe, that is, lose active cooling, electricity, and not melt down or release fuel or fission products into the surrounding environment.  Bottom line though, I think there is a viable sane route to using fission for electricity production, it’s just not the one we’re on now.

In the arena of fusion interesting things are happening. Skunk Works Program Manager Charles Chase has outlined their plan for creating a 100 MW Fusion prototype by 2017.  What we aren’t being told is the specifics of how he plans to do this other than it is a scaled down fusion reactor, around 100MW.  This is exciting news if it is true except that the question of whether or not this technology will be available for civilian purposes remains since Skunk Works develops technology under military contracts and thus under military restrictions and controls, it’s possible this technology may never see civilian light.

Then there are some exciting developments in the arena of cold fusion at NASA and elsewhere.  It’s no longer marginally reproducible, and it’s more complex than simple fusion, the most recent incarnations also transmuting nickle into copper in the process.  The energy to weight ratio is on the order of 1000 times better than gasoline.

Personally, I’m betting on the Chinese to be the first to bring fusion online for commercial power generation owing to their willingness to put the necessary resources into developing it, and their willingness comes out of necessity, they’re currently choking on coal emissions and they’re still struggling to provide for the energy needs of industry and also rural electrification.  But there does seem to be quite a lot of promising developments in this field.

The Grid, AC/DC, Good News

If we were to have another Carrington event (huge solar mass ejection in 1859) today, we would have massive damage to our electrical grid.  The reason for this is that when a large CME hits Earth’s magnetosphere, it compresses the Earth’s magnetic field on the Sun side.  As it does, the magnetic field lines cut across long distance transmission lines, inducing a very low frequency current (almost DC).

Transformers that terminate the line on either end are inductive.  They have a high impedance at 60Hz (or 50Hz in some countries) that they are designed to operate at but a very low impedance at the low frequencies induced in the lines by Solar CME’s.  The actual voltage induced in the lines isn’t large but because the transformers impedance is so low at the frequencies induced, huge currents flow, burning out transformer windings.  The longer the line, the higher the voltage and thus currents.

High voltage DC transmission lines are not affected because the voltage induced is only a very small percentage of the line voltage and can readily be compensated for by the terminal equipment.

High voltage DC lines also require fewer conductors and can be operated at 1.414 times the voltage of an AC line using the same insulators owing to the fact that insulators need to be sized for the peak of the AC waveform and not the average.  This allows a DC line to carry considerably more power than an AC line using the same insulators.

A DC line can also be operated at a higher current for the same conductors.  There are two reasons for this.  AC lines can tolerate very little heat because it causes the cable to sag, resulting in a longer path, and thus shifts the phase of the AC power so that it won’t be in phase with other sources.  Because DC has no phase concerns, higher temperatures and more sag can be tolerated. Lines carrying AC power also suffer from what is known as the skin effect.  The current flowing through the conductor creates a magnetic field that induces a counter current and tends to force the current to the outside of the conductor, thus the inner portion effectively carries little current.  Because a constant current flows in a DC line, magnetic lines of force are not moving, no skin effect results.

Long AC lines are effective antennas and radiate away a significant portion of their power, sometimes as much as 20% for very long lines.  DC lines do not radiate and so do not loose power to radiation.  This is not only good from an efficiency standpoint, it’s also good from a health standpoint.  50HZ and 60HZ AC magnetic fields have been associated with higher levels of leukemia and bone cancers.  DC lines eliminate this low frequency AC field.

For those curious as to how a low frequency AC field can induce cancer, AC fields cause ions to spiral as they cross through ion channels in cell membranes.  This reduces the efficiency of cell membrane ion transport.  Some blood pressure drugs that work by decreasing ion transport across cell membranes have also been linked to slightly higher leukemia and bone cancer rates and so it is plausible that low frequency magnetic fields may be causing these cancers through this mechanism, but I know of no definitive research to validate this hypothesis.

Eliminating this radiation is a good thing. Although the magnetic fields from the wiring in your house is probably much stronger owing to your closer proximity to them. This probably accounts for the weakness of the statistical link between power lines and these cancers. The AC magnetic field radiated from your house wiring obscures the effect of that radiated from power lines because of proximity.  Electromagnetic field strength decreases as the square of the distance, the fields generated by the power lines are much greater but you are much closer to your house wiring.

Using DC transmission is one way to inter-tie grids of different frequency or phase.  Presently there are three different grids in the United States and phase differences are the reason they can’t be inter-tied with AC transmission links.  When the distances get too great, phase shift caused by line sag causes problems.

DC transmission lines become financially economical when their length exceeds approximately 700km.  The terminal expenses for a DC line are greater, but the transmission line is less costly, because the same copper and insulators can carry much more DC power than AC.  Less land is required because there is no electromagnetic radiation from DC lines and fewer physical lines are required.

DC transmission lines are more efficient when their length exceeds about 300km.  There is some loss in the AC/DC and DC/AC conversion process in the terminal equipment, but if the line is longer than 300km, the reduced losses in the line more than compensate for the loss in the terminal equipment.  For long lines, the savings can be tremendous.

In the United States, as is many countries, the population centers do not correspond well with the location of renewable energy resources.  In the United States, one of the most economical renewable resources is wind power in the mid-west, but demand is largely on the East and West coasts and Great Lakes region.  The problem is that grid capacity to get power from the mid-west to these regions is insufficient to non-existent.

As those of you who have followed this blog over the years know, I’ve been advocating the adoption of high voltage DC power transmission for lines longer than 300km for years.  In China, DC transmission is already widespread, but in the United States, it’s adoption has been slow.  So when the big CME hits, the whole world won’t go dark, much of China and parts of Europe will still have a functional grid.

The good news is there is some movement in the United States to remedy this situation.  The Tres Amigas project aims to create a 5000 MW DC-to-DC inter-tie in Clovis, NM, to tie together the Eastern, Western, and Texas grid.  This would also provide a place from which mid-west generated wind power could feed into all three grids.  Unfortunately, DC would only be used to inter-connect the three grids, transmission to and from this facility would still be over inefficient and vulnerable AC transmission lines.  Also, there is no completion date as of yet, this is still a project in the planning and funding phase.

A 500 mile HVDC line that would span from O’Brien County, Iowa to Grundy County, Illinois, would bring power from Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota where there is much wind generation potential but where existing transmission facilities are already operating at capacity and thus unable to take further power, to Chicago and cities farther East.  This line is scheduled for completion in 2017.  There is a group opposing it as it will compete with energy produced in Illinois and the East Coast (yeah, we just love our coal soot).

The TransWest Express Transmission Project aims to build a 3000 MW HVDC transmission line from an area near Rawlins, Wyoming, to Las Vegas, Nevada, to deliver power from wind farms in Wyoming to Nevada, Arizona, and California.  This project is scheduled to begin construction in 2014 and be operational in 2015.

The Pacific Inter-tie originally went into service in 1970 using mercury ARC tubes for conversion, transmitted 1400 MW from the Pacific Northwest to California.  Between 1984 and 2006, a series of upgrades ultimately raised the capacity to 3500 MW.

There are a few other small DC lines in the United States, but the big HVDC build outs are happening in China.  I don’t know what happened to this countries ability to get it done, but it seems we are lagging behind the world in so many ways, when we used to be leaders.  It seems all of our capital goes into the war machine and now the domestic spying machine instead of needed infrastructure and innovation.