Posts Tagged TEC

Turning away from turbines

Posted by Mark Halper on January 25th, 2013

Conversion factor. Matthew Simmons thinks his thermoelectric technology could replace turbines for converting nuclear heat to electricity. Here he addresses an October TED conference in Auckland, before heading to the Shanghai Thorium Energy Conference.

Look at any nuclear, coal, gas or geothermal power plant, and you will spot a turbine – a chunky rotary mechanical contraption full of moving parts that require serious maintenance and that can break down.  They convert heat – usually steam – into electricity, and in the inefficient process, they typically lose more energy than they transform.

So isn’t there a better way to morph all that warmth into electricity?

Matthew Simmons and his Hamilton, New Zealand innovation company, Arvus Group, believe there is.

“You convert the heat directly to electricity, with no moving parts,” says Simmons.

He’s working on a solid state thermoelectric technology he calls Thermagenz, which Arvus wll deploy first for geothermal power, but which Simmons believes could be a perfect match for the emerging “alternative” nuclear movement – especially for the high temperature reactors that could replace today’s conventional, lower temperature reactors.


“It’s all part of the rethink about nuclear,” says Simmons, who I spoke with via Skype today, and who I first met when he presented at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai last October. Many proponents of thorium fuel advocate using it in high temperature reactors like those using molten salt and pebble bed designs, in order to optimize superior performance and safety features compared to conventional uranium reactors.

The idea of Thermagenz is simple: eliminate turbines altogether by running steam or some other heat source through a bank of “hybrid peltier” semiconductors, and out comes electricity. Say goodbye to moving parts and all the potential malfunctions that go along with them, a development that as Simmons points out means “the maintenance is almost zero.”

Arvus’ first installation of Thermagenz will be a trial, 2-kilowatt geothermal demonstrator starting soon in Taupo on New Zealand’s North Island, where Simmons says they only have to dig a meter to hit 200 degree C heat. It plans a larger, 100-t0-500 kilowatt geothermal trial in southeast Asia later this year, where it hopes to operate at least one megawatt-plus installation by the end of next year in partnership with a utility.

In the geothermal deployments, Arvus sinks a proprietary thermal superconducting material that Simmons says loses practically no heat for up to a mile. The material – which he declines to name  – is  “30,000 times more conductive of heat than silver,” Simmons claims (silver is a well known as an effective heat conductor).


That heat feeds the solid state device, which can handle temperatures of up to 300 degrees C and which converts about 5-to-6 percent of the energy to electricity. Although that is much lower efficiency than what a turbine delivers, Simmons says the thermoelectric system as a whole offers huge advantages, including much lower operating and maintenance costs, as well as eliminating the need for precious water.

“The clean energy revolution isn’t really about efficiency. It’s about viability,” says Simmons.

But 5-to-6 percent efficiency and 300 degrees won’t cut it for high temperature nuclear applications, especially when many developers of MSRs, pebble beds and other alternative reactors are targeting temperatures of around 700-to-1,000 degreees C. (The good news is that Arvus’ high temperature superconducting pipe can deliver heat of up to 1,200 degrees, and can carry  that heat up to a mile beyond the reactor, where it would hand it over to the semiconductors for conversion to electricty).

That’s not lost on Simmons, who spoke at the Shanghai thorium conference to help generate interest among the thorium crowd and to initiate the long process of collaboration to help advance Thermagenz for nuclear applications.

Simmons says that the threshold for Thermagenz to compete on a par with turbines is about 15 percent efficiency operating at between 700 and 1,000 degrees C.


Are reactor developers interested? “Yes,” says Simmons who adds that he has several meetings coming up with nuclear companies in Europe and elsewhere. He’s also working with semiconductor companies and university research teams.

“We want to develop a semiconductor that can work at the higher temperatures so that we can potentially back our Thermagenz not only onto geothermal, but also on the back end of  high temperature reactors,” says Simmons.

Thermoelectric generation from nuclear heat is not a new idea. Spacecraft like the current Mars Curiosity use it, as did the Voyager from the 1970s. But those craft tap a highly costly and inefficient version which would not fly in commercial nuclear reactors.

Certainly plenty of technological and financial challenges lie ahead both with Arvus’ technology and with alternative reactor and fuel development.

“It’s a long arc,” says Simmons. “But it’s going to attract so many interesting companies, interesting problems and interesting people, and so it’s a really exciting hub of energy to be part of. Because this is a shift, a lot of people truly believe in the potential of thorium, and it’s giving rise to people to rethink about nuclear. “

It’s good to know that the blades of nuclear change are spinning not just on the fuel and reactor front, but in the generating room as well.

Image of Matthew Simmons is a screen grab from TED video via YouTube.

Takashi Kamei speaking in Shanghai recently, where he proposed an international group to oversee the   safe extraction, storage, and distribution of thorium.

Thorium holds incredible promise to power alternative reactor designs and usher in an era of much safer nuclear power that would underpin a C02-free energy future. But it has its potential hazards.

One of those is the significant – even deadly – environmental damage it could cause at the very beginning of its supply chain, when mining companies extract thorium from rare earth minerals like monazite in which thorium typically resides.

Thorium is mildly radioactive, so anyone pulling it out of the ground must store it properly – or better yet, arrange for its distribution to reactors once the world starts deploying thorium nuclear power.

This includes rare earth companies like those in China – the country that controls almost all the world’s rare earth production. For those companies, thorium can simply be a waste by-product with no use until China starts building thorium reactors – an area in which it has significant plans.

Sounding an alert that rare earth miners in China have not always followed strict safety procedures, Takashi Kamei of Japan’s Research Institute for Applied Sciences has proposed an international mechanism for assuring the safe extraction, storage and eventually distribution of thorium.

Speaking at the recent Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai, Kamei proposed an oversight group called the Organisation of Rare Earth Exportation Companies (OREEC) that would raise a tax from international rare earth consumers to help fund the safe handling of thorium at its origin.

Tax and protect: This slide from Kamei’s Shanghai presentation shows how rare earth customers would   fund the safe handling of thorium and rare earths.

“Thorium’s production is not so clean,” Kamei warned.

He implored consumers of rare earths to help finance the safe extraction and handling of the rare earth’s thorium by-product. Without such safety, the rare earths that are vital to so many products including environmentally beneficial items like hybrid cars and wind turbines could ironically trigger severe environmental damage (watch this blog space soon for some cold truth on rare earth’s CO2-reduction capabilities).

That, in turn, would mean that, “China’s thorium dream will disappear” as thorium would be rendered a “dangerous radioactive waste,” said Kamei, who besides advocating the international group,  is also designing thorium nuclear reactors.

“The question is who has the responsibility to take care of the remaining thorium,” Kamei noted, referring to the rare earth production’s thorium by-product. “And of course, this is the consumers.”

Kamei calls his proposed tax a “ThAX” – an acronym of thorium and tax – and notes that while it would represent a higher financial price to the end user, it would lower the environmental cost. (My editorial comment: Another solution might be for the producer to eat the costs of responsible production – feel free to comment below).

“If China sells rare earths at a cheaper price, they do not have the opportunity to take care of the thorium,” said Kamei, noting that the purpose of OREEC “is to protect the environment.”

Kamei’s idea echoes a similar plan – without the global tax – put forth in the U.S. by rare earth and thorium advocates Jim Kennedy and John Kutsch, of the Thorium Energy Alliance. They are lobbying Congress to support a federal rare earth co-operative as well as a “Thorium Bank” that would store thorium and prop up both the rare earth and thorium industries.

Photos by Mark Halper.

Alvin Weinberg: Good ideas in any language

Posted by Mark Halper on November 5th, 2012

Talking the talk. Weinberg’s vision of safe nuclear power based on designs like the thorium molten salt reactor make sense in any tongue. Above, Japan’s Dr. Moto-yasu Kinoshita of the University of Tokyo and the Thorium Molten-Salt Forum displays a Chinese language copy of Weinberg’s autobiography last week   in Shanghai.

Amid the overarching vision and technological updates at last week’s Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai, there was a book making the rounds that spoke volumes for the global reach of the ideas hatched by Dr. Alvin Weinberg some 50 years ago.

The book had a familiar title to it, but you wouldn’t know it at first if you didn’t read Mandarin.

That’s it in the picture above with the smart black and red cover.

Yes, it’s Weinberg’s autobiography, The First Nuclear Era – The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer  – translated into Chinese and proudly displayed at last week’s conference by Dr. Moto-yasu Kinoshita of the University of Tokyo, who is also vice president of the International Thorium Molten-Salt Forum. Dr. Kinoshita reads Mandarin.

China has kept an eye on thorium and liquid fuel reactors since at least the 1960s, when Dr. Weinberg was building his thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The Shanghai Institute of Nuclear Research held its first national conference on thorium back in 1965, and by 1971, the Shanghai Institute of Applied physics had built a zero-power molten salt reactor.


So it’s no wonder that after the guru of thorium molten salt reactors, Weinberg, published his autobiography in 1994, a Chinese translation quickly follow in 1996, published by China’s Atomic Power Publisher.

The book is a broad sweep of  Weinberg’s career in nuclear development and includes accounts of how the safe, non-proliferating reactors that he advocated, such as the TMSR, lost to more dangerous and inferior solid fuel uranium reactors that have come to define the industry.

It’s fair to assume that Weinberg’s thorium research, his writings, and his advocacy of safe nuclear have influenced China’s own thorium molten salt development.

China could now be on course to complete a liquid thorium molten salt reactor before any one else does, although as we reported last week, the Chinese Academy of Science’s Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) has pushed back its target completion date for a small test reactor by 3 years, to 2020.


And the tradition of gleaning wisdom from Oak Ridge continues, as SINAP is collaborating with the laboratory and with other U.S. Department of Energy entities to help it perfect its TMSR.

At last week’s conference, Jiang Mianheng, the head of  the Shanghai branch of CAS and the son of China’s former leader Jiang Zemin – who ruled when Weinberg published his book – painted a future in which TMSRs will help China gain energy independence by generating carbon free electricity and by providing heat for industrial processes, including hydrogen extraction.

It will have happened with more than a little inspiration from the man in Tennessee.

Photo by Mark Halper


Thorium poised for New Year coming out party

Posted by Mark Halper on November 1st, 2012

“We’re ready.” Julian Kelly and Thor Energy will start testing solid thorium MOX fuel in January, with help from Westinghouse, Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory, and others.

SHANGHAI – Norway’s privately held Thor Energy this January will start a four year live test of solid thorium fuel in partnership with industrial companies including nuclear giant Westinghouse, Thor revealed here today.

Speaking at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012, chief technology officer Julian Kelly said Thor will burn ceramic pellets of thorium plutonium oxide inside the Norwegian government’s Halden test reactor.

Thor will use fuel provided by the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory and by the European Commission’s Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU). It will also fabricate some of its own in partnership with Norway’s Institute for Energy Technology. The first batch will come from ITU.

“We don’t often spend a lot time being excited in the nuclear industry these days, but this is an exciting thing for us,” Kelly said. “We’re ready to go.”

Thor’s objective is to show that thorium plutonium fuel, known as thorium MOX, can operate safely and efficiently in a conventional reactor.

“We expect this experiment to yield data that will be used to demonstrate the safe, long term performance of ceramic thorium MOX fuels, and that this information will directly support the approval of a commercial irradiation of such fuels,” Kelly said. “We very much need this reactor to appeal to a regulator audience and also a power reactor operator audience. It’s not just a purely academic exercise.”


The Halden reactor is a heavy boiling water model (HBWR). The results will allow Thor to extrapolate performance of solid thorium MOX in a pressurized water reactor (PWR).

BWRs and LWRs account for almost all of the 430-plus nuclear reactors operating commercially today.

Many thorium supporters prefer to put thorium into alternative burners such as liquid molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors. Although those reactors optimize thorium’s benefits more than conventional reactors do, none operate commercially today. They will require time not only for development, but also for regulatory approval (as will a new fuel like thorium MOX).

By running thorium in approved and existing designs and reactors, Thor would hasten the fuel’s commercial arrival.

Thorium augers reactors that are safer and more efficient than conventional uranium reactors. They don’t leave as much long-lived dangerous waste and in designs like molten salt and pebble bed, they are in principle meltdown proof. They also reduce the weapons proliferation threat.

Kelly downplayed suggestions that efforts should focus on alternative reactors.


He called the imminent test of thorium MOX in a conventional reactor, “a great catalyst for other thorium fuel undertaking worldwide,” and said, “it’s a great technology springboard to some other medium term thorium fuel possibilities.”

Thor is a privately held company owned by Norwegian technology firm Scandinavian Advanced Technology. Besides Westinghouse, NNL and ITE, Thor’s partners in the thorium MOX test include South Africa’s Steenskampskraal Thorium Ltd., which as we noted here recently is developing a thorium pebble bed reactor.

Other partners include Finnish utility Fortum, and French chemical company Rhodia, which possesses thorium that has been processed out of rare earth minerals.

Thorium MOX represents not only a potentially safer and better fuel than uranium, but also an opportunity for usefully disposing of plutonium waste of the sort that NNL is concerned with at its operations in Sellafield, England. NNL is part of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Companies in the nuclear fuel business  like Westinghouse could add a plutonium disposal revenue stream.

Although Westinghouse does not like to publicly discuss its thorium involvement, this is second time in recent months that its activities have wandered into the thorium community. News broke over the summer that Westinghouse was serving as the commercial adviser on the U.S. Department of Energy’s collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the development of high temperature molten salt reactors.

Photo by Mark Halper

Greetings from the Shanghai Synchrotron

Posted by Mark Halper on October 31st, 2012

Slow curves on the outside, fast ones on the inside. China opened the synchrotron in 2009.

SHANGHAI – Today’s blog is a post card from Shanghai that ties right into this morning’s proceedings at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012 where, you could say, things really accelerated.

Just after downing breakfast dumplings, we heard engaging presentations about how particle accelerators can provide the oomph that releases neutrons that can start a safe thorium nuclear reaction. So-called “accelerator driven systems” are just one of several ways to stir up thorium, the fuel that augers a peaceful nuclear future.

So it was fitting that in the afternoon we trundled off to have a look at a handy, nearby accelerator built by the same people who as we said yesterday are building a liquid thorium molten salt reactor  – the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP), which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In this case the accelerator was a synchrotron. It’s probably not the sort of accelerator you might use to release neutrons to start a thorium nuclear reaction (another time we’ll tell you more about what experts like Bob Cywinski of the UK’s University of Huddersfield have in mind for that), but one certainly suitable for all sorts of other things that are useful to humanity – medical cures and health diagnostics, just for starters.


The Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility is a 432-metre long ring that is actually a giant 3D camera taking stunningly detailed and clear images inside tiny things, such as a mouse’s heart (mouse heart fans can skip to photo below now). Using a combination of electron beams, magnets, radiation and optics, it makes x-rays look Stone Age.

SSRF is testimony to the technological and scientific zeitgeist that is driving China – the same spirit that is leading the country into alternative nuclear power technologies like thorium.

The synchrotron is the envy of many a scientist, such as Jean-Pierre Revol, the leader of the ALICE particle accelerator team at the much better known CERN laboratory in Geneva. He’s at the thorium conference advocating accelerator technology as a neutron release mechanism.

Revol lauded the Chinese for building the facility, which he called “state of the art” and “very impressive.” That’s something, coming from a guy who works on a daily basis with CERN’s renowned 17-mile long Large Hadron Collider.

Have a look and see what you think. That’s the rolling building that houses the operation, at the top of this story. Here’s what we saw in the interior today:


Look out for 3.5 billion electron volts on the other side of that white wall.


Mouse lung:

Makes it look like Mighty Mouse.

Mouse heart:

Move over Braveheart. This is some corazon.

Grasshopper breathing:

This is a still shot from a video that was playing on an SSRF screen today. Sorry, no surround sound.


How to travel around a synchrotron when you’re not an electron beam.


What do you get a man like Jean-Pierre Revol of CERN when he already has a Large Hadron Collider? Try a synchrotron. Revol, pictured outside the entrance, called the SSRF “state of the art” and “very impressive.”

Photos: SSRF exterior from India TV News. All other photos by Mark Halper, including those of SSRF images.

Want to know more about thorium? Get ye to Shanghai

Posted by Mark Halper on October 5th, 2012

China looks set to fuel its growth with nuclear power, including thorium. There will be plenty of thorium talk   in Shanghai (above) this month.

The future of CO2-free energy relies on thorium-fuelled nuclear power and other alternative nuclear technologies that will replace the uranium-powered water-cooled reactors prevalent today.

And no country is doing more in thorium research and development than China – so much so that as we noted in a recent post, some people believe that Western countries will end up licensing thorium technologies from Beijing.

So it is fitting that this year the Thorium Energy Conference heads to the country of 1.3 billion people, where it kicks off on Oct. 29 in Shanghai, co-sponsored by the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINAP) – part of the government’s Chinese Academy of Sciences – and by the International Thorium Energy Organization (IThEO).

The conference organizers have released a list of sessions spanning the 4 days and drawing in speakers from around the world including China, Japan, the U.S., Russia and the Czech Republic. It all promises answers to burning questions about thorium.

Want to learn more about how China is leading the pack on the thorium trail? Then drop in on the session China, the center of world environment, resource and energy —using thorium as a key, given by Takashi Kamei from Japan’s Research Institute for Applied Sciences.

Or maybe you’ve noticed that the thorium community itself disagrees on how best to deploy the fuel.  Should you put it in conventional rods in water-cooled reactors? Or should you optimize it with alternative reactor designs? Which reactor design – molten salt? Pebble bed? Accelerator driven? The session Utilization of Thorium Fuel in different reactor design should help clarify, presented by Ganglin Yu and Kan Wang.

If you’ve been keeping your ear to the thorium ground, you might have heard rumblings about a liquid thorium reactor initiative in the Czech Republic. For more information, drop by a session by the chief scientist of that country’s Nuclear Research Institute, Miloslav Hron, who will provide an update on the project (with a session title too long to write here!).

What’s a conference like this without an author heralding the technology’s arrival? The thorium world’s latest such scribbler, Robert Hargraves, will present his new book, Thorium energy cheaper than coal, in a session by the same name. Hargrave’s recently published work followed quickly on the heels of Richard Martin’s thorium homage, Superfuel, released earlier this year.

And if you want to get into the debate of exactly how safe and bomb-free thorium power is, there are sessions on actinides, waste, and related. You can find a full list of presentations here.

We’ll be there, blogging away.

But between now and then we’ll bring you plenty more news, updates and analysis of thorium and alternative nuclear developments. Apropos to the Chinese theme, watch for our overview of a SINAP molten salt thorium project, for instance.

We’ll also bring you up to date on a thorium-focused pebble bed reactor that is taking shape in South Africa. In the process, our thorium trail will descend into a rare earth mine. You never know where else it might wander.

Stay with us.

Photo: J. Patrick Fischer via Wikimedia.

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