Towards High-Capacity, Low-Risk Generation of Electrical Power24 min read

Nov 15, 2018 | ARC.XYZ

This is an outline of our Super Powers ground initiative. Under it, we aspire to create an industrial apparatus for high-capacity, low-risk generation of electrical power. That power must be supplied in a constant (that is, non-intermittent), and carbon-neutral manner.

Read about our other ground initiative Bounce Back here. Under it, we work towards building a system that incapacitates atmospheric greenhouse gases and allows for the attenuation of their combined global warming impact.

The primary goal we are pursuing with Super Powers is not hard to understand, and its significance in the context of climate change is evident: We want to provide for a massively potent source of electrical power that does not add to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Generating zero-emission electricity in large quantities and in a form that is injection-ready as to the demands of conventional transmission grids effectively helps to decouple greenhouse gas emissions from the quest for decent lives pursued by generations of humans living today and tomorrow.

As you will see, the passages on how we might reach that goal are speculative to a certain degree. Without any doubt, there are alternatives to the “industrial apparatuses” (meaning technologies) we put forth below and our argumentation may take some hits if one looks at the subject from a different perspective or if priorities are changed. But that is a good thing. We have thought about our standpoint well.

However, as it is in our interest to provoke a vigorous debate by offering a concrete starting point, we invite anyone with an impartial and qualified predilection for our cause to weigh in on the examination of ways of generating zero-emission electricity in large quantities.

In Need of Super Powers

Today, Electricity Runs on Fossil-Fuels

It stands to reason that power generation is a worthwhile and natural approach to solving the core problem of climate change. The production of electricity and heat is a primary source of greenhouse gases contributing about 30 percent (2014) of global emissions (25 percent in 2010 according to the IPCC’s Working Group 3 of Assessment Report 5) and, by putting in a share of more than 40 percent (2016), it is the dominant source of global CO2 emissions. The transportation sector, being the second largest emitter of CO2, is trailing behind the power generation sector by a staggering margin of 18 percentage points.

The two prevalent forms of power generated and consumed by modern society are electricity and heat and the production of either of these is notoriously biased toward fossil-fuel-based technologies. Electricity produced from oil, gas, and coal accounts for 65 percent of total world production with this number being as high as 90 percent when it comes to producing heat (both 2016). Given the longevity of the underlying infrastructural assets, the affiliation with carbon-emittance is not expected to be terminated any time soon. In the absence of economically viable and socially acceptable alternatives, we are facing a high level of inertia as far as the infrastructure is concerned. For example, the installed capacity for electricity production in the United States is projected to remain fossil-fuel-heavy with a share of 56 percent of the total output still being provided by oil-, gas-, and coal-powered facilities in 2025. This represents a cut of merely 6.8 percentage points compared to the most recent assessment, dated to the year 2014.

Extra Carbon Loads Are Imposed on the Electricity Sector

Some sources of greenhouse gas blow-outs will undergo sustained transformation from direct local emittance to indirect emittance at centralized places of electricity generation, as they transition from being fossil fuel consumers today to electrical power utilizers tomorrow. Hence, there is a good chance for the carbon footprint of such sources to become tied to the carbon intensity of the electricity sector.

In the case of converting the global vehicle fleet from reliance on the internal combustion engine to being driven by electrical power engines, this shift potentially equates to the carbon footprint of the entire transportation sector, contributing about 15 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions. By no means is this a purely hypothetical scenario with only a tiny fraction of these 15 percent finally being attributed to the power sector in the future. It is instead going to be a substantial amount, even on a time horizon of 20 years (which is a very short period in the context of climate change), because the adoption rate for electric vehicles is higher than you might think. A recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects the electric vehicles’ share of the global fleet to be 33 percent by the year 2040 with 55 percent of all new cars sold being of the electric type.

The situation is similar, possibly even more accentuated, with the increasing diffusion of electricity as a power source for peoples’ homes worldwide. To that effect, the carbon load of all households potentially gaining access to electrical power is waiting to be imposed on the electricity sector too. Progress made in the past and some qualified assumptions on future rates of electrification point to that carryover being a burdensome one. Over the course of the last 25 years (1990-2014), the number of people with access to electricity has grown by almost 2 percent every year. On average, that translates to 262,600 per day. In total, over the quarter century, this expansion makes for a spectacular gain of nearly 60 percent resulting in more than six billion people having access to electricity. That is 85 percent of the world’s population (2014 values). With the expectation of existing policies as well as announced policy intentions to lead the advancement of the energy sector, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that number to increase to 92 percent by 2030 (see page 49 in the 2017 Energy Access Outlook of the IEA).

Akin to the vehicle fleet transitioning from being fossil-fuel powered to running on electricity, the growing prevalence of people with access to electrical power will lead to a shift from local emitters of carbon dioxide to centralized ones. In anticipation of this rebuild of traditional energy consumption patterns, the IEA advocates in their World Energy Outlook 2018 what they call the “Future is Electric Scenario,” and they claim the “electrification of end uses [to be] a promising pathway to decarbonising energy use.”

Much in the same sense, we hold the view that the focus of our Super Powers ground initiative must be on new ways of generating electricity (rather than heat).

Decouple Electricity Generation from CO2 Emittance Now

Consequentially, for every household you provide with electricity, you gain one that stops burning kerosene to light up lamps, and that ceases burning wood for cooking and heating. And for every electric vehicle that hits the road, you avoid one that runs on diesel or gasoline.

However, there is almost nothing to be gained from the transition of local emitters of carbon dioxide to local consumers of electricity, if the supplier of that electrical power is still running on fossil fuels. When the growth of electricity consumption is going to outpace all other fuels, the decoupling of electricity generation from CO2 emittance becomes even more critical. Given the speed of the transitions mentioned above and in light of a commonly increasing hunger for electrical power, we are well advised to set to work and start building machines that allow generating electricity at the large scale⁠—now.

Low-Risk Solutions Are Called For

Frequently, with scale comes risk. If we come up with a machine that could satisfy the future world’s tremendous demand for electrical power but that was flawed by inherent risks for any facet of the enjoyableness of our planet, we are wrecked.

In the best of cases, the social forces of reality stifle the large-scale dissemination of such a solution, leaving us with the same problem as before-but at least alive for the time being. If the social forces do not kick in, and the consequences inherent to the machine’s risk would strike full-scale, we would probably not even be alive for long enough to give it a second try. It is thus paramount to align our science and engineering efforts with the risk perceptions of the society we live in. The solution we aim for must be low-risk, and it is part of the job to educate people worldwide about the actual risks that come with specific technologies.

Mind the Power Grids

For that new energy source to claim impact under the forces of reality imposed by the physical nature, it is mandatory to provide a constant (non-intermittent) supply compliant with proper and secure power grid operations. In fact, the technical solution to be developed within the scope of this ground initiative must not add but rather subtract from the complexities of operating power grids under ever more accentuated feed-in fluctuations.

The dispatchability of electrical power, however, is a desirable feature rather than a fixed need. Without a doubt, the perfect hedge would be the availability of a power-generating source with a non-intermittent output that still lent itself to accommodating to the needs of power grids. Through non-intermittency, that source would be capable of covering the base-load on the power-grid, while allowing for timed dispatching if load fluctuations or intermittent supply from renewable sources like wind and solar call for such a balancing intervention. If, however, dispatchability proves too hard to be modeled into a technical system that is already rife with functional requirements, the conformity of a supplying apparatus with load fluctuations might be obtained through auxiliary technologies such as pumped storage hydropower and economic supplements like demand management.

With a strong sense of urgency, we are seeking to investigate potential designs for a large-scale industrial apparatus delivering on the promise of high-capacity, low-risk generation of electrical power with non-intermittent supply and we are committed to stimulating its dissemination. Now, we are truly in need of Super Powers.

To begin with, we have identified two ideas to become the focal point of our efforts within the Super Powers ground initiative. As we pointed out in the introduction, these are speculative to a certain degree, and you are welcome to weigh in on the examination of variants and alternatives to what we propose here.

Nuclear Fusion Reactors

Electrical Power in Abundance

First, we propose the development and deployment of a Nuclear Fusion Reactor (NFR) to make for the industrial apparatus we seek in our quest to generate immense amounts of power securely. Indeed, some NFR designs used in fusion research are encouragingly close to generating net energy. This alone is a major accomplishment since operating an NFR is an energy-intensive thing to do.

Obviously, the ultimate fusion machine must output more energy than you put in for running it. None of the existing facilities is quite there yet, but if the organizations working on these designs succeed, scaled-up versions of their laboratory machines (well, in the case of NFRs the lab-scale is often already a fully-grown version built for experimentation purposes), will be able to put out a non-intermittent stream of power almost ad infinitum. Depending on what you are looking for, this power comes in the form of heat, which is utilized as such, or it can be transformed into electricity using a steam turbine. At present, direct energy conversion, meaning the generation of electricity directly from particulate exhaust of the fusion process, is more of a speculative route. However, with energy in excess, losing some of it due to sub-optimal conversion efficiency is not that much of a problem, when your ultimate goal is to provide for a high-capacity source of electrical power. Power generated in the form of electricity will still be abundant.

Relying on elements such as hydrogen and helium, the fuel needed to run an NFR is plentiful and utilizing it in the fusion reaction does not produce any dangerous waste. Also, when atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles (while releasing energy), no molecules that add to radiative forcing, the process global warming is attributed to, are blown into the air. NFRs produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions or air pollutants during their operation.

Fusion Reactors Live up to the Idea of Holism

If you have worked your way through our set of beliefs, you have encountered the idea of holism, and you may be somewhat familiar with what we mean by it in the context of finding a comprehensive solution to the problem of our changing climate. If not, never mind! Here is the essence. Holism means that we bring together whatever is needed to deploy a comprehensive solution. There is nothing too spectacular with that claim, but it is still often neglected in the realm of problem-solving; especially with problems as complex as climate change.

An example may illustrate what we mean by thinking holistically as a problem-solver. Let us assume that you are an engineer who found a way to significantly increase the level of efficiency of a wind turbine by tweaking the shape of the rotor blades. You might be tempted to think that your new design will dominate the wind parks of the world any time soon and, hence, that you contributed decisively to bringing the world clean energy. Thinking from a holistic perspective, however, would have raised your awareness to the non-technical fact that the blades make for about 20-30 percent of the capital expenditures of a wind plant (depending on the plant’s type, e.g., if it is land-based or offshore) and that such massive cost will make every plant operator very reluctant to retrofit an installation with your new shiny object. In order to be a competent engineer (one that engineers things that are rolled out at some point) you have to holistically pay tribute to the forces of reality that make society (and not only technology) work, like economic constraints, political interests, regulations concerning the preservation of local lands, maybe even religious beliefs.

It becomes obvious that we have to test against a plethora of forces of reality, both physical and societal, before ratifying technologies that will eventually serve the realization of our ground initiatives. Presumably, there is no technology to be proposed that is free of downsides. So rather than looking for one that fits just perfectly into this world’s reality, we must engineer the most potent approaches so that they fit well enough to take effect. Besides occupying an inherent potential to technically solve the problem of climate change once an for all, our solutions have to comply with the notion of social fitness. We must see the potentiality of reducing societal repugnance to a level where the technology can be introduced on an enormous scale. Now let us present our assessment of how the development and deployment of NFRs obey the principles inferred from holism.

NFRs work perfectly fine under the constraints of the social forces of reality. Operating these machines, even at large scales, is almost without risk. They do not emit any climate-wrecking gases, nor do they produce substances that are hazardous to any form of life on Earth. In contrast to conventional nuclear fission in a light water reactor, which is the predominant but high-risk form of power generation from nuclear processes (we are sure we do not have to mention the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster to stir up your risk aversion; well, now we still did), fusion does not depend on a chain reaction, and thus the risk of a meltdown is entirely mitigated. Also, we do not face the problem of having to dispose of radioactive waste, because the operation does not give off any. Dispensation of material that is prone to radioactive decay eliminates the risk of irradiating living tissues and perfectly undermines any attempts of nuclear proliferation on the part of evil-minded states or organizations.

Regarding economics, building a nuclear fusion plant will be a capital-intensive endeavor, while operational costs are going to be minimal. For example, the raw materials going into the fusion process are needed in relatively low amounts, and at least one of them, deuterium, can simply be extracted from seawater. With this cost structure, an NFR resembles a present-day plant for renewable energy. Given the right incentives for long-term investments and provided that the costs for the raw materials feeding into the supply chain of fossil-fuel based energy will increase (which they do since oil, gas, and coal reservoirs unquestionably are going to be depleted) NFRs becoming economically viable in the coming years is a very likely scenario. Some studies even suggest that nuclear fusion can be one of the cheapest sources of electrical energy.

Provided that neither misguided political interests nor economic futility obstruct the technological promise inherent in nuclear fusion, NFRs largely obey the principles inferred from holism. So, when taking the path toward making nuclear fusion available for power generation, we must make sure to build prudently on the benefits as mentioned earlier. If we sensibly manage to factor into a technological solution those mechanisms from the social domain that are assumed to be critical—like diverging political interests and society’s fear of “anything nuclear”—successful deployment of big NFRs is entirely feasible from a holistic standpoint.

“Let There Be Light”, a film by Mila Aung-Thwin about the quest for fusion energy, distributed by EyeSteelFilm via Vimeo

They Also Live up to the Idea of Essentiality

A second of our beliefs that is of high relevance for assessing the utility and appropriateness of a proposed technology is essentiality. Essentiality has been stated as our believing in axiomatic principles and an uncompromising stance in regard to our actions. In plain terms: Any technology must not be logically flawed as to its (theoretical) effectiveness in countering climate change, and it must be enormously powerful (from a practical perspective). So let us see how NFRs perform against these criteria.

NFRs can definitely be an essential element in solving the climate change problem—a decisive one even. Once the main challenges current NFR designs face are overcome, these machines will fundamentally lower the likelihood of experiencing further detrimental climate change while enabling even the most impoverished individuals on Earth to prosper in their lives. NFRs have the potential to become a universal power source, with no limitations as to where they can be sited and with almost no restraints as to the availability of resources for fueling such plants.

Theoretically, NFRs have the potential to be the means that allows for an Enjoyable Planet Earth.

The practical challenges to be overcome are not small, though. Regarding the principles inferred from essentiality, the grid-ready, large-scale industrial application of any NFR-design is not deployable by a long shot. Currently, there are some physical and engineering forces of reality to which we must tailor our final design. These forces are very well laid out by Zach Hartwig of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT (see one of his talks on the subject on YouTube). He insists that any concept for an NFR must have the fundamentals of physics right before it is suitable for an engineered, large-scale apparatus in the form of a reactor. The engineering tasks then pose significant problems in their own right like securely confining ultra-hot plasma for a long time and actually harnessing power from the system. However, without even playing in the ballpark of an energy output/input-ratio larger than one with any given concept at the pilot scale, all attempts to engineer a real reactor are a waste of resources.

If NFRs are to become an essential component of the solution to climate change, we must engage in getting the fundamental physics right. Only then can we address the question of operational capability on a large scale.

Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors

Literally Fueled by Clods of Dirt

Second, we think that thorium-fueled molten salt reactors would make for a very promising approach to the Super Powers initiative. Specifically, we strongly advocate the physical mechanisms and the engineering and design of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs; pronounced “lifters”).

Theoretical and practical research into the technology has regained traction since the basic ideas laid out at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory were abandoned in the 1960s. Just as other technologies that aim at harnessing the power that comes from nuclear processes, LFTRs benefit from the enormous energy density immanent to atomic structures. However, in contrast to conventional light-water-cooled reactors that run on uranium composed into solid fissile elements, LFTRs use a liquid configuration of thorium as a fertilizer, which is then transmuted into uranium-233. The fission reaction instigated from uranium-233 is the process by which power in the form of heat is ultimately derived.

Thorium itself is a very energy-dense material. In an attempt to illustrate the energy density of thorium by way of an example, it has been calculated that a small apartment full of the material (~200 cubic meters) would suffice to provide for all of the energy required to produce one year’s worth of electrical power (25,600 terawatt hours of generated power) in 2017. Had that amount of electricity been created through conventional nuclear reactors, it would have required 290 apartments full of uranium.

Adding to the immense amount of energy contained in thorium is how abundant the element is in Earth’s crust. It can literally be extracted from a clod of dirt.

Concerning operational risks, molten salt reactors (not just the thorium-fueled ones) are said to be “walk-away safe.” This means that even if all the operators decided just to leave the plant, the reactor would safely come to a halt on its own due to a self-regulated nuclear process and by means of a cleverly designed safety valve for controlled release of the fuel.

Being set up as a “breeder reactor,” a LFTR would be self-sustaining after the completion of a ramp-up phase. Once started up a LFTR needs no other fuel except thorium because it makes most or all of its own fuel, and it does so continuously. In effect, a LFTR provides a non-intermittent source of energy.

As a surplus to its constant supply, LFTRs also show improved dispatchability of energy to the grid compared to conventional nuclear reactors (which are not dispatchable at sensible time-scales). This implies that LFTRs can compensate in part for demand variability exerted by energy consumers and supply fluctuations imposed on the grid by intermittent renewable sources such as solar and wind. Given that a future energy system is very likely to comprise some amount of renewable energy, dispatchability is a very valued feature of LFTRs.

A LFTR May Have Some Struggles Complying with Holism

Similar to nuclear fusion, the technology proposed here must measure up to our belief in holism.

Regarding compliance with holistic principles, LFTRs are quite a solid bet in terms of their foundational physical principles. Sure, there are a lot of technical issues to be solved before a commercially viable LFTR can go into full operation—but these are engineering difficulties concerning the build of the machine rather than problems pertaining to the fundamental laws of physics.

In contrast to the physical domain, LFTRs may be facing some obstacles when it comes to the constraints of the social forces of reality. Not that they hold risks that are unacceptable for our modern age. On the contrary, LFTRs offer many safety features that come naturally through their reliance on a thorium fuel cycle rather than the uranium fuel cycle deployed by conventional nuclear reactors or by design. For example, a cleverly designed drainage system allows the reactor core to be safely depleted of nuclear fuel in a case of emergency, thereby bringing nuclear reactions to a halt. The challenge inherent in the social domain may come in the form of a general rejection of every technology that builds on “atomic power.” The inconceivable processes of harnessing energy from such a thing as an atom and the experience of past incidents or complete breakdowns of power reactors of the conventional type may have impressed a great deal of fear and aversion to “atomic power” in the general population.

Of course, this argument is equally valid in the case of nuclear fusion reactors. However, we have abstained from battering the technology with “anti-nuclear power” scorn. Two factors may support turning the fact of being nuclear powered into a problem with LFTRs, while NFRs are spared from the resentment.

First, with LFTRs, atoms are split apart in the process of energy generation, while they are merged in the case of NFRs. Humanity has gathered plenty of harrowing experience with atomic fission (from the atomic bomb to, well, Fukushima Daiichi), and the idea of breaking down atoms has become an inherently bad one for many of us. On the contrary, we have no negative experience with atomic fusion. It has not destroyed thousands of lives during a war and it has not caused any environmental disasters. Building on that, humanity may somehow feel a bit more sympathetic towards fusion than towards fission. We have to admit, though, that this is just a vague assessment of ours.

Second, research and engineering of NFRs is pursued by some highly credible institutions like the European Union (with its High Power Laser Energy facility), a conglomerate of China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States (with ITER), the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics (with Wendelstein 7-X), and, well, the sun (having mastered the process).

The institutions that are advancing liquid fluoride thorium reactors are unknown in comparison (ever heard of the Weinberg Foundation, or Thorium Tech Solutions TTS from Japan?), a fact that does not exactly lend to the technology’s credibility.

For LFTRs, overcoming this social resistance may prove just as strenuous as some of the engineering difficulties in the quest for deploying thorium-based energy production on a large scale.

It Has Proven to Be an Essential Technology, Though

LFTRs are not some speculative new technology that may or may not prove capable of generating electrical and thermal power one day. Industrial applicability of the technology, as called for by the principles inferred from essentiality, has been confirmed already. In fact, a molten salt breeder reactor fueled by thorium was operational at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Even though it was just an experimental reactor, all the physical processes, the basic design, and the engineering proved capable of generating thermal energy over an extended period.

“The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment”, a film produced in 1969 by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the United States Atomic Energy Commission, distributed via Youtube

As mentioned above, there are pilot-scale LFTRs in operation for research and development purposes (small ones, however, and operated by rather unknown institutions). It is self-evident that none of these reactor concepts imply the emission of relevant amounts of greenhouse gases, and feedback from the climate system is non-existent as none of these technologies interfere with it to a sensible degree. Hence, essentiality is a given, conditional on our capability to overcome the difficulties of engineering a large-scale industrial application from a proven pilot-plant design of a LFTR.

What Is More?

We are confident, that both NFRs and LFTRs have the potential to become the high-powered, non-intermittent sources of electricity we aim for.

However, there might be more options available to us. You are very welcome to reach out to us in case you think that the presented options of realizing Super Powers need to be amended by some other concept.

No matter how extravagant your idea might be, if you beware of arguing in a dogmatic manner, we will always get back to you. So let us hear your arguments.

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