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A Brief Overview of Thorium Energy

For humans to enjoy a clean and abundant energy future, they will need to move to energy from nuclear reactions -- which means nuclear fission, for now. Thorium is the main alternative to uranium as a large-scale nuclear fuel. Here are some basic facts about thorium:

Thorium is a naturally-occurring, slightly radioactive metal discovered in 1828 by a Swedish chemist, Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. The silvery white metal is found in small amounts in most rocks and soils, where it is about three times more abundant than uranium. Typical garden variety soil commonly contains an average of around 6 parts per million (ppm) of thorium.

Thorium Reserves

Applications

Thorium oxide, also called thoria, has one of the highest melting points of all oxides at 3300°C. When this oxide is heated in air, thorium metal turnings ignite and burn brilliantly with a white light. Because of these properties, thorium has found applications in welding electrodes, heat-resistant ceramics, light bulb elements, lantern mantles and arc-light lamps. Glass containing thorium oxide has a high refractive index and dispersion and is used in high quality lenses for cameras and scientific instruments.

Sources and geographical distribution

The most common source of thorium is the rare earth phosphate mineral, monazite, which may contain up to about 12 percent thorium phosphate; however, the average is closer to a 6-7 percent range. Monazite is found in igneous and other rocks but the richest concentrations are in placer deposits, concentrated by wave and current action with other heavy minerals. World monazite resources are estimated to be about 12 million tonnes, two-thirds of which are in heavy mineral sands deposits on the south and east coasts of India. Australia is estimated by the USGS to host approximately 24 percent of the world’s thorium reserves. A large vein deposit of thorium and rare earth metals have been discovered in the Lemhi Pass region of Idaho and Montana.

Going nuclear

Although not fissile itself, thorium has started to reemerge as a tempting prospect to employ as fuel in nuclear power reactors. Thorium 232 will absorb slow neutrons to produce uranium 233, which is fissile (and long-lived). The irradiated fuel can then be unloaded from the reactor, the uranium 233 separated from the thorium, and fed back into another reactor as part of a closed fuel cycle. Alternatively, uranium 233 can be bred from thorium in a blanket, the uranium 233 separated, and then fed into the core.

The use of thorium-based fuel cycles has been studied for about 40 years, but on a much smaller scale than uranium or uranium/plutonium cycles. Basic research and development has been conducted in Germany, India, Japan, Russia, the UK and the USA. China and India have been among primary catalysts in research efforts to use it. Test reactor irradiation of thorium fuel to high burn-ups has also been conducted and several test reactors have either been partially or completely loaded with thorium-based fuel.

Thorium can be used in Generation IV and other advanced nuclear fuel cycle systems.

China has been working on developing the technology for sodium cooled fast reactors which are a type of liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs). The advanced breeder concept features a molten salt as the coolant, usually a fluoride salt mixture. This is hot, but not under pressure, and does not boil below about 1400°C. Much research has focused on lithium and beryllium additions to the salt mixture. In mid-2009, AECL signed agreements with three Chinese entities to develop and demonstrate the use of thorium fuel in the Candu reactors at Qinshan in China. _UraniumInvesting

The best ongoing source for information on thorium energy is Kirk Sorensen's blog "Energy from Thorium".

Here's more on thorium, from a piece in Popsci from last summer:

An abundant metal with vast energy potential could quickly wean the world off oil, if only Western political leaders would muster the will to do it, a UK newspaper says today. The Telegraph makes the case for thorium reactors as the key to a fossil-fuel-free world within five years, and puts the ball firmly in President Barack Obama's court.

Thorium, named for the Norse god of thunder, is much more abundant than uranium and has 200 times that metal's energy potential. Thorium is also a more efficient fuel source -- unlike natural uranium, which must be highly refined before it can be used in nuclear reactors, all thorium is potentially usable as fuel. Popsci

By. Al Fin




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Leave a comment
  • Anonymous on July 01 2011 said:
    Well, since I have tried my best - but not always successfully - to convince my peers that the supply of nuclear fuel is larger than they think, this valuable article will help me a great deal. Thanks author.
  • Anonymous on July 02 2011 said:
    Poor Norway. They feel so guilty about their wealth. I wouldn't be surprised if they turn their thorium over to one of the stone-age kleptocracies that they have so much faith in. And don't forget Austraia, or OZ as it is sometimes called. The thorium and uranium in that country should take good care of a few more generations. Of course, I still remember the anti-nuclear diatribes of prominent academics at the University of New South Wales if nuclear was even mentioned.
  • Anonymous on July 02 2011 said:
    I wish someone would report on (investigate) "cold fusion". Some scientists in Italy have demonstrated a method to produce energy via cold fusion and apparently have applied for patents in Italy on it. If this is doable the whole energy scenario in the world will change
  • Anonymous on July 02 2011 said:
    James, never mention cold fusion in mixed company, where by mixed I mean intelligent people and the other kind. Putting in a good word for cold fusion almost immediately tells the congregation that you belong with "the other kind".
  • Anonymous on July 04 2011 said:
    Fred, as I have no idea about cold fusion,being very ignorant about nuclear in general, could you please enlighten me as to why intelligent people should not talk about it?
  • Anonymous on July 05 2011 said:
    Two problems I see with the thorium fuel cycle are: U-233 could conceivably be stolen by people of ill will toward society, and then fashioned into a homemade nuclear weapon. Also, fission products from U-233 are, as far as I know, no more desirable than fission products from uranium or plutonium if they are discharged into our environment. But in spite of that, I'll repeat my message that if carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is so serious a matter as to justify the present campaign of regulatory aggression against the auto industry (60 miles per gallon by 2025), its also serious enough for us not to abandon nuclear power for all time.
  • Anonymous on July 06 2011 said:
    Good comment Alex. Sometimes I pretend that the security thing is complex, but few things could be as simple.The United States has tens of thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, wasting their time doing something that does not need to be done. Now ask how many very competent people are needed to provide security for the energy assets that are crucial for the economic future of the US.Those men and women, paid the right salaries, plus the CIA and the FBI will keep those energy assets in the right hands. Simple, wouldn't you say.And Philip, some of the most knowledgeable people I have been in touch with turn thumbs down on cold fusion. Yes, it may have a future some day, but essentially it is a gimmick at the present time. Don't trust me on this. Trust full professors in physics and engineering at some of the elite schools.
  • Anonymous on July 06 2011 said:
    Fred, I'd like to send you my email to take you up on your kind offwr to send me a chapter of your book. Where should I send my email address to you?
  • Anonymous on July 07 2011 said:
    Philip, you have my e-mail addres, dont you.
  • Anonymous on July 07 2011 said:
    Fred, no not that I'm aware of, unless I've vbeen smoking ganja again and have completely forgotten where I put it...the email, not the ganja...Do you have a website or something of that sort...through which to contact you?
  • robertm on February 02 2012 said:
    America is too controlled by the coal lobby and oil lobby to support thorium. America is also too stupid to understand thorium, and would rather die in a coal mine than accept the power of the atom.

    China has few coal, and fewer oil. Chinese government does not mind thorium, and will do whatever it takes to provide energy for the 300,000,000 chinese citizens + 300,000,000 chinese citizens +300,000,000 chinese citizens + 300,000,000 chinese citizens.

    China will use thorium because china has no other choice. America wont use thorium until America has no other choice, and by that time, it will be too late for America.

    This is the most objective reality I have been able to determine.

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