Not Your Olympic LFTR

As Joe brought his misbehaving car into the shop for repairs, he thought about the YouTube videos he watched last night dealing with a promising source of electricity and high temperature power.

“Hey, Homer! How are things going in the wide world of automobile engineering?”

“Hey, Joe! I just fix ’em, I don’t build ’em.” Regarded as the local genius in vehicle diagnostics, Homer was also a certified car geek with as many social skills.

“But sometimes I think the bozos who designed some of these engines could really use a strong dose of hands-on real-world maintenance. Just last week, I sent a reply to a service bulletin telling them how to actually fix that poor performance problem. It’s just three little sensors conflicting with each other in the computer. Each was fine when checked by itself. But together they dropped the fuel economy by over twenty percent!”

“No fooling! You found a fix that corporate couldn’t figure out? That is terrific!”

“You bet!”

“Speaking of fuel, have you ever heard of a fuel called thorium?”

“Excuse me? You said what-i-um?”

“Yes. Thorium. I saw a program last night that explained it could really help reduce our dependence on coal, oil, and natural gas. This thorium, pound for pound, has the potential for about a million times the energy output from fossil fuels. And with none of the climate changing carbon dioxide or methane!”

“No, can’t say I have. I’ve heard of the new electric cars, and hybrids have been around for a while now. There’s even some talk of hydrogen cars. But—what’d you say?—thorium? That’s a new one on me. What is it?”

“It’s an element that they can burn in a reactor. They ran a thorium reactor back in the ’60s with the MSRE.”

“Ah! Now you are getting to something I can understand! All the new car dealers post their MSRP on the stickers. But no one really pays the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.”

“No, Homer. I said MSRE. The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment at Oak Ridge Labs in Tennessee.”

“They made fuel for the cars in Tennessee?”

“No! Listen. It’s really very interesting. They melted salt, added the thorium, and changed it to a special uranium to power the thing. The experiment got terminated for political reasons and almost forgotten. Years later, when a NASA researcher named Kirk Sorensen was working on an efficient power source for spacecraft, he rediscovered the liquid reactor and began telling the world about it. In the course of further research, the concept looked very promising as it used a special hot melted lithium fluoride salt as a liquid to both dissolve the thorium and cool the reactor. The acronym initially adopted was MSR for molten salt reactor and later to the more descriptive lithium fluoride thorium reactor. But Sorensen called it by a better functional description—the liquid fluoride thorium reactor or LFTR—lifter! Are you listening? Lifter!”

Homer was busy applying his genius with Joe’s car. “Uh-huh. Lifter. What does all that have to do with the Olympics?”

“What?”

“Yeah. I watched the Olympic weight lifters on TV. They all used standard weights. Nothing about—what’d you say?—thorium?—fluoride and what? Do you mean that these Olympic athletes are melting salt as part of their training program? Or just adding extra fluoride to their drinking water to help build their strength. Isn’t adding stuff like fluoride to their diets against the Olympic rules?”

“No! It’s LFTR for liquid fluoride thorium reactor pronounced lifter. Not weight lifter, Homer!”

“What? I know about hydraulic valve lifters in my engines. But they aren’t all that heavy. I really doubt the Olympic weight lifters would mess with something that small.”

“NO! LFTR HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE OLYMPICS!”

“Alright alright, Joe. Hang on. Let me get what you’re saying.”

“Yes. As I was trying to tell you. LFTR is not about weight lifting or valve lifters. But it has a lot to do with your kids’ futures!”

Homer was still more interested in solving Joe’s misbehaving car, and keeping his own reputation. “Oh, okay. Now I get it. JAILBIRD LIFER! Look, just because the cops threw me in the drunk tank overnight a long time ago doesn’t give you the right to call me a lifer! I’ve been clean ever since. Or are you calling me a liar?”

“NO! I’m not calling you a ‘lifer’, a ‘liar’, or anything else! Besides, I didn’t know about you and your run in with the law. What I’m telling you is that your kid and your grandkids will likely run out of available energy because fossil fuels are doomed. And a smart way to prevent it is with the molten salt liquid fluoride thorium reactor, the LFTR!”

“Sorry, Joe. I guess I jumped to a conclusion. Molten? So you’re talking about the molten orange-glowing hot gloppy stuff like what pours out of an erupting volcano? I thought that stuff was called lava not salt! Yes. I can see that would contain a lot of energy. So, what’s that got to do with thorium? I don’t think we have any volcanoes anywhere near here!”

“No, Homer. Thorium has almost nothing to do with volcanoes. But in the Earth it does contribute to the natural interior heat, along with other radioactive elements. For the LFTR, though, the reactor core heats the salt from the extreme energy of the nuclear fission reactions until it actually liquefies and runs like water. It’s not gloppy at all like volcanic lava. And it can act like a solvent to dissolve the thorium. It’s a little like making instant coffee. You dissolve a little thorium in a lot of melted salt like dissolving instant coffee in a large cup of hot water.”

Sensing Joe was really taken by this new-old nuclear tech lifter thing, Homer figured he would mess with his regular a little more. He feigned Joe his best incredulous look. “You use this lifter thing to make coffee?”

“C’mon, Homer. No. That’s just an example of the process. It’s actually more like making the iron and steel for your cars. You heat up the scrap iron like the salt until it melts. Then you add the other kinds of additives like chrome, nickel, or vanadium, and then dissolve them in the liquid iron to make stainless steel. The thorium fluoride, once it’s all mixed and melted in the fluoride salt in the reactor region, then begins an atomic reaction to produce a special uranium fed to the reactor core, which then works like a regular nuclear power plant to produce huge amounts of heat hotter than an ordinary nuclear power plant.”

“So, you’re talking about something to do with nuclear.” Joe knew better than to get annoyed with his genius auto mechanic with characteristic social skills. “How does that affect the oil and natural gas? Are those crazies going to blow up the gas and oil wells with atom bombs? Is that why gas and oil are doomed?”

“Homer, thorium has nothing to do with bombs! It can’t be directly used to make bombs. While the LFTR is running, it does produce a kind of uranium that theoretically could be used for a bomb but that’s never been tested. For one, that kind of uranium mixed in an extremely hot melted liquid salt is very difficult to remove safely. But worse for any would-be bomb maker, the LFTR produces another form of uranium that’s highly radioactive and would kill anyone handling it for even a short time before it could get into a weapon that would fail from the intense radiation anyway. There is only a bunch of other ways to get bomb-grade stuff from regular nuclear reactors much easier.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Fossil fuels are getting used up! The Earth doesn’t make them any more, and we’re burning through our reserves. Forecasts say only a few hundred years left, and not finding some way to make a new kind of energy will send the whole world back to the dark ages!”

“Hello! Joe? I’m trying to fix your car. Okay. I’m following. Sort of. What about wind generators and solar panels? The sun isn’t going anywhere, is it? And the wind almost always blows, right?”

“The sun doesn’t shine at night, and sometimes the wind doesn’t blow. On a calm night, you are totally out of luck for electricity without a backup generator, and if there’s no gas to power it, bye-bye electricity! Even when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, the total power output just isn’t enough to power everything because they are just not as efficient. They take a lot of room to work, and real estate near big energy-hungry cities dedicated to power production is also very expensive for what you get out. Electric batteries also get real expensive as do other power sources like making hydrogen from water during times when there’s extra power from solar and wind. Imagine trying to power a whole city and its industries from batteries?”

“Hold on, Joe. Okay. So. You’re saying that my grandkids will be living in the dark ages?”

“Exactly! No electricity. No TV. No video games. No street lights, heavy industry. The whole Earth overheated by carbon pollution. No more cars!”

Joe’s speech was now starting to distract Homer from his work. He began to think about his and his families’ future livelihoods and their well being. They will be endangered. Homer was turning pale.

“No more cars? So, this thorium MSRP from Tennessee will help my grandkids stay out of the dark ages?”

“MSRE. They proved back in the ’60s it will work. And now they are trying to redesign the old MSRE into the modern LFTR to replace all the fossil fuels—the non-renewables. The renewable stuff like wind and solar is fine to augment for short terms. But they can’t help keep up our way of life into the distant future. The energy density just isn’t there.”

“Okay, Joe. So how much does all this thorium cost if it’s going to replace our fuels of today? Where does it come from? Nuclear stuff is dangerous!”

“Thorium is literally dirt cheap! Today, no one uses it because the LFTR reactors haven’t been built yet. They just throw away thousands of tons of it because it gets in the way when they mine other metals. Thorium is a lot less dangerous than today’s nuclear power plants because the LFTRs use stuff that is already hot and melted to make them work, so meltdowns like Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island can’t happen. When the thorium reacts, it produces only a little radioactive waste, a hundred times less than today’s reactors. It can also produce medical isotopes to help fight cancer. And the waste goes away in about 300 years tops! Instead of over 100,000 years with our current reactor waste. LFTRs make it easier to manage nuclear waste.”

“Well, Joe.” Homer plugged his diagnostic computer into Joe’s car. “This thorium stuff sure sounds like it might be the way to go for the kids’ futures. I’ve been hearing the big fuss over climate change from burning fossil fuels. I know now that with these stupid engine designers, who can’t even read a computer screen—putting out products that waste perfectly good gas—we need to do something. And sounds like soon! What can I do to help? And uh, by the way, Joe.” Homer said with a chagrined smile. “Please, let’s just forget I told you about my run in with the cops and my night in the drunk tank. Okay?”

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