Monday, July 28, 2008
Nuclear "Deep-Burn" Technology
I've said in the past that my mission is to focus these posts on matters directly related to ethanol. However, the current evolution of our energy situation has made the entire field complex and interdependent. For this reason, this post is about nuclear energy and, while not speaking directly to an ethanol issue, I think it is connected in that if we are to have flex-fueled cars with PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) technology included, we better have an efficient, reliable, and clean source of energy to power the electric side of these vehicles.
The Department of Energy recently announced grant money going towards two labs, the Argonne National Labs, and the Idaho National Labs for the study of "Deep-Burn" nuclear reactors. These designs are slated to go into the technology for the next generation of nuclear power plants, known as Generation IV nuclear reactors, which may be put into electrical production sometime around the year 2020. The idea of a Deep-Burn is to coat the outside of the plutonium or other nuclear fuel particles with a ceramic shell. This allows the nuclear fission process to occur at much higher temperatures, thus dramatically increasing the efficiency of the electricity generation as well as eleminating almost all of the nuclear waste produced in the process. In fact, in preliminary studies, the process is so efficient that it makes reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods from LWR (light water reactors) economically feasible for nuclear power plants.
What this means is that if the process of the Deep-Burn nuclear reactor can be implemented correctly, we could enjoy efficient, cheap, nuclear power with much less nuclear waste. Of course, the problems of the plant over-heating resulting in a nuclear meltdown would still exist, and since the process would still result in some nuclear waste, it is by no means perfect. It is however, a great step forward. One last thing to keep in mind is that with this event horizon (at least 10 years away), the technology for a fusion-style nuclear reactor may be perfected in that time frame and allow for much more efficient fuel burning with little or no nuclear waste. We will just have to wait and see on that one.
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