Recently, a messianic buzz in the international energy community has surrounded thorium—lauding it as the “total solution” to Earth’s energy crisis.
In the world’s current scramble for safe, reliable, renewable, and preferably cheap energy, the power of thorium is quickly rising as a promising prospect. The issues of the globe’s current energy state are abound in the ever-apparent environmental concerns and volatile international relations and conflicts that it has sired, much less the questions of its affordability and longevity. A simple, naturally occurring, stable, and sustainable solution may be found in the radioactive element of thorium, Th 90.
Kirk Sorenson, former NASA engineer turned thorium researcher and proponent, hails thorium to be the sovereign remedy to not only the world’s apparent need for a driving-force fuel, but for all of the issues that such a thirst brings. The radioactive element churns deep at our planet’s core and creates the magnetic field that shields Earth from the harms of space. If our Earth is “fueled by thorium,” chief thorium advocate Sorenson claims, “our civilizations can be too.” Because of its great abundance and easy retrievability, thorium could bring energy to all corners of the Earth without the heavy conflicts that have become synonymous with the current energy paradigm.
Advocates point to the astonishing numbers: just 2 cubic centimeters of thorium hold the energy of 30 cubic meters of crude oil. 1 gram of thorium contains the fuel to power the average American car for 20 years. 20 cubic meters of thorium, an infinitesimal portion of all thorium mined thus far, can provide enough energy for some 1 billion people for 71 years.
Safer, Cleaner, Cheaper
Thorium assures a bright, clean, and safe future achieved through cheap means. The element occurs naturally and abundantly at shallow depths of the Earth’s crust and requires no need for refining—this, opposed to the renitent mining and manufacturing firms of the oil industry. Further, unlike the dirty burning of fossil fuels that present an obvious toll upon the environment, energy fueled by thorium yields absolutely no carbon dioxide emission and no harmful waste.
Sorenson and fellow hailers of thorium suggest that we wave energy farms goodbye. While the “conceptually attractive” and “intermittent” ventures into wind and solar energy require expensive storage of energy and large conversion facilities, thorium requires no such storage and its energy can be harvested at a fraction of the cost. In thorium energy production, there is no need to “fabricate energy” in conversion or transformer facilities—all that is produced is immediately usable. Researchers believe the sole element to usher of a “new era of energy.”
Thorium, a radioactive element, aims to disentangle itself from the stigma of nuclear energy that incidences that Fukushima crisis have created. Restoring faith in nuclear energy to a global public may prove a daunting task to thorium advocates, but many believe the merits of the element will speak for themselves.
Sorenson’s thorium development company is working to harness the immense energy potential of the element through a process called “neutralization.” While the process does manipulate the radioactive decay of the element—as processes of nuclear energy in the past have done—Sorenson’s thorium-based system is both safer and more efficient than its uranium predecessor. As opposed to the solid and volatile fuel of uranium, Kirk Sorenson and his company use what they claim to be the key to the new era of energy—liquid thorium fuel. Sorenson separates his technology from that of uranium reactors, pointing to the counter intuitiveness of the use of the “incompatible” mixture of uranium with the low boiling temperature of the water coolant. To compensate for water’s low temperature range—a ceiling of 212 degrees Fahrenheit before liquid water turns to gas—immense pressure must be applied to keep it in the liquid state in order to cool the uranium fuel rods during reactions. This application has proven dangerous in the infamous meltdowns of nuclear energy’s history. In place of water, Sorenson’s company, FLIBE, uses the stable and versatile salts of fluoride (Fl), lithium (Li), and beryllium (Be) to cool the reaction—one of continuous collisions in a thorium core in which a catastrophic chain reaction is impossible. Because of the versatile nature of the fluoride salts, reactions can occur at atmospheric pressure without the need of large compression chambers—opening the possibility for both smaller and safer reaction facilities. Use of the fluoride salts have entirely removed the possibility of meltdown and have even skyrocketed the reaction yield of usable energy.
Furthermore, thorium, as a radioactive element, exists past the point of decay in which it could be used as a nuclear weapon. Thorium can be used globally without the threat of nuclear proliferation, as it cannot be enriched into nuclear ordinance in the way that uranium is in the production of uranium-235.
The Race is On
Researchers around the globe have taken note of thorium’s world of promise. Chinese scientists, pressed by the approaching consequences of pollution and smog, are eager to take the plans of the element into fruition in an effort to combat the country’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels. With some 70 percent of China’s power coming from coal, researchers welcome the clean and sustainable energy source as a vehicle into the future—with a life as a primary fuel source speculated to be around a millennium. Yet China is not alone in the push for thorium.
Sensing competition in South Korea, Japan, and the United States, the Chinese government has pushed the deadline of completion of their first fully operational fluoride thorium reactor from 2040 to 2025. Authorities at the Chinese Academy of Science have declared that the “race is on” in a war-like effort to topple the fossil fuel hegemony.
As for the United States, the immediate future of thorium appears restricted. Plans for the US to decommission many of the existing uranium nuclear plants of the nation, in a project called the “Retirement Cliff,” do not bode well for the construction of new thorium-based nuclear plants. A new era of energy cannot be entered if the door to it is shut.
Brendan Wright is a double major in International Political Economics and enjoys writing on energy and technology for Fordham Political Review.
Meet The “Total Solution” to Earth’s Energy Crisis, Fordham Political Review