Sunday, 10 July 2011 08:49

Thorium Reactors, Crude Oil and Rounding Errors

A discussion about thorium-based nuclear reactors took place in the British House of Lords this Thursday. It was yet another occasion to point out the positive outcome of focusing the development of nuclear technology on thorium-fueled reactors instead of keeping the less secure uranium-based reactors. For sure, controversy abounds on this theme.   
 
But if Her Majesty's Lords and Government can be credited with assiduously reading on Wikipedia, shall we address the views of Bill Gates? He built a fortune on practical innovation and he backs up the nuclear solution as the most appropriate to counter the energy crisis for the foreseeable future. Bill Gates calls the endeavor into solar energy production as "cute" and a "hobby" nice to have for rich people who can afford anything. But on the wider economy scale, neither solar nor ethanol biofuel can make a difference other than "rounding errors." Here's what Bill Gates mentioned about biofuels:
 
"If you can start with cellulose as your feedstock, then the economics start to work. But the amount of landmass that you have to use if you actually want to start substituting biofuel for oil is pretty unbelievable. You can process your garbage, corn stalks, cut up some wood... But that's just a rounding error, it doesn't add up to much and it won't measurably impact US oil importation."
 
Imagine all the government spending, all subsidies for "unconventional" energy wasted on just a "rounding error" that "doesn't add up to much" and won't "impact US oil imports." And Bill Gates further goes telling the audience. 
 
"You have to help the rest of the world get energy at a reasonable price to get anywhere. It's great to have the rich world, because we're there to think about long-term problems and fund the R&D. But we get sloppy, because we're rich. For example, despite often-heard claims to the contrary, ethanol has nothing to do with reducing CO2; it's just a form of farm subsidy. If you're using first-class land for biofuels, then you're competing with the growing of food. And so you're actually spiking food prices by moving energy production into agriculture. For rich people, this is OK. For poor people, this is a real problem, because their food budget is an extremely high percentage of their income. As we're pushing these things, poor people are driven from having adequate food to not having adequate food."
 
Let us mention, on a side note, about what Obama intends to do to the rich people by redistributing their wealth. In other words, rich people (middle class America) were richer before 2008, are poorer now and will be even less rich in the future. Not that this will enrich the poor people. Because redistributed money are spent on "cute" and "hobby" projects like solar panel deployment or on farm subsidies that (unlike the claims) have nothing to do with CO2 reduction. Instead they "produce" just a rounding error with no impact on crude oil consumption in the US. 
 
Not to mention that CO2 emissions have no visible impact on global warming. However, Bill Gates won't tinker with the climate-gate taboo. Perhaps this taboo is the recent replacement for the clothes of the emperor. And, after all, it serves as a scare crow for keeping the crude oil prices high and also as a leverage for obtaining more research and development funding. Which is mainly the manifest concern of Bill Gates in the aforementioned conversation. 
 
"You could have the government throw money at the most politically favored guy in the country to go build a battery factory. And there are billions of dollars that have been assigned to that waste. Or you could actually back people who have better battery ideas."
 
In other words, promising research projects are not a funding priority for the government. All it counts is being a "politically favored guy" and the money will be thrown at you to replicate the clunky storage technology of the past. We know that current batteries are far from optimal and an environmental hazard in the making. Why produce more of them with money that, if invested in the right direction, will bring us closer to novel batteries, based on better and safer technologies? 
 
Not sure if the voice of Bill Gates on the energy crisis matters enough to heal the chronic sclerosis in high political places. Until seeing a noticeable result, when and if that will happen, we may stick to the following conclusions (at least for this weekend). 
 
1. The countries centered around nuclear energy (probably switching from uranium-based rectors to cleaner thorium-based ones) will have a strategical advantage compared to currently rich countries that waste funding on cute hobby experiments such as solar panels, wind mills, biofuels. 
 
2. Fundamental chemistry research indicates that new technologies will allow us to (probably) fuel the tank (sort of "tank") with some special fluids, that have the property to remain dissociate and also produce electrical power to speed up our cars. Again, those countries smart enough to invest in such technologies will take advantage against the rich of the day who spend money on replicating obsolete products. 
 
3. Until point #2 above will take effect in the real world, gasoline and natural gas are here to stay as the basic mobile energy sources. CO2 emissions? Ask the trees if they are happy to breathe our CO2... More carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere may have the pleasant impact of regenerating and expanding our forests, partially devastated by the acid rains from the coal plants. 
 
"We should all grow our own food and do our own waste processing, we really should." It's a phrase that Gates placed in context. It's also a sane statement. But obviously beyond the high burden of the globally interconnected economy. The energy crisis is probably more than a scare crow, it reflects our dependency on an ever growing infrastructure. It's not just about drilling or mining the resources but also about distributing them, in the shadow of wealth redistribution... 
 
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