Pragmatic 2A: The Battery Problem Follow-up 1

7 December, 2013


Follow up (Part A) to The Battery Problem where we explore proported fire risks associated with Wind Farms, Geothermal and Wave Power and whether Thorium is everything it’s cracked up to be.

Transcript available
This is Pragmatic Follow-Up Part A for Episode 2, The Battery Problem. I'm Ben Alexander and my co-host is John Chidjie. We actually have some follow-up from Episode 2. So follow-up we have regards different kinds of alternative energy that I didn't talk about and I think that's a fair comment for us to briefly touch on those. So I'd like to start talking about some corrections actually on nuclear power and thorium is another one that I didn't discuss. So just quickly on nuclear, I said originally that when nuclear fission took place with uranium-235 or 238 it would split and you would get cobalt as a byproduct. That is incorrect, sorry, my mistake. It actually will split into a range of isotopes that gradually degrade and you'll end up with the most common ones you'll end up with will be strontium-90 and cesium-137. The reason that's an issue is because they have half-lives of about 30 years. That doesn't sound too bad, however the reality is that a half-life simply means that the way they measure radioactive decay is they say if you have a mass of one pound of radioactive material that half of it will have decayed in that period of time. So it's all about statistics and theoretically you never reach the bottom because if you keep halving a half of a half of a half you don't ever get to zero. But eventually it fades down to a point where it's emitting cellular radiation and it's not a problem. But that actual time, life of 30 years means it's still gonna be dangerous for hundreds of years, which obviously that's the problem with nuclear waste. But rather interestingly the issue is more so that when you have spent fuel rods that essentially they come out with a mixture of stuff in it. It's not 100% broken down into strontium and cesium. It actually has some uranium still in there and it has some plutonium because what will happen is slow neutrons will push some of the uranium 238 up to 239 creating plutonium and plutonium has a half-life considerably longer and to the tune in some isotopes to the tune of about 6,000 years half-life and that's more the problem. So the issue is that those spent fuel rods then require processing and and that processing costs money and takes time. And of course that therefore puts the average price of the electricity up because you've got to do all this post-processing in order to make it cleaner and safer, and you're still left with some highly toxic waste. So the next question was, what about thorium? So thorium is one of those not so much talked about ones 'cause everyone just thinks, oh yeah, uranium and all that sort of thing is like, it's the big one they put in the atomic bombs and all that. But thorium is actually one atomic number down from uranium. It's far more stable, but it's still very dense. And if it captures a slow moving neutron, it'll become uranium-233. And the thing about uranium-233 is that it takes a lot of pushing for it to become plutonium. So typically it doesn't. What'll happen is it will go through the fission process. It'll create the strontium and cesium by-products, essentially, and there will be practically no plutonium in it. The other thing about thorium that's great is that they estimate there's about four times as much of it in the Earth's crust as there is uranium. The funny thing, well I say funny, it's not really that funny, but you know, the thing about it is that they still haven't found most of it. So they calculate statistically it should be there, but the reserves of thorium aren't as abundant as they believe that they should be. So I'm not sure exactly how they come up with the, there should be four times as much as uranium. I imagine, I'm not gonna speculate. I have my suspicions, but I don't know for sure. So I won't speculate. But the point is that it's not as abundant as people would like to think it is. And you still got the same problem with the strontium and the cesium taking hundreds of years to degrade to a point where it's safe. Sure, it's not 6,000 plus years and then some 'cause of the plutonium in there, But bottom line is that it's still very nasty. So for example, people say, oh, thorium's clean, nuclear efficient. Well, no. It isn't. It just isn't. So you still have that issue. I apologize for interjecting silliness this early into the show. But has maybe the best graphic I've ever seen. And it's a little baby playing with a bowling ball and next to it is an oil tanker and the graphic, the text is "A bowling ball of thorium has the energy of an oil super tanker." And it's just fantastic. I think it's just, that's my new desktop all favor. I'm sticking with the waves. That's all I'm saying. I've got Mavericks, I'm happy with the waves. It's got a calming influence. I'm going over that. But babies with nuclear fuel, what could go wrong? Oh yeah, just pass the kid a stick of thorium. Why not? Thorium baby rattles, that'll be the next craze. But anyhow, look, there is actually a little side note about thorium. I came across an article when I was just brushing up on this, and there is a claim that, do I think it was General Motors were going to release a thorium fuelled car that would never need refuelling in something like 80 years. Some kind of ridiculous thing like that. Anyway, I had a look into this and the claims have all been pretty well debunked and I kind of am not surprised. They're talking about basically some kind of laser initiated or a thorium based laser that would drive a steam turbine that would drive the vehicle and create the electricity to drive the vehicle. And the whole thing just seemed so ridiculous. And when they looked through the numbers, they pulled it apart. It's just, there is no, certainly not with the technology that we have at the moment, there is no easy solution. And nuclear fission is nuclear fission. No matter what you're breaking into pieces, it's going to be a radioactive by-product at some stage. It's a question of how bad it is. I mean, nuclear fusion is probably the better way to go, because nuclear fusion, when you're slamming together some tritium and some deuterium hydrogen atoms and then you get helium as byproduct, it's, you know, all you're getting is any stray alpha beta particles are going to get absorbed by the lead shielding. And so, the lead will be radioactive around the actual containment area. And that's it. You're really not going to have any other issues. And that is about as clean as it's going to get. But the problem with fusion, of course, is I've been working on it for 50 years and they still don't have a commercially viable fusion reactor. And the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the so-called ITER, is under construction right now. But they already are saying that even when it's finished, it still won't- it is still the test bench for a full scale, commercially viable fusion plant. So, even when it's finished, it won't be able to produce massive amounts of electricity. It will be able to, but some produce some electricity, but it's a proof of concept. And I think it's something like the third or fourth proof of concept design, because fusion in a controlled fashion is very hard to achieve. The sun gets away with it because it's up in the middle of nowhere. But when you're down on a planet that's a heck of a lot cooler and It's a lot harder than just splitting an atom in half. Anyway, so that was the follow up on nuclear fusion and thorium. And so hopefully that's that put to bed. Another one came about wind turbines just quickly, which is there is also a fear of wind turbines starting fires that could result in death. And there's two angles to this. First angle is because it's very high in the air and they are often in remote locations where there's lots of forest around them, obviously the immediate area is cleared or the pylons are so high they clear the top of the tree line. Irrespective, they are lightning magnets. For the want of a better way of putting it, they're not a magnet, but you know what I mean. They will attract the lightning because they are a large conductive object and they've got foundations to go into the ground, low resistance path to ground. obviously that's going to happen. And lightning strikes, therefore, elevated temperatures near the lightning strike, you could actually trigger a bushfire, forest fire, depending upon what country you're in, but whatever, same kind of deal. Reported cases of that actually happening, appear to be very thin on the ground. I couldn't find a single one. But it's the sort of this, there's a whole bunch of anti-wind farm activists around the world that don't believe in these things and they're saying, well, the noise problem, which we discussed last time, I don't want to go over that again necessarily, but the fire one is the other one that they really beat the drum about. The other piece of it was that a fire caused by a wind turbine, because the wind turbines, if there is a fire in the wind turbine itself, it's physically very high above the ground. How do firefighters put out a fire? And that is a big problem, I guess. I mean, you're going to burn this thing out. It's going to burn and run out of fuel to burn, and then it's going to die. And if you're wondering what's burning in there, it's just oil. So the oil that lubricates and cools the little generator inside it as well, and the bearings, that's about the only thing in there that's going to burn. So once that's burned out, that's it. End of story. And it's not going to fall down or anything through heat fatigue. So that's never happened. They've caught fire, but they've never fallen apart. And the only person who's ever, there was a recorded death and that was a maintenance engineer who was actually close to the turbine at the time when there was a mishap. And it was not ruled as being, it was a fault, I believe. It was not an accident. It was something that was, there was a direct cause for it and it was not due to faulty equipment. It was just, oh dear, something went wrong. And that was a long time ago. So just quickly wanted to put that one to bed as well. So there's a lot of that sort of wind turbines are bad. And honestly, the bottom line with wind turbines is that wind and solar with hydro backup, like I said last episode, is I think the best solution overall. So, okay, next, geothermal. Can't believe I didn't mention geothermal, but there's a reason I didn't. the reason I didn't is because geothermal is extremely expensive to do. So, just real quick, cap on what geothermal is. You basically drill a big hole in the ground and you go down to where it's hot because obviously, the world is sitting on molten rock, all that magma and stuff way, way underground. We're sitting on the crust on the top and all these different plates are grinding against each other and you get earthquakes and you get volcanoes where there's weak spots and all that pressure from gravity pushes it up through the hole and you get volcanic eruptions and all that stuff. Okay, just what is that high school geology, right? Okay, so if we're all in that playing field, all you're trying to do is get down to an area where the magma is closer to the surface so there's a lot of heat generated by that. There's of course other situations where you can can get heat generated through different kinds of rock stratifications through other conditions but not wanting to go too far down that path. Let's just say you got to put a hole in the ground. Next thing you got to do is you got to pump the water through the ground and then out the other end. So cool water goes in, hot water comes out and the hot water is hopefully hot enough for you to drive steam turbine to generate electricity. However, the problem is that there's only so much heat you can transfer to the water in any given location. So for geothermal, you actually have to have a reasonable amount of space and it needs to be a pocket that is of a reasonable area for it to be viable. So if you're in a part of the world where everything is all quiet on the Western Front, as it were, in that respect, like for example, I don't know, Australia, because we're stuck right in the middle of a continental plate. So we don't have any volcanoes. We very seldom get earthquakes. We don't get earthquakes. We do get them, but they're caused by minor fracturing on the actual- within the actual plate itself, not caused by the actual- where one plate is- you know, there's either a subduction zone or the other one. Sorry. But you know, not the subduction, but you know what I mean. - Slipping over each other, yeah. - Yeah, that's right. You were in the middle of the plate. So it's caused by plate buckling within the plate. So you don't have any of that. All the volcanoes that we have here have all been long extinct. So in Australia, geothermal, I think, represents for something like one or two megawatts is the largest one or something like that. It's a joke. It's like a trial plant. However, somewhere that's a little bit more interesting, like let's say the United States, where of course you've got all of that activity in and around the Rocky Mountains, you've got Yellowstone and you've got a few other areas, there is a plant there called the geysers. And that's actually a 750 megawatt plant, which is the largest single geothermal plant in the world. Interesting thing is that Iceland has a lot of volcanoes and it holds, I believe it's the record in the world for having the most proportion of its electricity generated from geothermal. But even that does not have the largest plant in the world. But then again, they don't have to produce as much electricity as the United States, and that was big. So the total summation of all the geothermal electricity created in the world, some total as of, I think about six months ago, was 3.3 gigawatts. Which I've got to say is a lot more than I thought it would be. but you compare that to all of the others and it's significant, but it's not enormous. So geothermal is certainly something you can't put in your backyard. I mean, well, I suppose I guess you could, but no, no, no. Seriously, no, you could not put that in your backyard. I can't imagine any council giving you the right to dig down to 200, 300, you know. Actually, I don't even know how deep some of them would have to be. It would vary depending on the location. Well, and the ground in those areas has to be pretty fractured, right? Like it's got to be sort of chunked up anyways. Well, there are methods that they use for extracting coal seam gas that can get pretty nasty where they inject a bunch of different chemicals into the ground and they set off an explosion under the ground. And that causes what they call fracking, which is a combination of the words fracture and cracking. And yeah, so that's, that's, we're right on the, I live right on the edge of the, uh, what the Marseilles, the, the big, uh, the big shale discovery, um, goes all across Pennsylvania and down into Appalachia and, and yeah, the, the amount of, of small earthquakes that have started, um, started appearing and, you know, that's right. I mean, so we were actually going through exactly the same thing here. I didn't really want to get into this, this, this episode, perhaps we'll save this for a future episode, but in my area, the area out to the west and north of Brisbane in South East Queensland, so heading out to Western Queensland and Central Queensland, that whole area has got high concentrations of coal seam gas. The whole area is just littered with coal, black coal mostly. So in other words, the good stuff. But unfortunately, in the past, it was considered a liability. Now it's considered to be an asset because now you can go and drill down 20, 30, 40 bores in an area, you know, frack the heck out of the ground. That sounds funny, but anyway. And you pump some water down there and then you start getting the return out and you start getting gas with it. You separate the gas, you compress it, purify it, send it off and sell it for liquefied natural gas and yeah, more energy, right? And it is cleaner than burning coal, but the downside is, of course, as you said, like they are noticing that all of this fracturing of the ground underneath is essentially creating new fault lines, new area, parts of... It's kind of like it's making the earth's crust a bit more malleable and able to crack and fracture and that creates more small earthquakes. or not they ever add up to something big like what happened off the coasts of Japan, you know, not that long ago. Yeah, or Chile, for example, not that long ago. I don't know, but it's a disturbing trend, that's for sure. But anyway, and that's not to mention the other issues with Brian and disposal of the water and everything. Okay. Anyway, so yes, not a big fan of geothermal. I think that it's one of those niche ones that is, you know, just not going to ever really go anywhere. Okay. So the last one that I had a request to talk about was wave and or tidal power. And I know that this was it, cause it's a variation on a theme, right? It's a, the, the wave power is a variation on wind and the tidal is trying to use the moon's gravitational pull for pulling all the water around as the earth spinning and the problem with those is that with Tidal is that it's it's very intermittent and the other issue of course with both of them is you're in an extremely highly corrosive environment so you have to have a massive amounts of cathodic protection to stop it from rusting itself to bits. They become very expensive to maintain and the funny thing is they really don't generate a a hell of a lot. So when I actually dug into this, I was quite surprised that there are actually, let me see, there's hardly any commercial wave plants in the world. And the tidal plants that there are in the world produce practically nothing. It's kind of like it was a proof of concept. It was an experiment that never really went anywhere. So the biggest one, I believe was 2.4 megawatts. And that's shut down. It only ran as a proof of concept for a few years. So there's a few links in the show notes anyway, feel free to check it out if you want to, but wave and tidal power, yeah, shrug, no. It's just, you're far better off, if you're trying to harness the power of the wind, you're far better off putting up a bunch of pylons with a fan blade on it, 'cause it's got a better conversion efficiency and there's less that's directly exposed to such a corrosive environment in the ocean.
Duration 20 minutes and 24 seconds Direct Download

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Ben Alexander

Ben Alexander

Ben created and runs and Fiat Lux

John Chidgey

John Chidgey

John is an Electrical, Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer, software developer, podcaster, vocal actor and runs TechDistortion and the Engineered Network. John is a Chartered Professional Engineer in both Electrical Engineering and Information, Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering (ITEE) and a semi-regular conference speaker.

John has produced and appeared on many podcasts including Pragmatic and Causality and is available for hire for Vocal Acting or advertising. He has experience and interest in HMI Design, Alarm Management, Cyber-security and Root Cause Analysis.

Described as the David Attenborough of disasters, and a Dreamy Narrator with Great Pipes by the Podfather Adam Curry.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.