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January 19, 2010

The End Of The Carbon Age

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IStock_000009197493XSmall In studies of the progress of mankind, periods in time have been given specific names to identify the level of our development.  For instance, names such as the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age were placed on various periods in time to describe what materials were in wide use for tools and weapons.  Today, we have similar names such as the Steam Age or Industrial Age (roughly 1770 to 1914) and more recently the Information Age (roughly 1980’s to present).

However, a broader category that started with the controlled use of fire through the burning of wood, oils, and other natural sources of fuel began the Carbon Age (coined by Eric Roston in his book, "The Carbon Age" - where he takes the journey of the element all the way back to the Big Bang).  In my view, this was the first time that man-made controlled sources of energy began releasing carbon gasses into the atmosphere.  It covers all of the previously mentioned ages as well as today’s modern age of technology.  Civilization has simply found new sources of carbon based fuels to consume to drive our technology. 

Estimates vary, but evidence points to man-kind using controlled fire between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago (and possibly earlier).  The use of carbon based fuels such as petroleum has increased exponentially with inventions such as the internal combustion engine and gas turbines.  Additionally, coal has been used widely throughout history and increased as well during the beginning of the industrial age.  Coal along with natural gas drives many of our modern power plants and contributes large amounts of CO2 to our atmosphere.  So it is fairly safe to say, the carbon age started a long time ago and is in full swing today...

However, it is quite possible we are living at or near the end of the carbon age - at least for use as an energy source.  With the world population growing at unbelievable rates, and the increased demand for energy to drive technology, we are simply running out of naturally occurring carbon based resources.  Again, estimates vary depending on how much carbon sources remain and how fast we move away from them, but most estimates seem to fall within the 100 year mark (some much lower to even tens of years).

Along with increased global political pressure and unstable sources of oil, a great deal of research has been focused on alternative energy sources.  It has also driven the development of electric vehicles and other sources of electric power such as solar, wind and geothermal.  Nuclear power has had promise to provide clean, unlimited sources of electricity, however current designs produce a great deal of hazardous waste along with by-products usable in weapons of mass destruction.

Besides natural sources of energy such as solar and wind, there are at least two other nuclear methods available to solving the growing energy demand.  One is nuclear fusion (not fission like traditional nuclear plants use) where isotopes of hydrogen are fused together to produce helium isotopes, a proton or neutron along with tremendous energy.  Current research is hampered by the difficulty in producing temperatures high enough to sustain fusion in a controlled manner.  Once fusion power is commercially feasible, power plants based on this technology will appear replacing both fission based nuclear plants as well as traditional coal and natural gas burning plants. But this technology has some time to go...

The second type is a lesser known nuclear technology based on Thorium.  The latest designs incorporate thorium dissolved in fluoride salts.  These are called Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors or LFTRs (pronounced "lifters"). They are straight forward designs that incorporate many inherent safety features.  In these designs the liquid salt carrying the fissionable thorium expands as it gets hot limiting the fission process.  As the reaction slows, the liquid salt cools down and contracts once again increasing the rate of reaction - the system is self-regulating.  Designs incorporate a dump tank with a salt plug that melts if it gets too hot and automatically drains the core material and shuts off the reaction. 

In researching thorium based reactors, it quickly became evident that the history of nuclear reactor designs were driven by the DOD to promote the production of Plutonium for weapons programs.  Since thorium based reactors burn most of their fuel, the result is very little waste with little or no weapons potential… adoption of such technology could lead to the end of the carbon age where we run everything by electricity. Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and others are even designing small reactors that can fit on the back of a rail car and be safely transported anywhere.  Proliferation of this technology could solve many of our current problems with the nuclear industry and the current waste products it produces, but mostly with carbon based fuels and the issues with their use.

For more information on thorium LFTR technology, see the Thorium Energy Alliance.  It was said at the dawn of nuclear power generation that electricity would be produced so cheaply that there would be no need to meter it... maybe that day is upon us!

Till next time...