A SHORT HISTORY OF ENERGY

The control of fire by early humans was a turning point in human evolution. It provided a source of warmth, protection against wild animals and a method for cooking food. Additionally, fire allowed the expansion of human activity to proceed into the dark and colder hours of night. The earliest definitive evidence of control of fire by a member of a human species dates from over 1.5 million years ago.

Homo erectus making fire

The fuel these early humans used was wood or other biomass and although coal may have been used as much as 3000 years ago, it is only in the last two hundred years that coal, and also mineral oil and gas, have been used extensively.

These fossil fuels still account for over 80% of all fuel used.

TIME FOR CHANGE

This situation must change and as a matter of urgency.  Over the last century there has been a 60% increase in the amount of CO2  in the atmosphere.  This is leading to overall global warming, climate change and a host of consequences which are well-known and which we are already experiencing.

Furthermore, some 1.6 billion people or over 20% of the world’s population, in contrast to those of us in the industrially-developed world,  have no access to electricity and hence have little opportunity for social or economic progress. That this state of inequality cannot continue is already manifest through current mass migration to the developed world. Supply of electricity to the “under-developed” world will require further massive increase in fuel consumption which cannot come from fossil sources because they are becoming exhausted.

The future therefore is the rapid and massive introduction of low or non-carbon sources of energy.

RENEWABLE ENERGIES

One such source is the so-called “renewables” including wind, solar and hydropower. Accordingly our team has designed and produced a small wind-powered turbine which, in the developed world can be used to power off-the-grid homes and leisure or fishing boats. In the “under-developed” world it can be used to provide the basics of safe lighting, communication and small power-tool use to those who have no grid connection.

Installation of our wind turbine In the South of Chile

However, renewables including hydropower produce only 10% of the world’s energy and even with massive investment,  will only be able to produce about 20% of our needs.

NUCLEAR ENERGY

The way forward is nuclear energy and, despite fears that exploitation of this, together with the handling of radioactive materials, is a health hazard, in fact nuclear energy is by far the very safest form of energy generation that we have.

For example, the number of fatalities per unit of energy produced by nuclear is only 10% that of solar.

However, the fuel mainly used in present-day reactors is Uranium and, at the rate at which we are mining and using this, there are estimated reserves only for less than 100 years. It is therefore not sustainable into the long-term future.

With this in mind, we have decided to prototype an small reactor using not Uranium but Thorium as a fuel. This has many advantages: reserves are sufficient for many thousands of years, much less radioactive waste is produced than with Uranium and it lends itself to design and production of reactors which avoid use of solid fuel elements such as used in Uranium reactors, The so-called “molten salt reactors” do not require expensive pressure vessels and can be factory-produced on an assembly-line basis with massive savings in cost.

This is the direction in which Sustainable Energy Microsystems is going. We are opting for units with output in the order of 2 to 10 megawatts. This contrasts with existing power stations, whether fossil or nuclear, which typically have an output of 1000 megawatts. The reason for this is that they would be portable, making them suitable for co-generation plants in developed countries,  producing both electricity and heat , for powering ships or high-speed trains and for transporting to remote areas of the world which lack mains connection.

OUR INSPIRATION

Oak Ridge Molten Salt Reactor

Thorium-fuelled molten salt reactors represent  a “mature” technology in that such units were designed by Professor Alvin Weinberg and were successfully operated at the United States Oak Ridge Laboratory during the mid 1960s.

Weinberg’s early work in the late 1930s was on measurement of atmospheric CO2  from which he gave forewarnings of the dangers of climate change. We therefore regards him as our prophet and hero.