Thursday, September 18, 2014

Spent Fuel and the Thorium Solution

Thorium deposits in North America (Credit:USGS)
by Marcel Williams

Humanity currently exist in a global energy economy that is dominated by fossil fuels. And the combustion of fossil fuels by our industrial civilization has  created atmospheric conditions with an ever increasing  CO2 (carbon dioxide) content. The carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere is now higher than it has ever been in the history of the human species. In fact, it is higher than in the entire history of our genus, Homo, which first emerged in sub-Saharan Africa more than 2.5 million years ago.

At approximately 400 parts per million, current CO2 levels in the Earth's atmosphere may be as high as they were during the Pliocene Epoch when sea levels may have been 10 to 40 meters higher than they are today. And as long as we continue to use fossil fuels, the CO2 content in the Earth's atmosphere is likely to reach levels not seen since the Earth was devoid of polar ice caps altogether which could eventually raise global sea levels above 60 meters.

So thanks to the humongous energy needs of our modern civilization, future generations face the possibility of living in a much warmer world with substantially higher sea levels. Rising sea levels  could eventually flood most of the world's coastal areas including some of the world's major cities.

Altruistically,  our current civilization should be trying to create a better tomorrow for future generations.  Unfortunately, there are global economic interest that  have tens of  trillions of dollars invested in the fossil fuel economy. And their priorities are to make near term profits-- even at the expense of humanity's long term environmental and economic future. Of course, America's capitalist system exist within a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. So within a democratic republic, free people have the ultimate responsibility to make sure that our civilization doesn't wreck the environment for future generations. 

While there are viable technological alternatives to the fossil fuel economy, there are many who actually fear the-- best technological solution-- to the problem of global warming and  the deposition of excess CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere: nuclear energy.

Commercial nuclear power is the principal carbon free producer of electricity in the United States, producing more than three times as much carbon free electricity as hydroelectricity,  six times as much as wind, and more than 100 times as much carbon free electricity as solar. And this is in spite the fact that the United States pretty much halted the building of new nuclear power plants in the US for more than thirty years.

Commercial nuclear energy is also the safest form of electricity production ever created. Even if you include the accidents at  Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island, nuclear energy production is still substantially safer than using coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, solar, or wind.

Energy Mortality Rate (deaths per trillion kilowatt hours)

US Coal -------- 15,000

Natural Gas ------ 4000

Hydroelectric ---- 1400

Solar (rooftop) ---- 440

Wind ---------------- 150

Nuclear ---------------90

Although the United States has more commercial nuclear reactors in operation than any other nation on Earth, the construction of new reactors in the US still lags well behind  China and Russia and even behind India, and Europe. While the next generation of small centrally mass produced nuclear reactors  should be available for commercial service in the US by the  2020's, the future domestic demand for such reactors by US utilities is still clouded by the fact that there is still no long term solution to the political problem of spent fuel which is often referred to as nuclear waste. 

Number of nuclear reactors currently (9/18/2014) under construction by nation: 

CHINA------------------------------------------     27
RUSSIA-----------------------------------------     10
INDIA--------------------------------------------     6
KOREA, REPUBLIC OF ---------------------    5
JAPAN ---------------------------------------------2 
PAKISTAN -------------------------------------    2
SLOVAKIA -------------------------------------    2
TAIWAN ------------------------------------------ 2
UKRAINE---------------------------------------     2
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES-----------------     2
FRANCE -----------------------------------------    1  
ARGENTINA-----------------------------------     1   
BELARUS ---------------------------------------    1  
BRAZIL ------------------------------------------    1  
FINLAND ----------------------------------------    1         
What to do with the spent fuel once its removed from commercial nuclear reactors  is one of the most difficult political obstacles hampering the approval and construction of new nuclear reactors in the US.   Within some American States, it is even illegal to build  new nuclear reactors  until there is a permanent repository or another long term solution to the problem of nuclear waste.

The  irony in all of this, of course,  is the fact that relative to other electric power producing facilities, nuclear power plants actually create very little toxic waste. A 1000 MWe nuclear power plant only produces about  27 tonnes of spent fuel every year.  That's a quantity that is so small that all of the radioactive material ever produced from the commercial nuclear power industry in the US could be placed in an area the size of a football field only a few meters high. That's it!

A 1000 MWe coal power plant, on the other hand, produces approximately 400,000 tonnes of toxic material every year:  ash from coal power plants that is  contaminated with toxic materials such as  mercury, arsenic, chromium, and cadmium which can contaminate drinking water supplies and damage the human nervous system and other vital  organs. The ash pumped into the atmosphere of a coal power plants also expose surrounding populations to approximately 100 times more background radiation than a nuclear power plant does. Coal power plants, of course, are the primary producers of greenhouse gasses amongst electric power facilities.

But even solar energy produces substantially more toxic waste than commercial nuclear reactors. Per kilowatt of electricity produced,  the toxic materials required to produce rooftop solar panels and the toxic materials contained in the dismantling of solar panels is quantitatively at least 10,000 times that of the toxic materials produced from the nuclear industry. So the toxic waste produced from commercial nuclear power plants is miniscule compared to the toxic waste produced from the solar panel industry.

Ironically, most of the spent fuel produced from a commercial nuclear power plant is actually not waste at all. More than 95% of the fissile and fertile material contained in spent fuel can actually be recycled. This is already been successfully done to a partial degree in countries like France where plutonium is extracted from spent fuel and then mixed with depleted uranium 238. 

But way back in 1982, the  Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Beaver County, Pennsylvania was shut down after utilizing enriched uranium in a blanket of thorium 232 for five years.  In 1987, it was reported that  the core of the light water thorium reactor contained 1.3% more fissile material than it had when it was originally fueled.  This clearly  demonstrated that a light water breeder reactor could produce more fissile  material than it consumed if fissile material was utilized in a blanket of fertile thorium.

So plutonium could be extracted from the spent fuel of Light Water Reactors and mixed with thorium in order to produce carbon free electricity in Light Water Thorium Reactors while burning up the plutonium.   The fissile uranium produced from the conversion of thorium 232 into uranium 233 could then be mixed with the with depleted uranium or reprocessed uranium from spent fuel to produce power in current Light Water Reactors.  Burning plutonium from spent fuel in Light Water Thorium Reactors while utilizing uranium 233 from thorium reactors for reuse in Light Water Uranium Reactors could demonstrate that more than 95% of the material in spent fuel can be recycled. Recycling the fissile material in spent fuel would dramatically reduce the already meager amount of radioactive material that has to be sequestered into nuclear waste site. And this could help to end the prohibition against building new nuclear reactors in some States in the United States.

Countries with the Largest Thorium Reserves

India ......................    846,000
Turkey...................     744,000
Brazil ....................     606,000
Australia ...............    521,000
USA ......................     434,000
Egypt....................      380,000
Norway.................      320,000
Venezuela.............      300,000
Canada.................      172,000
Russia..................       155,000
South Africa........      148,000
China...................      100,000
Greenland..............     86,000
Finland..................      60,000
Sweden..................      50,000
Kazakhstan............     50,000

However, the moderation of neutrons could be reduced if the water content of the thorium reactor were reduced by 25 to 50%. This would allow the reactor to burn the other radioactive waste products  in a solid fuel mix with plutonium and thorium.  That, of course, would completely eliminate the need to bury any spent fuel products created by commercial nuclear reactors.

There's only enough-- terrestrial uranium-- to produce all of the  electricity and synfuels required to power all of  human civilization at current levels for about 15 years. However,  there's more than 4 billion tonnes of uranium in seawater, enough   provide all of the energy needs for human civilization for more than 3600 years. Recycling the spent uranium and might extend this to over 5000 years. Utilizing the plutonium from Uranium Light Water Reactors to power Thorium Light Water Reactors, could power human civilization for 2800 years.

So a uranium and thorium economy could power human civilization at current levels for nearly 8000 years.  Beyond this point, plutonium/uranium breeder reactors would finally be required to continue to power human civilization on Earth by solely using nuclear fission.   

Thorium deposits on the lunar surface (credit:NASA)

However, additional sources of thorium could be mined on the surface of the Moon, a resource that's only a few days away by chemical rockets. Because there is no life on the Moon, thorium could be exploited much more extensively on the lunar surface than on Earth, perhaps to a level that could allow lunar thorium to power a nuclear fuel economy on Earth forever.

Marcel Williams

Links and References

Atmospheric CO2 decline during the Pliocene intensification of Northern Hemisphere glaciations

Departures from eustasy in Pliocene sea-level records

National Geographic: Rising Seas

How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt? We Rank The Killer Energy Sources

Under Construction Reactors
State Restrictions on New Nuclear Power Facility Construction

Radioactive Waste Management

Safely Managing Used Nuclear Fuel

Spent Fuel Transport & Storage

The real waste problem, solar edition

Light Water Breeder Reactor: Adapting A Proven System

How thorium can solve the nuclear waste problem in conventional reactors

The Thorium Dream

The Thorium Alternative

Use of Reprocessed Uranium

Fueling our Nuclear Future 

USGS Map of Thorium Deposits in North America
Thorium Deposits on the Moon

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Landing Large Cargos and Crews on the Surface of Mars

Tethered beneath a hydrogen inflated ballute, a crewed  Ares 2 (Ares ETLV-2) reusable landing shuttle slowly descends towards the martian surface.

by Marcel Williams

Launching human crews from the surface of the Earth to low Earth orbit (LEO) requires a delta-v of more than 9.3 kilometers per second (km/s). But on the Moon and Mars, the delta-v requirements are significantly lower. Launching humans from the surface of the Moon to lunar orbit can require as little delta-v as 1.87 km/s. And launching human crews from the surface of Mars to low Mars orbit requires a delta-v of only 4.4 km/s.

Landing humans on the surface of the Earth and on the Moon is relatively easy. Only minuscule amounts of delta-v are required to for crews to  leave Earth orbit and glide or parachute through the Earth's thick atmosphere to the terrestrial surface. The delta-v required to land a crew on the surface of the Moon from lunar orbit is equivalent to the delta-v required to leave the lunar surface to low lunar orbit.

Unfortunately,  landing crews and large payloads on the surface of Mars  is much more problematical. The largest spacecraft that NASA has managed to safely  deploy to the Martian surface are all below 600 kilograms in mass. The weight of a lunar derived crewed vehicle to the Martian surface is likely to weigh as much as 10 tonnes, not including the substantial amounts of fuel  needed to return to orbit around the Red Planet. And NASA eventually wants the ability to  deploy as much as 100 tonnes of payload onto the martian surface by a single spacecraft. 

Notional ballutes designed to aerobrake into a planetary orbit or to land on the surface of Mars (Credit: NASA)

 The problem with landing large masses on the surface of Mars is that even though the martian atmosphere is approximately 1% as dense as the Earth's atmosphere, it's still thick enough to produce substantial amounts of frictional heating as a vehicle plunges at hypersonic speeds through its atmosphere  but still not enough friction to sufficiently lower the terminal velocity as it approaches the planet's surface. Small vehicles (less than 600 kg) attempting to land on Mars have, therefore, been designed to have a high  drag coefficients. Designing a spacecraft with a high drag coefficient for vehicles weighing several tonnes or more, however, is much more difficult.

This has pushed NASA towards the idea of utilizing large inflatable ballutes to assist heavy payloads and spacecraft entering the martian atmosphere. The large drag coefficient of a toroidal ballute could allow a spacecraft to decelerate at very low densities high in the martian atmosphere with relatively low rates of frictional heating.  The low frictional heat experienced by the ballute could allow for light-weight construction techniques that could enhance the ability to deploy more mass to the martian surface. Ballutes inflated with gases that are lighter than the carbon dioxide could also increases static lift. Recent studies  suggest that a toroidal ballute with a tube radius of 80 meters could be used to deliver masses the martian surface of approximately 100 tonnes.

Top: ETLV-2 vehicle designed for landing on the surfaces of the Moon and  the moons of Mars; Bottom: An ETLV-2 derived Ares 2 vehicle designed to dock with a disposable heat shield  and compacted ballute in order to land on the surface of Mars.
Placed on the surface of Mars, a single staged reusable vehicle with an inert weight of approximately 10 tonnes (including payload and crew) designed to travel to and from the lunar surface would require at least 18 tonnes of fuel to transport a crew from the martian surface to low Mars orbit;  22 tonnes of fuel  would be required to reach the surface of Phobos and  24 tonnes of fuel would be needed to reach the surface of Deimos from the martian surface. So with a delta-v requirement of less than 5.3 km/s, a fueled  single staged crew vehicle weighing nearly 40 tonnes placed on the surface of Mars should be capable of  traveling all the way from the martian surface to the surface of Deimos or to high Mars orbit.

Left: Ares 2 docked with a compacted (pre-deployed) ballute, configured to  inject the spacecraft towards an aerobraking encounter with the martian atmosphere.  Right: After the rocket burn towards Mars, the Ares 2 would reconfigure itself in order to protect the spacecraft and to inflate the ballute in order to aerobrake and to descend through the martian atmosphere.

A liquid hydrogen and oxygen producing water and fuel depot derived from a reusable orbital transfer vehicle. The Ares 2 landing vehicle would fuel up up at the orbital depot before docking with the compacted ballute/heat shield unit.  Water would be transferred to the fuel depot from water factories on  the martian moons, Deimos and Phobos.

Water factory would utilize mobile microwave water bugs to extract water from the regolith of the martian moons, Deimos and Phobos; WFD-LV would convert water into fuel to launch water to fuel manufacturing depot in high Mars orbit.

A  ballute capable of deploying nearly 40 tonnes to the martian surface could also easily deploy habitats and cargo larger than those contemplated for the Altair vehicle  to the lunar surface. Cargo missions to the martian surface could utilize ballutes to deploy mobile robots  for excavating and sintering the surface of Mars to create landing and launch pads for crewed shuttle vehicles and for regolith shielded outpost similar to those that could be utilized on the lunar surface.

Hydrogen inflated ballute would enable the crewed Ares 2 vehicle to aerobrake and land on the martian surface.
Small nuclear reactors would also need to  be deployed to power the martian outpost at night or during periods when sandstorms block out significant amounts of sunlight.  Methanol/oxygen fuel cell electric power plants could also be deployed as back up power, utilizing methanol produced from the pyrolysis of human biowaste and oxygen extracted from atmospheric carbon dioxide or from the electrolysis of water.

Water factories than mine water from the martian regolith would also need to be deployed. Mobile microwave robots  could be used to melt the ice contained in the martian regolith. Water, of course, is essential for drinking, washing, and growing food but is also essential for the production of oxygen for air. Hydrogen and oxygen can also be used to produce hydrogen and oxygen to fuel the reusable shuttle craft.

Ares 2 hovers near the sintered landing area of a martian outpost.
Under the scenario presented here, fuel depots and rotational human outpost would already be placed in high Mars orbit a few years before the first crewed missions to the martian surface along with water and fuel producing facilities on the surface of the martian moons, Deimos and Phobos. Human interplanetary missions to Mars orbit would utilize an orbital transfer vehicle operating between the Earth-Moon Lagrange points and high Mars orbit.
Rotating regolith shielded (enriched with iron ore) SLS fuel tank derived artificial gravity habitat in high Mars orbit capable of housing as many as 16 astronauts.

Such an interplanetary orbital transfer  vehicle would utilize fuel manufactured from water exported from the lunar poles  when going to high Mars orbit and fuel manufactured from water from the martian moons when returning to cis-lunar space. Such crewed missions would already transport  reusable Ares ETLV-2 vehicles to Mars orbit for docking with orbiting space habitats or transferring crews to the surface of the moons of Mars. A single SLS launch could deploy one or two compacted ballutes plus heat shields to high Mars orbit  for one or two human missions to the martian surface.

Three solar powered regolith shielded habitat modules joined together by two inflated corridors. Additional power for the outpost would be provided by a couple of small nuclear reactors buried beneath the regolith, a few hundred meters away.
The Ares ETLV-2 (Ares 2)  would fuel up in high Mars orbit at a OTV derived fuel depot before docking with a ballute/heat shield unit. The Ares ETLV- 2 would thin boost the Mars landing vehicle towards Mars. During the short journey from high Mars orbit towards Mars, the Ares 2 would reconfigure itself while also deploying the ballute. The ballute would allow the Ares 2 to aerobrake into orbit around Mars and then descend into the martian atmosphere. The final vertical descent to the martian surface would first drop off the protective heat shield, allowing Ares 2 rockets to slow down the final descent to the sintered surface of a martian outpost.

Ares 2 (Ares ETLV-2) about to be fueled for take-off by a mobile LH2/LOX cryotanker.

Links and References

The Mars Landing Approach: Getting Large Payloads to the Surface of the Red Planet


Summary of Ultralightweight Ballute Technology Advances

A Survey of Ballute Technology for Aerocapture


An Evaluation of Ballute Entry Systems for Lunar Return Missions


SLS Fuel Tank Derived Artificial Gravity Habitats, Interplanetary Vehicles, & Fuel Depots

Pioneering and Commercial Advantages of Permanent Outpost on the Moon and Mars 

Utilizing the SLS to Build a Cis-Lunar Highway

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Pioneering and Commercial Advantages of Permanent Outpost on the Moon and Mars

Twin Regolith shielded habitats on a sintered  lunar surface area. Each habitat module is connected to each other by an inflatable pressurized  walkway. 
Permanent outposts on the surfaces of the Moon and Mars  could be the first major steps towards the expansion of human civilization into the rest  of the solar system.  Unaided traction for human walking requires a gravity that is at least 10% of the gravity at the  Earth's surface. The Moon, Mars, Mercury, and the Jovian moon, Callisto, are all worlds that have surface gravities higher than 0.1 g. So these are extraterrestrial worlds  that will probably be accessible for continuous human occupation before the end of the century. However, whether such  low gravity environments would  have significant deleterious effects on  human health and reproduction is currently unknown. But long before the permanent settlement of extraterrestrial worlds,  human outpost on the Moon and Mars, could have beneficial scientific, commercial, and even strategic benefits for those nations and businesses that dare to venture there.

Planets and Moons within the solar system that are potentially suitable for human colonization:


surface area relative to the Earth: 7.4%     

surface gravity relative to the Earth: 0.17g 

diameter relative to the Earth: 27.3%


surface area relative to the Earth: 28.4%
surface gravity relative to the Earth: 0.38g 

diameter relative to the Earth: 53.1%

surface area relative to the Earth:  14.7%
surface gravity relative to the Earth: 0.38g 

diameter relative to the Earth:  38.3%


surface area relative to the Earth:  14.3%
surface gravity relative to the Earth: 0.13g 

 diameter relative to the Earth:  37.8%

Note: Land area comprises 29% of the Earth's surface with 71% covered by water

Regolith shielded habitat designed for the Moon and Mars. Mobile water tanker provides water to the habitat for drinking, washing, growing food, and for the production of air.
Internal view of a regolith shielded habitat with regolith placed within the two meter cavity within the automatically deployed walls surrounding  the 8.4 meter in diameter pressurized habitat.

Permanent outpost on the surface of the Moon could immediately exploit lunar regolith to protect humans from significant exposure to harmful levels of radiation.  Just two meters of lunar regolith dumped within the walls of a lunar regolith habitat could reduce annual cosmic radiation exposure below the maximum legal limit for radiation workers on Earth (5 Rem per year)  during the solar minimum while also protecting astronauts from radiation exposure from major solar events. Protection from micrometeorites and extreme temperature fluctuations would be an added benefit of  insulating a lunar habitat with regolith.

A single lunar habitat derived from the technology used to make the light weight 8.4 meter in diameter hydrogen fuel tanks for the SLS could provide two levels of floor space  approximately 111 square meters in area. That would be more floor space than the average home in Germany, Japan, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Russia, and in the UK. The deployment of such  habitats for the private commercial community could also be used  as lunar hotels for space tourist or to house workers for private companies involved in the export of lunar water or regolith for government and private entities.

Creating solid pavement for the deployment of  habitats and other lunar outpost components upon dust free surfaces could be created by using mobile robots to pave and sinter lunar regolith.  This could eliminate tracking in deleterious lunar dust into pressurized habitats when astronauts are working in the paved  lunar outpost area. 

Mobile water tanker for storing and transporting water and a mobile water extracting  robot that uses microwaves to extract water from regolith from the shadowed areas of the lunar poles.
In the lunar polar regions, roving microwave water extraction robots could mine ice particles from the  permanently shadowed areas for the production of water. Water, of course, can be used for drinking, washing, food preparation, and for growing food. Water can also be electrolyzed for the production of oxygen for air and for the production of hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel needed to return to Earth.

Human biowaste could be converted into methanol through pyrolysis. Methanol and oxygen can be used with fuel cells to produce electricity for back up energy during periods of lunar darkness. The water produced from the combustion of methanol and oxygen can be recycled. The CO2 produced from the manufacture of methanol and from the combustion of methanol in fuel cells can be used to enhance the growth of indoor lunar crops. Small portable methanol fuel cells could also be used to provide power for pressure suits during lunar excursions.

Nitrogenous biowaste, such as urine, could be used as fertilizer for lunar crops.

However,  there is some  evidence that substantial quantities of carbon and nitrogenous material may also  be a significant component of the permanently shadowed areas at the lunar poles. Astronauts stationed at  lunar outpost at the lunar poles could used to explore and to quantify the amount of volatiles located within the shadowed regions.

Buried nuclear power plant on the lunar surface (Credit: NASA)
While solar panels attached to the habitats would provide the initial power for a lunar habitat, small nuclear reactors   buried beneath the lunar regolith only a few hundred meters away could provide substantial amounts of electricity for the lunar facility, 24 hours a day.

Outposts originally designed for the lunar surface could also be utilized  on the surfaces of Mars, Mercury, and Callisto and even on the meager surfaces of large asteroids and on the moons of Mars.
Three regolith shielded habitat modules on a sintered  Martian surface area. Each habitat module is  connected to each other by two inflatable pressurized  walkways.   

Permanent outpost on the Moon and Mars and on other worlds, would allow the continuous exploration of those surfaces by both humans and robots. Unmanned solar or nuclear powered rovers on the lunar surface, operated by humans on Earth, could visit and collect samples from  practically every area on the surface of the Moon. The collected rocks and soil could then be returned to the lunar outpost for immediate study or for eventual export back to Earth.

On Mars, both robotic rovers and hydrogen blimps could be utilized to continuously explore the Martian surface. Such robots could be operated in real time by the astronauts on the Martian surface or in orbit around Mars at a  space station.  Again, the collected samples by the remote controlled robots could be returned to the Martian outpost for immediate study or for eventual export back to Earth.

A permanent US government presences on the surface of the Moon and Mars will also enhance the ability of private American companies to protect their assets from potentially hostile foreign entities that will probably also be on these new worlds by mid century.

Marcel F. Williams

© New Papyrus

Links and References

 D. Bryant Cramer.  "Physiological Considerations of Artificial Gravity."  Applications of Tethers in Space, volume 1, pages 3·95-3·107.  Edited by Alfred C. Cron.  NASA Scientific and Technical Information Branch, 1985.  Conference Publication 2364: proceedings of a workshop held in Williamsburg, Virginia, June 15-17, 1983.

Lunar Station Protection: Lunar Regolith Shielding

Wet vs Dry Moon

Utilizing the SLS to Build a Cis-Lunar Highway

Cosmic Radiation and the New Frontier

NASA Steps Closer to Nuclear Power for Moon Base

How big is a house? Average house size by country
Mission and Implementation of an Affordable Lunar Return (Spudis & Lavoie) 

Using the resources of the Moon to create a permanent, cislunar space faring system (Spudis & Lavoie)

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