Thorium – a fuel for the future

By on November 4, 2010

The EMMA accelerator, now operating at Daresbury Laboratory in north Cheshire

A physicist from Manchester University makes the case for Thorium-based energy, in a discussion evening at the Knutsford SciBar.

As an adopted Cheshire Lad of nearly 20 years, I of course know Knutsford very well, and visit it regularly to sample the local cafes (particularly the Penny Farthing Museum) and to see the deer in Tatton Park with my family. I had never happened to visit the Angel Inn however, so it was with pleasure that I accepted Dave Thompson’s invitation to speak at his Knutsford branch of the SciBar there, this week. The SciBar is a collection of local groups that connect scientists with the public, so that real engagement and discussion can take place about the issues arising from current research.

I chose to talk about the energy question and how it affects our small, densely-populated island in particular. We had a very lively discussion about the merits and pitfalls of the different types of energy generation needed to maintain our quality of life in the UK, and what we need to do to keep our supplies secure in the face of future political uncertainties. Ensuring we have a rational debate is important to Knutsford and the rest of the North-West, where many jobs are linked to the energy sector.

Our research group at Manchester is working on designs for a future generation of nuclear reactors that use Thorium-based fuel rather than the Uranium used in nearly all of today’s nuclear plants. By using a particle accelerator to generate the neutrons that cause fission (and thereby raise the steam that makes our electricity), we believe that we can make reactors that burn fuel much more efficiently: not surprisingly, perhaps, these are called Accelerator-Driven Systems. Even more importantly, these types of reactors can be used to destroy the present stockpile of nuclear waste from the past generation of nuclear plants. And of course, just like every other type of nuclear plant it makes no CO2, the principal emission that causes global warming.

A big challenge to making Accelerator-Driven Systems a viable technology is to develop particle accelerators that are both powerful enough and reliable enough to be used in such a nuclear plant. Working with colleagues from Daresbury Laboratory and the North-West universities of Lancaster and Liverpool, we have built an experimental accelerator called EMMA that will solve some of the problems that lie in the way of achieving these high powers.

Thorium today is not one of nature’s well-known elements. However, we believe that can provide much of mankind’s energy needs for thousands of years.

If you’d like to find out more about the energy question, I strongly recommend David MacKay’s wonderful book, ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’. You buy a paper copy or download it for free from http://www.withouthotair.com.

To find out more about accelerator-driven reactors, visit the Thorium Energy Amplifier Association, http://www.thorea.org/

To find out more about EMMA, you can read about it on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EMMA_(accelerator)

About Hywel Owen

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