This story came in about and the third annual Energy Technology Summit presented by the Southwest Virginia Technology Council. Some of the technologies may seem far-fetched or little better than brainstorms.
The information is interesting to hear about, especially the pursuit of aneutronic fusion. Where possible, even if the site provides scant detail, links have been added for further information.
reported by: Deborah McCown
WISE, Va. – Amid discussion of the shortfalls of U.S. energy policy and the nation’s future, the Southwest Virginia Technology Council highlighted five promising technologies Monday during its third annual Energy Technology Summit.
These technologies included thorium, Hydrocoal, fly ash, aneutronic fusion and sunshine advances.
Thorium – is it the fuel of the future?
Like uranium, thorium is an element that can be used to produce energy, said Charles Stevens, who said he recently revived a technology he worked on as a U.S. government subcontractor back in the 1980s.
Unlike uranium, he said, thorium doesn’t generate radioactive waste or encourage proliferation of nuclear weapons.
“It’s sustainable energy, and it represents energy independence for the United States,” he said.
Stevens, CEO of Laser Power Systems, based in Massachusetts, added that the technology uses high-energy lasers to turn water into steam, which then drives a turbine and generator. It works, he said, without the chain reaction of a nuclear reactor.
At the price of $1.85, he said one gram of thorium can produce as much energy as 7,500 gallons of gasoline or 2.2 tons of coal. A thorium-powered car could travel 300,000 miles before refueling.
A 2,000-megawatt thorium power plant could fit in a 50,000-square-foot building, he said – less than a third the size of a typical big box retail store – and he believes the technology will be ready to go commercial in 12 to 18 months.
Among his first customers are Third-World countries, which are seeking the technology as a means of generating electricity and clean water without the kind of expensive power infrastructure that’s used in the United States, Stevens said.
For a house, he explained, a thorium power system could cost about the same as a furnace/hot water system – less than $15,000. It would come fueled, potentially cutting heating bills by 80 percent for a typical American homeowner.
Cars, he said, would be priced around $25,000, and could run a million miles.
Another technology discussed was HydroCoal.
“Our business is about taking dirty, inexpensive coal, which is found abundantly all over the world, into clean renewable fuels for billions of people,” said Randy Taylor, co-founder and president of Hydrocoal, which is based in Athens, Ga., but is discussing a possible location in Wise.
“We expect to make that commercial beginning in 2011,” he said.
Thus far, the common method of grinding coal to sand was problematic, he said; his company has solved the problems with gasification by finding a way to grind the coal smaller, to particles 10 microns in diameter.
“It’s a coal tornado,” he said. “Coal swirls around inside and grinds itself.”
He said the smaller particles react faster and at a lower temperature – and, mixed with steam, they burn like natural gas.
Once coal is gasified, he said, it’s easy to clean with existing commercial technologies.
Fly ash – Studying the elements in lunar soil to learn about its use in space, scientists discovered an interesting parallel, said Larry Austin, a merchant banker and former Wall Street lawyer who said billions of dollars worth of precious metals are buried in the fly ash discarded by coal-fired power plants.
Environmentalists have hammered the ash with criticism, particularly after a large quantity of ash, which includes heavy metals, spilled into Tennessee’s Emory River in 2008. Austin said the same metals have made fly ash an unstable building material.
But it costs just $200 a ton to process the ash, and the products of that ton can be sold for $517. The figures are based on outdated prices, before the appearance of China on the world stage sent resource prices skyward, he said.
Austin said the world is throwing away $35 billion a year in precious metals. The Appalachian coalfields could become “the new mecca” for these resources – and manufacturing facilities that use the raw materials – if the ash is processed here. He estimated that as many as 20,000 jobs could be created.
Once the metals are removed, he said, the remaining material is similar to that used in making drywall and other construction materials.
The first step, he said, is a $250,000 study to update the numbers and create a modern business case. A pilot plant, which would process 10 tons a day, would cost $10 million, he said, and a commercial scale plant would be $100 million.
Another take on solving the fusion puzzle could be aneutronic fusion.
George Miley says the nation’s energy future lies in nuclear fusion – a topic that, he acknowledges, nobody mentions when they’re listing the nation’s many energy options.
“Why not? I think people become frustrated; it’s just too far off,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true.”
Scientists have studied the concept since the 1960s, but have not reached an effective way to generate fusion power. Miley believes he may have the solution – but the only way to find out is to test it.
He says the answer could lie in fusing the atoms of hydrogen and boron at a high temperature, high enough to place them in a state beyond a gas called plasma, on a small scale.
“I think it’s obvious that if what I’m saying is done, this is going to revolutionize the power industry,” he said. “If you start something, you’ll become the Silicon Valley of that field. So you have to have the vision to start it, and then you will have it.”
Sunshine advances – Robert Loftur-Thun, a principal at a firm called Sustainability Nexus, said solar power could be generated on the flat, deforested surface-mined mountaintops of Appalachia.
“Taking a mountaintop and converting it so that there could be an economic higher use, I think that would make a lot of economic sense and also provide business opportunities for the coal mining companies in the area,” Loftur-Thun said. “The time has really come. Solar technology is maturing.”
He noted the existence of several technologies, from visually appealing solar panel roof shingles to concentrated solar power plants, which focus sunlight to heat water into steam for generating electricity.
On Monday, he announced the founding of Wise Solar Development LLC, a startup focused on solar energy in rural and small communities. He said harnessing the sun’s potential has a role to play in U.S. energy security and in providing electricity in rural areas.
He said an area the size of a football field, if covered with a solar array, can generate 400 kilowatts of electricity.