Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is a LFTR Business Plan Possible?

James Watt was an obscure instrument maker, whose shop was located on the campus of University of Glasgow in the mid-18th century. The University of Glasgow was probably theonly place in the world at that time where scholars would encourage a bright young man to build things with hishands, and Watt's career as an instrument maker had been nurtured by university professors, who had recognized his talent and had encouraged him to develop and use his skills. Watt was unusual because his education had taught him to think in terms of physics. Thus when Professor John Anderson called Watt's attention to the Newcomen pump which Anderson was investigating. Anderson wanted Watt to find why the pump stopped working after a few strokes. Wat diagnosed that problem, but beyond that immediately understood the proble that lay at the heart of Anderson's investigation, the inefficiency of the Newcomen pump. For the next two years Watt focused on the problem of improving the efficiency of the Newcomen pump. He applied physics to the problem. Eventually Watt had his moment of discovery:
"I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon, early in 1765. I had entered the green by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street and had passed the old washing-house. I was thinking upon the engine at the time, and had gone as far as the herd's house, when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get rid of the condensed steam and injection-water if I used a jet as in Newcomen's engine. Two ways of doing this occurred to me. First, the water might be run off by a descending pipe, if an offlet could be got at the depth of thirty-five or thirty-six feet, and any air might be extracted by a small pump. The second was to make the pump large enough to extract both water and air. . . . I had not walked farther than the golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind."
Watt invented the steam engine, a black swan that profoundly changed the corse of civilization. But before we got where we are, some of Watt's friends from the University introduced him to John Roebuck, an industrialist who was also in the coal business. Roebuck was arguably the first venture capitalist, because he agreed to back the development of Watt's idea. Later another industrialist, Matthew Boulton, was to recognize the value of Watt's invention, and was able to buy out Roebuck's share, and sponsored Watt's work on improving his invention, and at applying it to industrialization.

Flash forward to late 2008. Civilization is facing a crisis. The course that began with Watt's discovery, is not sustainable with the technology it uses to generate power. A new energy producing system is required, a new black swan. A small number of people, many who contribute to the ongoing energy discussion at "Energy from Thorium" are convinced that a technology investigated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory a half century ago, is the black swan. Indeed, people at ORNL at the time believed that they were developing the black swan, and Alvin Weinberg foresaw the day when their discovery would power civilization.

We are currently at the critical point, the point at which people who are interested in the LFTR project must decide whether to go fishing or to continue to cut bate. I am for going fishing. Fishing means finding financial backing for the development for the project. In order to do that, there must be a business plan.

The product is the LFTR. My suggestion has been to make it small and produce it in a factory. Plan to produce thousands of them. Why thousands? Because there is a market niche which no other technology is addressing. The American electrical system is dependent on two typs of electrical generation. Base load generation, and peak load generation. Base load is handled now by coal fired and nuclear generating plants. At the moment, Light Water Reactors are under consideration to replace the coal fired plants. In addition, Solar and wind technology has been proposed as base load sources. Both technologies at present appear expensive, with one possible exception, appear to be very expensive to impliment as base power. Light water reactors are expensive as well. Production of solar and wind generated electricity would be confined to a few favorable localities and would require an enormously expensive upgrade to the national electrical grid to impliment.

Neither solar, wind or Light Water Reactors are well suited to load following and because of their high capital cost, all are even less suited for the peak reserve generation role. In contrast the LFTR has excellent load following characteristics, and is capable of being placed on peak reserve standby for long periods of time. Far from being damaged by load following and peak reserve assignments, the LFTR wouldhave its life prolonged by part time and part load duties. The niche then is that of load following and peak reservegenerating source.

In order to fulfill this roie, the LFTR must be built as cheaply as possible, without compromising safety and efficient operations. At present utilities rely heavily on natural gas fired turbines for peak demand electricity generation. This technology is cheap to build, but expensive to operate. At the very least, the goal for LFTR peak load generators should be to undercut the price of natural gas generated peak load electricity.

My proposed business plan for would call for first targeting the peak load generation market with LFTR technology. This goal can be accomplished through a develop process that brings the price of LFTR generated electricity in at a cost that will under cuts the current price of natural gas generated peak load electricity.

At the moment the research of Canadian Dr. David LeBlanc seems to hold the best promise for developing our low cost peak generation LFTR. A good business plan would call for going with what we have, rather than hoping that something even better will emerge later. So the plan would call for the development of Dacid LeBlanc's ideas into a viable product which can fulfill the peak electrical generation role.

David LeBlanc's concept can, of course, be developed into a full bace load electrical source simply by modifying the peak load design. The first priority, however, should be to get the product out the door. That means going after the unfilled niche first. That means going after the peak load market.

How much will developing David LeBlanc's ideas cost? Right now no one knows. Lets put the figure at $10 billion. That does sound like a lot, but we are talking about a revolutionary technology that could bring electrical power to billions of people, and profoundly impact the future corse of civilization. We are talking about a sustainable technology that could bring us power for millions of years. Of course $10 billion is just a guess. The actual price tag for development could be much less and it could be much more.

There are two courses which the community that is interested in LFTR development can take. It can either wait for the government to get interested in the project, or it can go out and find patrons. My life is on loan, and I don't know how long it will be before the loan will be called in. Needless to say, I would like to see our day in full sunlight before the loan comes due. That mean that I would like to see the community of LFTR interest, to forge ahead. To find their John Roebucks and Matthew Boultons. To find sources for the $10 billion or more that would required to launch the revolution, and to plunge forward toward the potential glory and wealth that success would bring.

2 comments:

donb said...

The original Black Swan was invented at a time when new ideas were encouraged, and government was not imposing high hurdles on those new ideas. Nuclear energy development is operating in a different environment with politically powerful nay-sayers in the media and government. I remember Rod Adams comment in one of the energy discussion groups (sci.energy?) about 10 years ago about the regulatory difficulties in getting his ideas developed. Though attitudes have shifted in favor of nuclear somewhat in the last 10 years, there is still a heavy regulatory burden that discourages private investment. In addition, political winds are notoriously capricious, so there are additional risks that scare away private investment.

The original posting states:
Solar and wind technology has been proposed as base load sources. Both technologies at present appear expensive, with one possible exception, appear to be very expensive to implement as base power.

I have been reading through the Archer and Jacobson "Supplying Baseload Power and Reducing Transmission Requirements by Interconnecting Wind Farms". The baseload power the wind might be able to provide is out in the tail of the capacity vs. time distribution. The authors make what I think is an error in method: For coal-fired power plants, they lump unscheduled and scheduled outages (roughly half and half). Then they compare this to the lumped together outages of the proposed distributed wind farm. However, wind power outages are dominantly unscheduled (i.e., no wind).

Scheduled outages are just that - they are planned. I am no expert in the industry, but I would guess that something like plugging a leaking boiler tube might done over a weekend (during reduced demand), or a significant upgrade done during the spring or fall (during reduced demand).

The real comparison should be made of unscheduled outages. In this case, the baseload power available from wind is reduced significantly from the amounts sited in the study since one needs to go even farther out in rapidly diminishing tail of the availability distribution curve.

Charles Barton said...

donb, the problem of base load wind is even worse. It is most unreliable on summer days when electrical demand peaks, which would be the wors possible time to schedule a base load outage. Five times the base load wind goals would have to be constructed in order to reach the base load goal 80% of the time.

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