Saturday, July 4, 2009

American Energy Independence: LFTR Deployment and a Surprising Turn

July 4, 2009
My views on global warming mitigation are relatively simple. Perhaps something like 60% of the world's energy, perhaps more, can be supplied from one source, thorium fuel cycle, Molten Salt Reactors. The recoverable amount of energy in the earth's crust in the form thorium is something like 15 times what humanity can consume before solar expansion turns the earth crust into a cinder. I have argued that Thorium fuel cycle, Molten Salt Reactors or Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs) are relatively simple machines, that can be mass produced in factories. The cost of developing the LFTR is likely to run between $5 and $10 billion. The LFTR is no more complex than an Airbus 380 that cost $13 Billion to develop and $300 Million to build. LFTR cost with interest are likely to run between $1.20 and $2.00 per Watt. LFTR's can be built from common material like stainless steel. When built from more exotic materials such as Hastelloy-N , LFTRs can perform with perhaps 15% greater efficiency, but the advantages of the greater efficiency may be outweighed by the lower cost and potential for rapid deployment of stainless steel LFTRs.

Modular LFTRs with rated generating capacity of between 100 MWe and 400 MWe can be built in large numbers, and set up quickly. Because of their small size and low cost, LFTRs will be far easier to finance than traditional large reactors. They can be built and put into service over periods of months rather than years. Large numbers of small modular LFTRs can be clustered to produce the electrical output equivalent of large nuclear plants. Small LFTRs can be located in distributive generation fashion, close to electrical consumers. Thus LFTR deployment in most cases will not require large and expensive additions to the Grid. LFTR can be air cooled, thus their operations will not be impaired by droughts and water shortages.

If LFTR deployment began in 2020, with a large LFTR factory Most US electrical output can be produced by lifters within 10 years. This would be the case even if the electrification of transportation would greatly increase electrical demands. The United States is currently served by 1,470 coal fired generators with a total generating capacity of about 336 GWe. These plants could be replaced by modular LFTRs for a cost between $1.20 to $2,00 per watt, or from $400 billion to $700 billion. Even the larger figure would be far higher than the cost of replacement with conventional nuclear, modular small conventional nuclear, or renewable generated electricity, LFTR replacement of coal fired plants would make a 1 to 1 unit replacement ratio possible.

LFTR could also replace natural gas fired units. A 1 to 1 replacement ratio would not be required, since LFTRs could produce heated salts for storage as well as direct operation of gas turbines. Heat from stored salts could be used to run generation turbines during periods of peak demand. Thus Natural gas generating facilities could be replaced by LFTRs at a ration of up to 4 to 1. According to the EIA, there are about 5440 gas power systems with a rated capacity of 450 GWe. Let us assume that each replacement is a 125 GW LFTR, coupled with 3 extra 125 GW turbine generating systems coupled to heated salts. assume a cost of $50 million for each 125 MW turbine + salt storage system. That would give us between S300 million to $400 million per 500 MW of peak generating capacity or from $0.60 to $0.80 per Watt. Such a price would make the LFTR + salt storage system an economical replacement for natural gas. Thus the LFTR replacement for natural gas generating capacity could run as low as $270 billion for 100% replacement, with $360 billion representing the high cost.

Thus we arrive at an estimate of from 0.670 to 1.1 trillion dollars for LFTR replacement of 100% of US fossil fuel generating capacity. While this might seem like quite a lot of money, It actually represents a far lower sum than the cost of conventional nuclear or renewable generated electricity.

LFTR's can be used to produce industrial process heat, both directly or through the production of Hydrogen gas. When recombined with Oxygen, Hydrogen burns at 3200°C. or 5792°F. This should be hot enough for most industrial purposes.

Now here is where it gets interesting Suppose we build 225 GWt worth of LFTR capacity to provide direct process heat, and another 225 GWt for Hydrogen production. Now assume that 15% of the gross heat output can be recovered from industrial heating use as co-generated electricity. This would give us something around 67 GWe of extra electricity, and we can use that electricity to run the surface rail transport system, with enough electricity left over to more than cover daytime auto and truck demands for charging electricity. At night, most of the industrial process heating reactor system can be turned over to electrical generation capacity to cover 100% of transportation night storage electrical demands. The total cost of the system that will provide the industrial process heat and the electricity for transportation electrification. might reach $400 billion. There would be, by the way a tremendous savings in this arrangement. If we assume an arbitrary figure of $360 Billion per year for imported oil, and the saving of half of that figure through transportation electrification, the crude oil savings from the LFTR generation of electricity would pay for the reactors in 3 years or less, but this is not the only major economy. The savings in fuel oil and natural gas cost by transferring to the LFTRs the production of industrial heat would also produce a very large fuel savings.

So for about $1,5 trillion we get a LFTR system that provides industrial heat, electricity for nearly 100% of surface transportation and replaces all all fossil fuels in electrical generation. We get considerable savings from this deal. We save the cost of at least 80% fossil fuels that are currently burned in American society. That fuel savings would rapidly pay for the system conversion, and then once capital costs are paid for, energy costs could be dramatically lowered, to under $0.03 per kWh.

We note that the reference system mar in fact be built with over capacity, and large redundancies. Although LFTR flexibilities were expected it was not realized before the analysis that the same LFTR could booth provide industrial heat and generated the electricity to power the surface transportation system. A more comprehensive analysis might well give birth to a significantly smaller system The introduction of the factory built LFTR would seem

The low cost of LFTR generated electricity and heat would assure the competitiveness of American Industries with those of China and India, thus assuring American prosperity for a long time to come.

Over all the results of this analysis proved much better than expected. In fact the results embarrassingly good. I am afraid than my analysis will be rejected out of hand because it is so good to be believable. The whole LFTR energy system would pay for itself in less that 10 years out of fuel savings. CO2 emissions would be dramatically lowered. The cost of energy driven - process heat and electrical driven - industrial production will be lowered. The cost of transportation will be lowered. The United States will experience an Industrial Rebirth. You see what I mean about sounding too good to be true.

Fortunately I cannot promise that dogs and cats will stop fighting, that children will always obey their parents, or that Arabs and Jews will come to an agreement, or that Sylvester Stalone will ever carry a movie on the basis of acting talent.


Alex P said...

" LFTR's can be used to produce industrial process heat..."
I think this is an important part, even if I consider it from a totally different point of view.

Inded, I see an interesting potential symbiosis
between MSRs, capable of producing clean and cost effective high temperature
heat, and ethanol or biofuel production. We all well know that current
ethanol production from corn is a non starter, because it has an energy
return of 1 to 1 or even negative (one unity of energy of fossil fuel is
burned for one unit of final product). Certainly, other biofuel options
could do a better work with an higher energy return ratio (sugarcane,
swithgrass, wood, etc...). However, even with corn ethanol more than half of
the energy input need is low temp steam (< 200 °C) to fermetate and
distillate the product and about 2/3 of the primary energy need is low temp
heat + electricity.
See for example :
If this heat + electricity input is produced from a non-fossile clean
source, the ethanol production is easier or, alternatively, we can produce
ethanol or other liquid biofuels from non-food poorer crops or even
agriculture wastes with a decent energy return ratio

I have no idea how much agriculture waste is yearly produced in a typical
industrial country, but supposing we are successfull to develop some biofuel crop
with an energy return of at least, say, 1,5 (the final product has one time and half
the energy used to make it), so to produce 20 billions liters/year of ethanol (one
liter of gasoline equivalent is ~ 10 kWh thermal) we have to use only 90
TWh/year, half of which is low temp steam and something like 60-70% is
electricity + heat. Not easy, but quite feasible to do. This is, of
course, NOT an alternative of electric/plugin vehicles but a way to
integrate it, for those uses not easy to electrificate (airplanes, ships,
diesel trains or plugins themself for trips longer than daily battery

David Walters said...

Actually, you wouldn't need biofuel with this amount of heat. You can go directly to synthetic fuel, extracting all the hydrogen and carbon from the atmosphere.

The production of methanol, as opposed to ethanol, wouldn't need one hectre of land. The same with di methyl ether, as a substitute for diesel.

That's the nice thing about the LFTR can provide ALL transportation, but electrical and carbon-neutral liquid hydrocarbons.


Alex P said...

It' s what I thought about, too, but now I came to the conclusion that the big advantage with ethanol (besides the fact that, considering octane enhancement, 1 liter of it is ~ 1 liter of gasoline vs 2 liter of MeOH)is that it's NOT a "synthetic" fuel, that means an *intrinsically* energy looser (it needs the energy it produces when is burned, plus the energy to overcome the inevitable inefficiency of the process). Indeed, we can do the same work whith much lower energy/power installed, thus costs.

Moreover, with LFTRs, we can likely achieve a nice positive energy return ratio with non food, pratically agro waste, poorer crops; avoiding the use of corn as feedstock (and all the world starvation issues it brings)

Jason Ribeiro said...

Charles, I think you described a day in the future that would call for an Independence Day of its own. We would call it Energy Independence Day.

KLA said...

Alex P,

In regards to biofuels like ethanol and methanol:
You are comparing the energy content of ethanol/methanol to the energy required to produce them and that indeed comes out at 1:1 or thereabouts.
But in my opinion this analysis is too simplistic. Internal combustion engines do not have 100% efficiency. In fact with gasoline, drive cycle efficiency is closer to 20%. This low efficiency is largely dictated by the properties of the fuel.
Alcohols like ethanol and methanol have different, and more favourable properties as fuels in engines designed for them. It is quite conceivable that drive cycle efficiencies of 25-33% are achievable with those. Which means that you get quite a bit more "miles per invested BTU" from the biofuels.

Robw said...


Another fantastic post, thank you (especially the Sly Stallone comment)...

I think the 'average joe' doesn't understand the implications of something like this. LFTR technology and the electrification of the transportation grid means total energy independence. No more worries about spiking fuel prices, peak oil, energy shortages, blackouts, brownouts, resource wars....the list goes on and on.

And on top of it, a probable industrial rebirth. Lets hope that future is not too far off.


David Walters said...

450,000 GWe? Isn't that a little high? How about 450 GWe?


Alex P. said...


Actually a biofuel (unlike synthetic fuels, that's my disagreement with d.walters) can be produced to have a large positive energy return, in comparison of course of its lower heat value (not certainly, the real efficiency if used in a IC vehicle), that's because the fossil fuel input is mainly used for ferment the glucose in valuable ethanol and distillate it (however, no one forbid this energy input come from nuclear or clean sources, not necessarily fossil fuels)

Less energy input means less complexity, it needs only a tiny fraction of a reactor power to feed this operation, not entire single reactors

Nathan2go said...

Charles, great post.
I'm particularly glad to see you've warmed to the idea of energy storage in molten salts ("solar salt"). With this addition to the LFTR fleet, I'll be able to fast-charge my electric car as soon as I get home from work (same time I turn on the electric kitchen, the lights, the TV, and the A/C), and be ready to go for another drive after dinner (rather than waiting until midnight for a recharge), as a LFTR with storage reduces the cost of peak power. This saves cost by allowing my electric car to have a 30% smaller battery. This is also a good way to accomodate a grid with a lot of PV solar, as seems inevitable in places like California.


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