15 October 2008
Low-energy nuclear power: The who, what, and how of it
Long-term reliability and long-range thinking are the keys to develop a new type of nuclear power that today's keynoter sees on the horizon.
“The U.S. electrical grid is known for brownouts and blackouts. And it’ll get worse before it gets better,” said today’s keynoter and Rimbach lecturer, David J. Nagel, Ph.D., research professor in applications of micro- and nano-technologies in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Nagel’s main point is how instrumentation for low energy nuclear reactions can change the way we look at nuclear production of the future.
“If you want to make a chemical reaction, like burning, you need a small amount of energy, such as a match. There’s a similar behavior in nuclear reactions,” Nagel said. “The energy is a million times greater. So you have to user greater energies. To get larger energies, the essence of the Fleischmann-Pons effect is instead of using millions of volts of energy to get out nuclear energy, you can use ordinary chemical energy to get out nuclear energy. This reduces the threshold for required triggering energy by a factor of almost a million. It’s as if you can start a fire by breathing on something.”
History meets future
Since 1989, when the nuclear phenomenon started with a press conference “explosion” with “immediate global attention, hundreds of people have done thousands of experiments,” he said. Today’s story from Nagel will tell what low-energy nuclear power is, what needs to be done, and what the possibilities are for its commercialization. “It’s closer to science than engineering at this time,” he said. “Right now, to get nuclear energy, you need a big reactor like Three Mile Island or a massive plasma machine. Both cost millions of dollars. By contrast, because inputs are smaller, you can get these experiments to sit on a table top.”
Nagel’s inspiration came during his time as head of a solid state nuclear physics division. “It is delicious scientific problem,” he said. And “it may be a really important energy source at a time when we’re having energy problems. Will it solve the world’s energy problems? It will help. But I can’t say it’s the answer to all our needs.”
However, he can say this energy source will join wind power as a significant contribution.
What will it take for industries to optimize this new consumer use of nuclear power?
“You have science and engineering. On the scientific side, we first need understanding; second, reproducibility. The questions of optimization and risk analysis are ahead of us. What I would like to see (and those of us out in the field) is for the industry to recognize this as a beneficial area and help develop it.”
Who will benefit?
Those in the industry responsible for top management strategic planners might find Nagel’s speech inspiring. “Companies who make instruments should understand what’s going on in this area and whether it represents a market for them,” he said. “We are not adequately funded. We think that will turn a corner before long.”
Attendees will learn the status and promise of the field—where it stands now and what it might become. “Funding is one thing, but it’s also important to monitor the developments,” Nagel said. “If people understand that here is a promising area, I can watch and see whether our company should make a move on it. In the 1950s, we were talking about transistors. We know the story; it led to the computer and Internet, etc. If someone in 1950 in a high-tech company became aware of transistors, they would have the option of moving into that field. Then in 1960 integrated circuits existed but were not highly used. We in the field think this has that high level of potential. So companies should position themselves to be in on the ground floor.”
—Ellen Fussell Policastro
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