Bill Gates and Warren Buffett want to build a new kind of nuclear reactor to generate electricity. Why? Because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. They intend to plunk their new toy down in the state of Wyoming on the former site of a coal-fired generating plant.
“This is our fastest and clearest course to becoming carbon negative,” says Wyoming’s governor Mark Gordon. “Nuclear power is clearly a part of my all-of-the-above strategy for energy.” Wyoming is the top coal producing state in America.
According to The Guardian, the new facility will be a joint venture between TerraPower, founded by Gates 15 years ago, and PacifiCorp, a Berkshire Hathaway-owned utility that serves customers in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, California, Oregon, and Washington.
Small advanced reactors, which run on different fuels than traditional reactors, are regarded by some as a critical carbon-free technology that can supplement intermittent power sources like wind and solar as states strive to cut emissions that cause climate change. “We think Natrium will be a game-changer for the energy industry,” Gates told a media conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming this week.
The Guardian says the new generating station will produce 345 megawatts of electricity, but the output can be boosted by a molten salt energy storage component to 500 megawatts. The primary feature of the so-called Natrium technology is that it uses sodium to cool the reactor instead of water. Natrium is the Latin word for sodium, which is why its symbol on the periodic table of elements is Na.
Chris Levesque, TerraPower CEO, told the press this week the demonstration plant will cost about $1 billion and will take about seven years to build. “We need this kind of clean energy on the grid in the 2030s,” he told reporters. Actually, Chris, we need clean energy on the grid now, not 7+ years from now. A billion dollars would buy more than 500 MW of power and have it online, together with grid storage batteries, in a lot less time. Why wait?
I am not a nuclear engineer nor am I a rocket scientist, so I have to rely on Wikipedia to inform me about some things (I contribute $5 a month to support Wikipedia and encourage you to do the same).
Here is what I found out:
The primary advantage of liquid metal coolants, such as liquid sodium, is that metal atoms are weak neutron moderators. Water is a much stronger neutron moderator because the hydrogen atoms found in water are much lighter than metal atoms, and therefore neutrons lose more energy in collisions with hydrogen atoms.
This makes it difficult to use water as a coolant for a fast reactor because the water tends to slow (moderate) the fast neutrons into thermal neutrons (though concepts for reduced moderation water reactors exist).
Another advantage of liquid sodium coolant is that sodium melts at 371K and boils / vaporizes at 1156K, a total temperature range of 785K between solid / frozen and gas / vapor states. By comparison, the liquid temperature range of water (between ice and gas) is just 100K at normal, sea-level atmospheric pressure conditions. Despite sodium’s low specific heat (as compared to water), this enables the absorption of significant heat in the liquid phase, even allowing for safety margins. Moreover, the high thermal conductivity of sodium effectively creates a reservoir of heat capacity which provides thermal inertia against overheating.
Sodium also need not be pressurized since its boiling point is much higher than the reactor’s operating temperature, and sodium does not corrode steel reactor parts. The high temperatures reached by the coolant (the Phénix reactor outlet temperature was 560° C) permit a higher thermodynamic efficiency than in water-cooled reactors. The molten sodium, being electrically conductive, can also be pumped by electromagnetic pumps.
A disadvantage of sodium is its chemical reactivity, which requires special precautions to prevent and suppress fires. If sodium comes into contact with water it reacts to produce sodium hydroxide and hydrogen, and the hydrogen burns when in contact with air.
This was the case at the Monju Nuclear Power Plant in a 1995 accident. In addition, neutron capture causes it to become radioactive; however, activated sodium has a half-life of only 15 hours. Another problem is sodium leaks which are regarded by a critic of fast reactors, M.V. Ramana, as “pretty much impossible to prevent.”
Wikipedia adds that a natrium facility that generates less than 500 MW of electricity uses “uranium-plutonium-minor-actinide-zirconium metal alloy fuel, which is supported by a fuel cycle based on pyrometallurgical reprocessing in facilities integrated with the reactor.” I don’t know about you, but the words “uranium” and “plutonium” don’t sound like “different fuels compared to traditional nuclear reactors.”
The Guardian points out that nuclear power experts have warned that advanced reactors could have higher risks than conventional ones. Fuel for many advanced reactors would have to be enriched at a much higher rate than conventional fuel, meaning the fuel supply chain could be an attractive target for militants looking to create a crude nuclear weapon. And don’t even be concerned about Russian hackers. We know those malefactors only like to interrupt gasoline pipelines and beef processing plants. Pooty Poot and his henchmen would never stoop so low as to hack a nuclear power plant…would they?
People always rush to criticize Tesla for selling emissions credits, but no one wants to talk about the $80 million the US Department of Energy has already invested in TerraPower with millions more coming in the future. No one would expect Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — two of the richest white men in history — to foot the bill for their boondoggles all by themselves, would they?
All Of The Above
The key to understanding this story is found in Governor Gordon’s use of the words “all of the above.” That’s free market speak for “We’re happy to have a piddly little 350 MW facility of over here, just so long as we can continue supporting coal- and gas-powered generating plants that churn out hundreds of gigawatts over there.” In other words, it’s a smokescreen designed to allow fossil fuel interests to kick the can down the road a little further and add some greenwashing to their corporate portfolios at the same time.
Being rich does not necessarily make a person all that smart. America needs more nuclear power like a fish needs a bicycle. People in Wyoming may be fooled by this blather, but CleanTechnica readers aren’t taking the bait. Natrium was probably selected as the name of thus new nuclear technology because it sounds a little like “nature” or “natural.” That’s a great marketing ploy, but we’re not buying it. Frankly, the Bill and Warren show is more than a little disappointing.
The North Sea could become a ‘central storage camp’ for carbon waste. Not everyone likes the idea
The receiving dock at the Northern Lights carbon capture and storage project, controlled by Equinor ASA, Shell Plc and TotalEnergies SE, at Blomoyna, Norway, on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Norway’s government wants to show the world it is possible to safely inject and store carbon waste under the seabed, saying the North Sea could soon become a “central storage camp” for polluting industries across Europe.
Offshore carbon capture and storage (CCS) refers to a range of technologies that seek to capture carbon from high-emitting activities, transport it to a storage site and lock it away indefinitely under the seabed.
The oil and gas industry has long touted CCS as an effective tool in the fight against climate change and polluting industries are increasingly looking to offshore carbon storage as a way to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
Critics, however, have warned about the long-term risks associated with permanently storing carbon beneath the seabed, while campaigners argue the technology represents “a new threat to the world’s oceans and a dangerous distraction from real progress on climate change.”
Norway’s Energy Minister Terje Aasland was bullish on the prospects of his country’s so-called Longship project, which he says will create a full, large-scale CCS value chain.
“I think it will prove to the world that this technology is important and available,” Aasland said via videoconference, referring to Longship’s CCS facility in the small coastal town of Brevik.
“I think the North Sea, where we can store CO2 permanently and safely, may be a central storage camp for several industries and countries and Europe,” he added.
Storage tanks at the Northern Lights carbon capture and storage project, controlled by Equinor ASA, Shell Plc and TotalEnergies SE, at Blomoyna, Norway, on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Norway has a long history of carbon management. For nearly 30 years, it has captured and reinjected carbon from gas production into seabed formations on the Norwegian continental shelf.
It’s Sleipner and Snøhvit carbon management projects have been in operation since 1996 and 2008, respectively, and are often held up as proof of the technology’s viability. These facilities separate carbon from their respective produced gas, then compress and pipe the carbon and reinject it underground.
“We can see the increased interest in carbon capture storage as a solution and those who are skeptical to that kind of solution can come to Norway and see how we have done in at Sleipner and Snøhvit,” Norway’s Aasland said. “It’s several thousand meters under the seabed, it’s safe, it’s permanent and it’s a good way to tackle the climate emissions.”
Both Sleipner and Snøhvit projects incurred some teething problems, however, including interruptions during carbon injection.
Citing these issues in a research note last year, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a U.S.-based think tank, said that rather than serving as entirely successful models to be emulated and expanded, the problems “call into question the long-term technical and financial viability of the concept of reliable underground carbon storage.”
Norway plans to develop the $2.6 billion Longship project in two phases. The first is designed to have an estimated storage capacity of 1.5 million metric tons of carbon annually over an operating period of 25 years — and carbon injections could start as early as next year. A possible second phase is predicted to have a capacity of 5 million tons of carbon.
Campaigners say that even with the planned second phase increasing the amount of carbon stored under the seabed by a substantial margin, “it remains a drop in the proverbial bucket.” Indeed, it is estimated that the carbon injected would amount to less than one-tenth of 1% of Europe’s carbon emissions from fossil fuels in 2021.
The government says Longship’s construction is “progressing well,” although Aasland conceded the project has been expensive.
“Every time we are bringing new technologies to the table and want to introduce it to the market, it is having high costs. So, this is the first of its kind, the next one will be cheaper and easier. We have learned a lot from the project and the development,” Aasland said.
“I think this will be quite a good project and we can show the world that it is possible to do it,” he added.
Workers at an entrance to the CO2 pipeline access tunnel at the Northern Lights carbon capture and storage project, controlled by Equinor ASA, Shell Plc and TotalEnergies SE, at Blomoyna, Norway, on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A key component of Longship is the Northern Lights joint venture, a partnership between Norway’s state-backed oil and gas giant Equinor, Britain’s Shell and France’s TotalEnergies. The Northern Lights collaboration will manage the transport and storage part of Longship.
Børre Jacobsen, managing director for the Northern Lights Joint Venture, said it had received “overwhelming” interest in the project.
“There’s a long history of trying to get CCS going in one way or another in Norway and I think this culminated a few years ago in an attempt to learn from past successes — and not-so-big successes — to try and see how we can actually get CCS going,” Jacobsen told CNBC via videoconference.
Jacobsen said the North Sea was a typical example of a “huge basin” where there is a lot of storage potential, noting that offshore CCS has an advantage because no people live there.
A pier walkway at the Northern Lights carbon capture and storage project, controlled by Equinor ASA, Shell Plc and TotalEnergies SE, at Blomoyna, Norway, on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
“There is definitely a public acceptance risk to storing CO2 onshore. The technical solutions are very solid so any risk of leakage from these reservoirs is very small and can be managed but I think public perception is making it challenging to do this onshore,” Jacobsen said.
“And I think that is going to be the case to be honest which is why we are developing offshore storage,” he continued.
“Given the amount of CO2 that’s out there, I think it is very important that we recognize all potential storage. It shouldn’t actually matter, I think, where we store it. If the companies and the state that controls the area are OK with CO2 being stored on their continental shelves … it shouldn’t matter so much.”
A report published late last year by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a Washington-based non-profit, found that offshore CCS is currently being pursued on an unprecedented scale.
As of mid-2023, companies and governments around the world had announced plans to construct more than 50 new offshore CCS projects, according to CIEL.
If built and operated as proposed, these projects would represent a 200-fold increase in the amount of carbon injected under the seafloor each year.
Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program at CIEL, struck a somewhat cynical tone on the Norway proposition.
“Norway’s interpretation of the concept of a circular economy seems to say ‘we can both produce your problem, with fossil fuels, and solve it for you, with CCS,'” Reisch said.
“If you look closely under the hood at those projects, they’ve faced serious technical problems with the CO2 behaving in unanticipated ways. While they may not have had any reported leaks yet, there’s nothing to ensure that unpredictable behavior of the CO2 in a different location might not result in a rupture of the caprock or other release of the injected CO2.”
SpaceX-backed startup says preorders for its $300,000 futuristic flying car have reached 2,850
BARCELONA, Spain — Alef Aeronautics, a SpaceX-backed flying car firm, says it has reached 2,850 preorders for its futuristic electrical vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle.
Alef Aeronautics, which is based in San Mateo, California, said preorder numbers recently hit a fresh record after previously reporting 2,500 preorders for its two-seater flying car, the Alef Model A.
Customers can access preorders for the Model A online, and to preorder, you have to put down a $150 deposit for the vehicle. Customers can pull the deposit at any time if they want to, so they’re not locked in.
Alef is planning to charge customers $300,000 for the Model A when it becomes commercially available — so on 2,850 preorders, that would give it a combined order value of over $850 million to date.
“As of today we have a little bit more than 2,850 preorders with deposits down, which makes it the best-selling aircraft in history, more than Boeing, Airbus, Joby Aviation, and most of the eVTOLs [electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles] combined,” Alef’s CEO Jim Dukhovny told CNBC.
At a price of $300,000, Alef is asking its prospective customers to part with a lot of cash. Dukhovny insists the higher price tag is needed as Alef is still a startup and isn’t making any serious money yet.
Alef Aeronautics’ Model A car, which it showed off at Mobile World Congress as a half-size model, resembles an actual car with a mesh shell protecting rotors on the inside that allow air to flow through the vehicle.
David Zorrakino | Europa Press | Getty Images
Alef is separately working on a four-person sedan, though, the Model Z, which is scheduled for launch by 2035 at a price of $35,000, matching that of cheaper-priced electric vehicles.
Alef is one of several startups attempting to make flying cars a reality. Others include Lilium, the Germany-based air taxi startup, as well as Chinese company Joby Aviation. Last year, South Korean telecom firm SKTelecom told CNBC it plans to launch a flying taxi service in partnership with Joby Aviation in 2025.
Most of the players on the market currently are building models that resemble a jet and come with wings attached to the sides, or big helicopter-like rotors.
What Alef is going for is a much more different style of vehicle. The company’s Model A car, which it showed off at Mobile World Congress as a half-size model, resembles an actual car with a mesh shell protecting rotors on the inside that allow air to flow through the vehicle.
Dukhovny calls Alef’s vehicle the “first flying car in history.” He says it’s the first because, rather than the massive drone-like designs we’ve seen in vehicles from the likes of Lilium and Joby Aviation, Alef’s looks like an actual car.
“I know that people have claimed the first flying car,” Dukhovny said. “But we always had the idea that it has to be a car, a physical car, a regular car, as you can see it’s an eVTOL, an electric car. a regular car, drive, park, look, everything as a car, and a vertical takeoff.”
Alef’s car is mainly designed to be driven on the road, but will be able to take to the skies, too.
To drive on the road, the car uses four small engines in each of the wheels, and will drive similar to a normal electric car. It has eight propellers in the front and back of the car, which spin independently at different speeds to allow it to fly in any direction.
The Alef Model A has a cruise speed of 110 miles per hour while in the air, while on the road it is limited to between 25 and 35 miles per hour.
Once it lifts off, the Alef Model A can then turn onto its side while the cockpit swivels so that the driver can continue facing forward and the car practically becomes a biplane with the long sides of the vehicles serving as the top and bottom “wings.”
The Alef Model A, which weighs 850 pounds, also qualifies as an ultra-light vehicle, meaning it comes under the same legal classification as small electric vehicles like golf carts.
Dukhovny says that should make it easier for the car to pass key regulatory approvals to get the green light to launch flights in 2025.
“If everything goes right, we plan to, and if we have enough funding, if the law is at least not going to be worse, it’s going to be existing as it is, we plan to start production of the first one by the end of 2025.”
Last year, the Federal Aviation Authority granted Alef a special airworthiness certificate, allowing for limited purposes that include exhibition, research, and development of its flying car. Alef still needs to get further approval to pave the way for consumer flights.
However, Dukhovny concedes that, despite the company’s high preorder number, it’s not going to be able to match that demand straight away.
“It’s crazy how to produce 2,850 vehicles,” Alef’s CEO said. “We’re going to start slow. And when people think that’s a million of those that are going to fly over San Francisco or Barcelona, that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be very slow — one, and then more, and then more,” he added.
Oil prices slip after OPEC+ extends voluntary oil output cuts until mid-year
Marathon Petroleum’s oil refinery in Anacortes, Washington.
David Ryder | Reuters
Oil prices edged lower Monday after oil cartel OPEC+ agreed to extend voluntary output reductions until the second quarter, in an effort to support the short-term stability of crude markets.
OPEC+ announced on Sunday that the 2.2 million barrels per day of voluntary output cuts that were planned for the first quarter of this year will continue into the next quarter.
OPEC+ kingpin and de facto leader Saudi Arabia said it will prolong its voluntary cut of 1 million barrels per day until the end of the second quarter, state-owned Saudi Press Agency said Sunday. Riyadh’s crude production will stand at approximately 9 million barrels per day until the end of June.
Such a move by OPEC+ might also be seen as a sign that demand prospects in the second quarter are less optimistic than the group thought.
Rystad Energy’s Senior Vice President
Russia, another OPEC+ heavyweight, will slash its production and export supplies by a combined 471,000 barrels per day until the end of June. Moscow had volunteered to reduce its supplies by 500,000 barrels per day in the first quarter. Other key producers Iraq and UAE will also extend their voluntary production cuts of 220,000 barrels per day and 163,000 barrels per day respectively, until the end of the second quarter.
“This new move by OPEC+ clearly shows strong unity within the group, something that was put into question after the November ministerial meeting, which saw Angola leaving OPEC,” Rystad Energy’s
Senior Vice President Jorge Leon wrote in a note following the oil cartel’s decision.
The extension signals “robust determination” to defend a price floor above $80 per barrel in the second quarter, he said, adding that if OPEC+ rapidly unwound the cuts, oil prices will drop to $77 per barrel in May.
“Such a move by OPEC+ might also be seen as a sign that demand prospects in the second quarter are less optimistic than the group thought in November last year,” he said.
Oil prices in the past six months.
Oil prices have been languishing in a narrow $75 to $85 per barrel range since the start of the year, in spite of OPEC+ supply cuts, persistent Houthi maritime attacks in the Red Sea artery and ongoing geopolitical risks from Israel’s war against Hamas.
—CNBC’s Ruxandra Iordache contributed to this report.
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