The recent accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan has caused many observers to question the use of uranium as a fuel to create nuclear energy, and perhaps cast doubts on clean energy alternatives in general. This may be a premature conclusion as there are other elements that can be used in the nuclear cycle to create power, as well as other non-nuclear alternative sources of fuel and power that are safer and much less harmful to the environment. (For related reading, also take a look at The Future Of Green Technology Investing.)
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Some of these alternatives have been around for generations, and should not be discarded in a fit of mass hysteria as a result of a terrible accident. These alternative energy sources include thorium, solar power, natural gas and hydrogen.
Thorium can be used as a fuel in the nuclear cycle as an alternative to uranium and the technology to facilitate this has been around since the 1960s. Many scientists and others are advocating the use of this element as they claim it has many advantages over the current uranium fuel cycle in place at most plants around the world.
Thorium is a more abundant element than uranium, with Australia, the United States, Turkey and India holding 59% of the world's reserves of 4.4 million tons. Also, all the thorium mined can be used as a fuel, compared to less than 1% of the mined uranium. Scientists that have studied the thorium fuel cycle maintain that the process produces less waste and is safer than the uranium fuel cycle currently used at nuclear facilities.
Several countries have taken the lead in promoting the use of thorium to produce energy. China recently announced that it would pursue the development of a molten salt nuclear reactor that uses thorium as a fuel. The Chinese Academy of Sciences said the technology was "environmentally safe, cost effective and politically palatable."
India has also identified Thorium as an energy source in phase three of the Nuclear Power Program that the country adopted in the late 1960s. India is working on the advanced heavy water reactor design to implement this technology.
The disappointing part of the thorium debate is that the United States was one of the leaders in developing this technology generations ago, and was among the first countries to have small scale thorium reactors operating. These have all been shut down and, because the United States lacks a cohesive energy policy, no thorium reactors are currently being considered.
2. Solar Power
Solar power is abundant and inexhaustible and is arguably the best known of the alternative energy sources. The most common method of harnessing this energy is through the use of solar panels that convert the sunlight to electricity that is then distributed to the end user.
Another potential use of solar power is to create transport fuel for use in automobiles and trucks. Sundrop Fuels uses a technology called solar gasification, which involves applying concentrated solar power to heat biomass to temperatures of approximately 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit. This process creates a gas composed of carbon monoxide and hydrogen which is further processed into usable gasoline or diesel fuel. (For more on solar, see Spotlight On The Solar Industry.)
3. Natural Gas
Natural gas can also be used as an alternative source of transport fuel, and has several advantages over oil - the typical fossil fuel that is currently refined into gasoline. Natural gas emits less carbon and other harmful pollutants into the air when burned, and has seen a rapid increase in supply in the United States as the industry has perfected the technology to release the huge amounts of natural gas locked up in shale rock.
Natural gas used as a transport fuel can either be compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG), and is also cheap, with CNG selling on average about $1.15 less than gasoline on an energy equivalent basis according to the latest analysis by the Department of Energy.
Another alternative source of fuel is hydrogen, which can be used in conjunction with a fuel cell to provide transport. Hydrogen burns clean, can be produced domestically and can be as much as three times more efficient than a typical gasoline powered engine.
Hydrogen can be produced through many different processes including from fossil fuels, biomass or electrolyzing water. To get the most benefit from hydrogen as a fuel source, the best method would be to use renewable energy sources to produce hydrogen.
The Bottom Line
There are many clean alternative sources of fuel and power that can be used in place of uranium. Some of these have been around for decades, already have proven technology and are much less harmful to the environment. The pursuit of these alternative types of energy such as thorium, solar power, natural gas and hydrogen must continue despite the tragic accident in Japan.