Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Missouri, Rare Earths and Thorium

I attended a small conference in Missouri yesterday that was initially devoted to the study of Thorium Reactors. This is not a subject that I have been paying a lot of attention to, although it has been a more popular topic of discussion in recent months that it has been in a number of years. It was, however, the less evident side of that discussion that brought me to the meeting.
UPDATE: The video presentations are now available at the Missouri S&T website.(Note if you get a long list of classes just scroll down to the bottom, I wasn't able to get a URL for the page of presentations itself).

There are a number of talks on Liquid Salt Reactors from much more qualified folk than I available on such channels as Youtube that go into much more detail than is currently necessary here. There is an ongoing program to develop the next generation of nuclear reactors (the Generation IV Reactors), and the use of a molten salt, thorium-fueled reactor has been one of the candidates that has emerged from this evaluation. There are a number of advantages to the use of this system, one coming from the lower pressure at which the system operates and the other, which was repeatedly stressed yesterday, is that it is not practically possible to make weapons-grade nuclear warheads from any of the system components once the reactor is started. Another point made was of the small amount of thorium that would be needed to supply a person’s energy needs. A 3-ft balloon was used to signify the amount of coal a person needs for energy in a week, a pea would symbolize the amount of uranium needed to provide the same amount of energy but for a month, and a few grains of salt the amount of thorium needed to provide that same energy for a month. A cube 32 mm on the side (1-1/4 inches) was said to have enough energy for a person’s lifetime.

There are a number of different developments in seeking to generate the best design for the new generation reactors including Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, the Denatured Molten Salt Reactor and the like. The talks at the conference, I gather, will be made available through the Thorium Energy Alliance.

But while much of the talk was about the potential for different types of reactor, and their benefits there was, however, an underlying message to the conference that goes beyond just the topic of thorium, and it relates in part, to why the conference was being held in Mid-Missouri.

One of the significant sources of thorium comes from the rare earth mineral monazite . And it is in the qualifier to that later mineral that makes the topic of the conference just a little more relevant to current discussions of energy. More particularly it is relevant given the recent decision of the Chinese government to restrict the sales of rare-earths, of which they have a large part of a global monopoly, both in supply and refining the metals to useful product.
About 124,000 metric tons of rare earth elements were produced in 2009, with worldwide demand during this period estimated to be 134,000 metric tons – the difference having been made up from existing stockpiles. By 2012, worldwide demand is expected to reach 180,000 metric tons while mining operations are not expected to keep up with demand in the near term.

While the market for rare earth metals is not very large, amounting to only $1.4 billion worldwide annually, demand is skyrocketing. For example, Toyota, which requires the use of Lanthanum for the production of hybrid car batteries, plans to increase production of the Prius from one million units to two million units. Additionally, wind turbine production is also booming, due largely to subsidies from the United States and many European governments. This has already begun to affect the prices of several of the rare earth elements. Cerium (used in catalytic converters for diesels) has doubled to $4.00 per pound since 2007, and neodymium (used in permanent magnets and hard drives) has quintupled to $23 in the same time period. . . . . . . . . . .

China has been able to surpass the United States in production of rare earth metals due to a much lower labor cost and a lack of environmental controls. As China began producing more and more rare earth elements at lower cost, mines in the United States and elsewhere were forced to close or sell so that China now produces 97% of the world’s supply of rare earth metals.
The move by China to restrict exports, seeking rather to gain the benefit from adding value to the minerals by using them to sustain Chinese industrial production, has led the world to start to look for alternate sources of the minerals.

There are two significant prospects in the United States, one is at the Mountain Pass mine in the Mojave desert. Molycorp is now resurrecting the mine.
It raised $379m in the initial public offering in August, and since then the shares have risen about 160 per cent.

The money will be used to build facilities at Mountain Pass, with ground broken at the start of next year, to enable production to be started by the end of 2012.

The target is to produce about 19,000 tonnes of rare-earth products per year: about one-sixth of global production and more than the entire US demand.

However, the total cost of its project is estimated at $511m, so it has a funding gap of about $150m.
There is a second deposit, and that is just south of Sullivan, itself on I-44 about an hour west of St Louis. The Pea Ridge mine was initially developed to extract the high quality iron from the underground deposit, which successfully competed with surface mining operations until 2001 when it finally went bankrupt. It was then acquired by Wings Enterprises, which is now looking to develop the rare earth minerals which are found in brecciated pipes adjacent to the iron deposit.

The tie in to the thorium is where the interest in the new development of thorium reactor power comes into the picture. Because, on their path the producing the rare earths from the deposit the mine has to separate them, which it does by dissolution, dropping out the thorium in a relatively pure form at relatively no cost (since the costs are absorbed into that of the rare earths). But if the thorium is not used for nuclear power then it becomes a manufactured waste, and that is not a desirable outcome.

There is, in ending, one slight catch to the desire to develop an American source for the rare earths. The refining process to take the ore and refine it to the final product requires a refinery. And at present guess where they all are? And so the start of the initiative to develop a capacity within the United States.

No comments:

Post a Comment