Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Bill Gates thinks we need a miracle to solve the world’s energy needs, a safe, reliable, non polluting form of energy which could bring electricity to the rural poor of Africa. The odd thing is, such a “miracle” is within our grasp; but nobody seems to be interested.
From Bill Gates’ Annual Letter;
Africa has made extraordinary progress in recent decades. It is one of the fastest-growing regions of the world with modern cities, hundreds of millions of mobile phone users, growing Internet access, and a vibrant middle class.
But as you can see from the areas without lights, that prosperity has not reached everyone. In fact, of the nearly one billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, 7 out of every 10 of them live in the dark, without electricity. The majority of them live in rural areas. You would see the same problem in Asia. In India alone, more than 300 million people don’t have electricity.
If you could zoom into one of those dark areas in that photograph, you might see a scene like this one. This is a student doing her homework by candlelight.
I’m always a little stunned when I see photographs like this. It’s been well over a century since Thomas Edison demonstrated how an incandescent light bulb could turn night into day. (I’m lucky enough to own one of his sketches of how he planned to improve his light bulb. It’s dated 1885.) And yet, there are parts of the world where people are still waiting to enjoy the benefits of his invention.
If I could have just one wish to help the poorest people, it would be to find a cheap, clean source of energy to power our world.
Bill Gates is a strange mix. Some of the things he says, his lack of respect for democracy, are very off-putting. But unlike many greens, he is honest with himself and others, that current generation renewables are not a viable replacement for fossil fuels.
How about my claim, that an energy miracle is, or should be, within our grasp?
What if I said it is possible to produce a nuclear battery, which does not emit dangerous radiation, which could be used to build a lightweight, backpack size generator, capable of producing enough continuous electricity, to power a fridge and a few household lights for half a century, without needing a refuel?
How much difference would it make to the world, if such devices could be mass produced, and distributed to poor people who don’t have access to other sources of energy?
There is a nuclear fuel source which fits this description – Plutonium 238.
Plutonium 238 is ridiculously safe. Unlike other isotopes of Plutonium, Pu238 is a prolific alpha emitter, but it emits very little dangerous penetrating radiation. This almost eliminates the need for shielding – a sheet of stainless steel would block all the alpha radiation.
Pu238 is so safe, it used to be used as the core of nuclear pacemakers; people had Plutonium nuclear batteries implanted in their bodies. This procedure was only discontinued, when cheaper, long life chemical batteries became available.
Plutonium 238 is also very energy dense – it emits around half a watt per gram. A kilogram of Plutonium 238 generates 500 watts of energy. With a half life of 87 years, a few kilograms of Pu238 could produce more than enough energy to power a few simple household appliances, for several decades, without needing a refuel.
The big issue with Pu238 is cost, and scarcity – but there is a possible solution. Thorium fuel cycle reactors produce significant quantities of Plutonium 238 as a byproduct. The fuel cycle could likely be designed to optimise Plutonium 238 production.
Clean, cheap, safe Thorium power for rich countries, and an endless supply of nuclear batteries for poor people, to provide them with access to all the modern conveniences we take for granted – internet, refrigeration, electric light.
I hope you read this Bill. If you are looking for an energy miracle, don’t ignore the nuclear option.
Update – David L. Hagen points out that Bill Gates is investing in nuclear power, through his investment in Terrapower.