Molten Salt Reactors Could Soon Help Power Earthâ€”And One Day Mars
Rich Hua stashed this in Technology
This sounds like a great idea:
Shuâ€™s nuclear power device is called a â€śtwo-fluid molten salt reactor.â€ť The full details are in the patent, but the basic idea is this: The first batch of molten salt is full of a thorium compound, which eventually decays into uranium as neutrons bombard the mixture. That uranium goes into the second batch of molten salt and circulates into the reactorâ€™s graphite-filled core.
There, it encounters slowed-down neutrons, which kick off a fission chain reactionâ€”thatâ€™s the energy-producing part. The first batch of salt then absorbs the heat from the reactions, cooling the system. (In typical nuclear reactors, water does the cooling.)
This system is self-regulating: If the reactions happen too fast and the reactor gets too hot, the salt naturally expands out of the core, which cools it offâ€”think transferring hot coffee from a tiny cup to a cookie sheet (donâ€™t ask questions). That makes the reactor pretty meltdown-proof.
Thatâ€™s great for Mars, obviouslyâ€”any energy supply on a newly-formed colony is going to have to be pretty foolproof. Not worth setting up a trillion-dollar settlement if your reactor gives everyone radiation poisoning (at least not before the sun does, anyway). Plus, the planet has plentiful thorium, and nuclear power doesnâ€™t care if dust storms dot out the Sun for months at a time (solar panels, on the other hand, care very much). Thatâ€™s why Shu hopes NASA will back the R&D for his reactors.
Itâ€™s also great for Earth. While Shuâ€™s specific design is novel, the idea comes from the 1960s, when Oak Ridge National Laboratory made a molten salt reactor. The World Nuclear Association calls them â€śa promising technology today,â€ť and China and India are sinking effort into their own designs. That hasnâ€™t happened yet, thoughâ€”which is where Shuâ€™s plan comes in.
Any new technology must prove that it has the potential to scale safely, while outcompeting other established options. That takes time, and moneyâ€”time and money that a Mars-tech development plan can provide.