Yesterday, two different readers of Atomic Insights shared gifts of knowledge with me. One of those gifts was a book titled “Power Plant Cost Escalation” published in the same year that I graduated from college; digesting that will take a few days. The other, however, was something that was so cool that I just had to share it with as many people as possible as quickly as I could manage.
In 1993, I founded a tiny company called Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. with the (admittedly grandiose) idea that I would help to save the world – and make a ton of money – by developing small atomic power plants that could push ships, supply power to remote areas, and perhaps even propel locomotives. For a variety of reasons, that company never achieved any kind of commercial success; we never completed a machine and never sold any of our designs.
Until yesterday, however, I never knew that we were pursuing an idea that had been conceived with great optimism in 1946, the year my father left the Navy and the year before he started college on the GI bill. If you click on the picture, it will take you to a pretty detailed description of the kinds of technology that remain possible using atomic fission. It even mentions the basic concept technology on which I wanted to build Adams Engines in the following passage:
Some possible methods of using heat are shown in the illustrations. The hot water could be used to heat boilers which then feed steam turbines which in turn drive electric generators. Or air could be heated and, in expanding, drive a low pressure hot-air turbine. Or the heat could be used directly for drying processes or for room heating, or in short, in any way in which heat can be used.
(Mechanix Illustrated, March 1946 pg 46-47)
Note: Adams Engines actually use nitrogen (N2) gas instead of air, but the concept is almost exactly the same. After all, air is 80% N2.
That passage should inspire all of those people who recognize that one of the biggest challenges facing our world today is charting a course that will allow modern society to flourish without burning as much coal, oil and gas as we do today. Though it is a bit of a simplification, nearly every bit of each of those fuels consumed every day is burned to produce heat, which is the same product that is produced in a fission based energy system. Fossil fuels and nuclear fuels are competitive alternatives in creating a fungible and widely used product. Using more fission leads to using less combustion.
It does not matter why you think we need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. If your motivation is a cleaner environment, you should recognize that burning fossil fuels produces a lot of residue, some of which is poisonous and some of which is just plain dirty. If your motivation is the recognition that spending many hundreds of billions of dollars every year is putting a lot of money into the hands of some unsavory people, you should recognize that slowing the flow of money is worth some effort.
If you think that the world needs to avoid the conflicts associated with limitations on fossil fuel supplies, you should recognize that using less fossil fuel by replacing some use with atomic fission based heat will lead to more peace because abundant resources are not worth fighting about. Finally, if your motivation is to think about future generations, you should recognize that one of the best legacies that any generation can provide for the next is to develop new knowledge and new technology that can be later improved.
Of course, if you insist that we must keep burning fossil fuels as fast as possible because your livelihood depends on continued growth in that industry, you and I are simply going to have to disagree and – figuratively, of course – duke it out.