Diamonds Versus Pennies – Nuclear Fission Versus Chemical Combustion
An good friend just sent me a letter (yes, it was digital, but not your typical “email”) that included mention of a topic important to both of us, but somewhat difficult to explain. Ted mentioned that most nuclear advocates do not spend enough time talking about the important difference in ultimate capability between a raw power source that produces 200 Million electron volts (MeV) for each reaction versus a raw power sourcel that in the best of circumstances produces a few electron volts (eV) per reaction.
In a numerically challenged world, where even very competent people get mixed up between their “m’s”, “b’s”, and “t’s” (millions, billions and trillions) it can be hard to provide a focused, coherent argument for why that 200 MeV to a few eV relationship is terribly important. I like taking on hard challenges, but you will have to click the link below to read more.
My newest attempt is “diamonds to pennies”, but not just any diamonds. Imagine going into a very nice jewelry store with a rather impressive budgetary limit of $20,000 to buy a “rock” for the gift of a lifetime or to have a readily transportable value store just in case of a world-wide hyper inflationary period.
(Not that such an event is even remotely possible.)
If you compare the value of that diamond to the value of the penny that fell out of your pocket while you were sitting on the couch, you would find that the diamond contained 2 million times as much monetary value as the penny, even though both objects might have about the same weight.
That is roughly the same comparison that one can make between the energy value of nuclear fission versus the energy value of chemical combustion – as long as you want to give chemical combustion a huge, hidden advantage of ignoring more than 2/3 of the input raw material.
With fission, all of the energy comes from splitting a heavy metal with a neutron. The neutron has very little weight and the products released actually weigh a bit less than the original source material. With combustion, the energy comes via an oxidation chemical reaction of an element like carbon, sulfur, or hydrogen.
The chemical reaction requires the addition of oxygen, which has a mass that is several times larger than the “fuel” material. It also produces waste products that include the mass of the oxygen, so they are also several times larger than the fuel material. Those combustion waste products are often composed of deadly gases that are far more challenging to control than the mostly solid residues of fission. (For carbon oxidation, the ratio of oxygen to carbon is usually about 32:12, for hydrogen it is about 16:2)
If you include the weight of oxygen, atomic fission releases about 6 million times as much energy per unit mass of material and waste products as chemical combustion.
The only measures that have ever been used to control combustion gases are diversion, dispersal and diffusion – piping them away from people and then mixing them in with a much larger quantity of clean air to the point where living beings can tolerate the concentration. Of course, when the systems that allow those methods to function break down, the consequences can be quite distressing.
One important aspect of the energy density difference is that it takes far less raw material over time to produce power from atomic fission than from chemical combustion. Here is how Ted eloquently expressed that in his letter.
It takes millions of times more material to be dug up, processed, transported and finally disposed of, to generate a given amount of energy by any chemical process (such as combustion), compared to nuclear. The basic ratio of a few eV for a chemical process vs. 200 MeV for nuclear, cannot be changed by any amount of research. And of course, all the solar variations (including wind, wave, hydro, etc.) are even more dilute. So nuclear is just not in the same class as “clean coal,” switch-grass and chicken manure, all of which are orders of magnitude harder on the earth than nuclear. Even the favored “renewables” require more steel, concrete and other material, per KWH, than nuclear.
The other important aspect of that energy density difference is that fission offers massive amounts of power to formerly powerless people. If you already own drilling rigs, tankers, pipelines, railroads and storage tanks, you might be able to move enough material to be wealthy even if you only move the “pennies” known as fossil fuels. If, on the other hand, you start with few resources, you could control and transport the same amount of energy wealth with just a few porters to carry your raw material.
That energy density difference has been part of the challenge that fission faces – the people that already control the fossil infrastructure feel very threatened by the potential competitive obstacles that they face when their currently dependent customers figure out how to use fission power instead of combustion power.
Here is the question all of you should be asking: “Is it better to have a pocket full of large, high-quality diamonds or a pocket full of pennies?” Even if those diamonds require a bit more care in physical protection and container construction, the effort is worth while.
Of course, you might FEEL “safer” in some parts of the world with a pocket full of pennies, but the reality is that you would be poor – though not penniless – and far less capable of defending yourself against unexpected events than someone who chooses to carry a pocket full of diamonds.