Next Selection: SuperFuel

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

At the dawn of the atomic age, uranium and thorium were equally important as the element of choice in researching nuclear energy. Either one could have powered the world’s reactors. But it was uranium that won out, and thorium, which is far cleaner, safer, and more abundant than uranium, was relegated to the dustbin of science. With it went the possibility of creating a low risk nuclear energy source to power our planet.  What might have happened had our scientists and our government, and the nuclear power industry invested the resources to develop this little known yet abundant element? Would we face a global energy crisis and the prospect of catastrophic climate change today? Why are countries around the world, including rising economic superpowers India and China, rushing to develop electricity from thorium while the United States, which studied thorium reactors extensively in the 1960s, plays catch up?

Now, as the world searches for cheap, non-carbon-emitting energy sources, thorium is reemerging as an overlooked solution. As one of the first energy experts to promote the development of thorium, award-winning science writer Richard Martin combines science, new historical research, and a gripping business narrative to tell the untold story of thorium power.

Abundant in the Earth’s crust, thorium has been used in various industrial processes since its discovery in 1828. Advocates, writes Martin, an award-winning journalist and senior research analyst for Pike Research, a clean energy firm, say the silver-gray element has another possible use: as an cheap, safe energy source with the potential to “solve our power crisis.” Expanding on his Wired cover story, the author explains that the element was actually used as a nuclear fuel in an experimental reactor built and run by American scientists at Oak Ridge in the late 1960s. Since then, it has become a forgotten technology, losing out to uranium, which powers all reactors operating in the United States. In the wake of Japan’s recent Fukushima Daiichi disaster, many scientists and entrepreneurs are now seeking U.S. government and corporate backing of thorium, which has become the fuel of choice for nuclear energy efforts in India, Japan and elsewhere. Martin focuses on the work of Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA engineer, now head of Flibe Energy, who urges U.S. utilities that are preparing to replace some 30 older reactors to build a new kind of reactor—a liquid-fluoride thorium reactor, which proponents consider to be more efficient and safe than existing plants. He describes how uranium-based nuclear reactors came to dominate the nuclear industry and how industry leaders are now thwarting the use of thorium power, while conceding its possible advantages. They complain of the high costs associated with converting to the alternative energy source. Martin also details Asia’s enthusiasm for thorium power and its implications for reducing reliance on fossil fuels and slowing climate change.

At once a big think book and a science manifesto, SuperFuel challenges us to look back at what could have been different in history and forward to an energy revolution in the making. The most important science and technology book of the year, SuperFuel will change the discussion of our energy future.

 The online press kit, which includes an excerpt of the book, is here.

About the author: RICHARD MARTIN is an energy expert and award-winning journalist. His work has appeared in Time, Fortune, Wired, The Atlantic, The Asian Wall Street Journal, and The Best Science Writing of 2004. Martin is a senior research analyst for Pike Research, a leading clean-energy research firm based in Boulder, Colorado.


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