Molten Salt Reactor – The Future of Energy
The future of energy is remarkably interesting. The world is moving more towards sustainable energy and the echoing sentiments towards green energy solutions is growing by the day. This sector is bound to take precedence over conventional energy in the coming decade.
However, there is one more area that is silently yet strongly taking centre stage which is the ‘Thorium Molten Salt Reactor’. Molten Salt Reactors were briefly introduced during the 1960s as an innovative reactor technology concept. This short-lived experiment which was built by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) was initially conceptualised to build nuclear powered aircrafts. Post the cancellation of the aircraft project the Molten Salt Reactor projects transitioned to electricity generation (Link).
To explain the concept in simple terms, a Molten Salt Reactor (Called the MSR) is a nuclear fission reactor in which the primary nuclear reactor coolant and the fuel is ‘Molten Salt’ (Salt in liquid state due to elevated temperatures). The fuel salt is circulated through a heat exchanger where it is cooled by another molten salt loop that is free of radioactive fuel and fission products. The heat from this second loop can be used to do work, such as heating water to turn a steam turbine to generate electricity. (Link)
Image Courtesy: ZME Science
Molten Salt Technology in the past enabled development of high-temperature, low-pressure and safe reactors, however the alkali halide salts proved to be corrosive which was largely addressed by ORNL in the 1970s. While this was a hot topic during the 1970s and was considered the next big technology when it came to producing electricity the enthusiasm was doused due to the Chernobyl incident and the safety of anything pertaining to ‘Nuclear’ was questioned.
For a brief period, there was not much of progress with regards to the Molten Salt Reactors (MSR). However, the interest was actively pursued further when NASA engineer kirk Sorenson in the 2000s was tasked to find the best way to power a station on the moon. He suggested that MSRs were the best solution to do so. He also went ahead and said that MSRs are a great solution for electricity production on earth and tirelessly advocated for the same, generating much needed interest in this topic. MSRs are considered safe and they cannot melt down like conventional reactors because they are, by design, already molten.
“We have moved beyond a point where Mainstream Renewable or Sustainable energy meant either Solar, Wind or Biomass. Today there are organizations powered by bright minds working on various technologies that have the potential to meet base load requirements. In fact, MSR has the potential to be retrofitted to coal and gas fired power plants, thus reducing the capital cost and adaption curve by a considerable margin” says Navin Kumar, Managing Director, Navsar Engineering International Pte. Ltd.
The last few years have seen a lot of investments within this area. Since 2011 atleast four companies in North America have announced significant plans for MSRs. Additionally, Japan, Russia, France and China have shown active interest in the MSR technology (Link). Companies like Copenhagen Atomics are developing a molten salt reactor that can burn nuclear waste and produce electricity through safe and efficient methods. (Link)
The outlook looks bright for MSRs primarily because they are safe and over 70% of climate scientists believe that we must increase nuclear power to deal with climate change. MSR being safe and low cost, it is suggested to be the next big change in the nuclear technology and touted to aide power generation.
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Article References: ZME Science, World Nuclear Association, Oak Ridge National Laboratory