Beyond Fossil Fuels

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Beyond Fossil Fuels

Over the next fifty years, the global economy will grow enormously. Billions of people will transition from poverty to the middle class, and 2 billion or so will become truly affluent. Even as the cost of energy plummets, absolute energy consumption will skyrocket. As discussed in the earlier trend The Truth About a High-Carbon World, realists expect the resulting carbon dioxide emissions to be as much of a blessing as it is a curse.

However, the long-term answer is to transition to a world where hydrocarbons are used as raw materials, rather than as fuel. As we’ve explained in prior issues, that world is far more likely to be powered by nuclear fission and fusion than by solar panels and windmills. The Trends editors expect the new wave of fission technology to follow the classic path that Clayton Christensen has outlined for many disruptive technologies.

Consider the energy implications of a rising Indian middle class. More than any place aside from Sub-Saharan Africa, India’s potential is held back by energy poverty. Unlike Africa, which actually has considerable undeveloped oil and natural gas resources, India has nothing but poor-quality coal and some offshore methane hydrate deposits that might be developed “someday.”

Given desperate energy needs and a lack of fossil fuels, it was only natural that advocates of the green economy tried to sell India on solar. Unfortunately, that vision has disappointed, and India has embarked on a campaign to reduce energy poverty for its 1.2 billion people via that cheap coal.1 The result could be the emergence of the world’s most polluted country by mid-century.

But fortunately, India’s technologists may be able to bypass the 19th and 20th century “energy economy” by embracing a 21st century technology pioneered— and then inexplicably abandoned—by the United States fifty years ago. As the Trends editors explained in prior issues, the secret to delivering safe, reliable, virtually unlimited, and super-cheap electricity for every human being on this planet was clearly demonstrated using proof-of-concept prototypes at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the mid-1960s.

That new technology is nuclear fission fueled by thorium. According to the World Nuclear Association, thorium is a naturally-occurring, slightly radioactive metal that exists in soil and rocks. Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius discovered it in 1828 and named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder.2

Among thorium’s characteristics as a source of energy are four big advantages over uranium:

  1. The world has only about 30 percent as much uranium as thorium and only 1 percent of that uranium is fissionable...

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