Lithium-6 Nuclear Reaction

It’s been nearly 60 years since Isaac Asimov’s Foundation was released. The future world Asimov set up was powered by advanced nuclear power. The key difference between Asimov’s nuclear reactors and ours is scalability. The reactors in Foundation could be of any size, according to the need. Some of them were small enough to behave as uber-batteries. That’s a far cry from the giant cooling towers required for today’s reactors.

Toshiba is one step closer to realizing that ideal. They have just introduced a new nuclear power plant that is 100 times smaller than the ones we are used to. At 6 feet wide and 20 feet long, this baby could fit into your garage. This dramatic size reduction is accomplished with the use of liquid lithium-6. Lithium-6 is highly efficient at absorbing neutrons, an important step in nuclear fission that keeps the reaction going. Furthermore, the reaction takes place at much lower temperatures, obviating the need for large cooling towers.

This new reactor produces 200 kilowatts of electrical power and 5 megawatts of thermal power (so I wouldn’t suggest keeping it in your garage). The outlet, molten sodium coolant is 510°C, which could be used to power a steam generator, further increasing the electrical power output, and/or it could be used to produce pure hydrogen as a transportable fuel. Alas, those features are not built into the Toshiba model. What their model does promise is 40 years of nearly maintenance-free, safe power. The main safety feature is a thermal feedback loop that decreases the reaction rate as the temperature rises. This prevents the possibility of a meltdown. Finally, at an operation cost of $0.05 per kilowatt-hour, this energy source is less than the cost of traditional coal-fire power plants and comparable in cost to diesel generators. Finally this nuclear generator has, of course, zero carbon emissions.

The new micro-nuclear reactor is being marketed as a power source for office buildings, small businesses, remote neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and even city blocks. The first is to be installed in nuclear-friendly Japan in 2008. Don’t look for them here in nuclear-phobic (although less so now, thanks to global-warming fears) America until 2009.

You can read the reference materials here.