Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Science in Midsummer: Gordon Conference, High Temperature Materials and Thorium

It's summer, so brief a season in the Northeast. Time to kick back a little and enjoy science, instead of attending an endless series of meetings about Vermont Yankee (though the talking fish are amusing).

Blog Carnival

If you also want to kick back a little, let me recommend the 11th Carnival of Nuclear Energy, now playing at Next Big Future. Watch Dan Yurman take a hatchet to the latest New York Times hatchet job on nuclear, while I comment on an editorial in the Brattleboro Reformer and Rod Adams discusses nuclear proliferation and why it can't happen with used power-reactor fuel. Only one location has all these features, and it's the Carnival!

Summer in Maine: High Temperature Materials Conference

I went to Maine, specifically to Colby College for the High Temperature Materials, Processes and Diagnostics Gordon Conference. The picture in the upper left is the picnic area near the pond, where the Thursday night picnic was held. (More about the conference at the end of the post, for those who are interested.)

A Gordon Conference is a heady atmosphere of scientific excitement and cooperation. I would go just for that, in all honesty. The difference between a Gordon Conference and a local hearing about Vermont Yankee--it's as if these events take place on two different planets.

I don't just go for the atmosphere, however. I worked toward my Ph.D. in high temperature chemistry and geochemistry, and part of my working life was also spent in that world. To me, the problems of energy are materials problems.

Basically, the two problems are:
  • Thermodynamics, specifically the Carnot Cycle constraints
  • Materials, specifically the fact that metals melt
That kind of sums it up. These are huge issues. These issues are reality.

Push and Pull

The Carnot cycle controls the theoretical efficiency of heat engines. It pushes us to operate at higher temperatures, because it mandates that if you get more efficiency from a heat engine when you run the hot part of the cycle to a higher temperature.

The problem is that only a few materials can maintain integrity at high temperatures, and even these materials have their temperature limits. Conference presentations cannot be reported (see note below about Gordon Conference philosophy). However, I did find a good website about gas turbines materials development. This site describes some of the aspects of developing and using high temperature materials.

At lower temperatures, you have more choices. The availability of many well-characterized materials for low temperature construction pulls engineers to design processes at lower temperatures, giving up some thermodynamic efficiency for flexibility of design and ease of operation.

At the conference, I showed a poster (poster session) about some aspects of development of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Just for fun, I include a video on this subject. This video is a ten-minute remix of three one-hour talks. Sit back and enjoy!

It's summer, after all.

Gordon Conference Background (if you are interested)

The Gordon Conferences are very specialized meetings for researchers in a specific field. They are small and they are set up for free exchange of information. People cannot quote your Gordon Conference material later, and no hard copies are handed out. This encourages suggestions, discussion, and the willingness for scientists to go out on a limb and float new ideas to their peers.

Conference sessions are held in the morning and the evening, with free time in the afternoons for hikes, swimming, and scientific discussion. Gordon conferences are deliberately international in scope. Scientists from at least twelve countries were present at the conference I attended.



It must have been very exhilarating. I've been following "Energy from Thorium" for several years now. It seems like a real good idea, whose time (unfortunately) may never come. Who is going to organize a letter to Steven Chu, signed by a hundred top people, asking for some newly funded thorium project? It would seem futile to never seek a startup anywhere. You are better positioned for this than someone like me. Meantime, positions have frozen solid in Montpelier & Brattleboro, and the Vt Public Service Bureau is starting to go through 2 million pages of evidence, using 2 part time workers, to find out if an Entergy person lied. I think the PSB project and the thorium startup ought to both come in at around the same time..... around August 2525 or so.

Anyway...welcome back.


Meredith Angwin said...

Thanks GM! Glad to be back and glad to hear from you!

I wish I were such an important person that my influence would be significant in choosing the next generation of reactors. Alas, I am not.

My friend Bob Hargraves has an excellent web site about LFTR, as well as a book you can buy from Amazon.

It was really a pleasure to be there. One of my dearest friends from grad school was there also, and talking with her was very reassuring. It's nice to be with someone who "remembers me when..."

About the document review. Yes, no matter how many reports show there was no intention to mislead on Entergy's part, there always seems to be someone ready to spend some money looking into it all again. Sigh. I try to think of it as an economic stimulus plan for Montpelier.

Are you sure the PSB is doing this? I thought it was the AG.

KimLJohnson said...

Dear fellow-Chem-scientist Meredith,

Hey I had *no* idéa you were/are to such a degree into high-temperature materials e Chemistry!
My v. similar background got started in "LiF-forming" torpedoes, summed in this Meetup link:

1. For the Molten-salt Strategy of a consórt of Chem scientists that's *independent* of gov't funding e/o sanction, skim "Chem-savvy Scientists" in the Meetup link or my G+ "About" (

2. For the West-centric "Ms. Strategy" that starts in Norway e/o Canada (Norway most likely), then adds Brazil and eventually persuades the US (when the brain-drain becomes obvious), search "Norway" under Meetup link.

3. For the only "semi-sovereign" Ms. Strategy that will work in today's US, go to my G+ About's 6th link and see at least the Update in appended ¶ 1.

Although the Chem & Biz People with whom I'm allied are keeping multiple pokers in all *3* of the above fires, I sure hope that Ms. Science gets industrially "ignited" first in the US, before China, who ultimately *will* dump the drag of our DoE, figures out how to!

-Kim L Johnson

Meredith Angwin said...


Thank you for the note! I don't think I can do very much for the LFTR. My days in the lab are far behind me.

However, Ole Kleppa was my thesis advisor when I worked toward my Ph.D. (which I did not complete). Kleppa was a great pioneer of molten salt chemistry. And a great man. He was a genius and a warrior.

He was also Norwegian.

Anyhow, my knowledge is out of date, but keep me informed of your progress. Thanks for writing!