Of all the elements that make up the Earth’s crust, uranium is reasonably abundant, coming in at 49th place, ahead of elements such as tin, tungsten and silver. Ever since humankind began to exploit uranium for its fissile properties in energy production, this abundance has also translated into widespread availability for mining. As of 2019, Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia formed the world’s main producers, accounting for about 68% of output.
Considering the enormous energy density of uranium when used as fuel in a nuclear fission reactor, the demand for uranium is relatively low, especially combined with the long (two years on average) refueling cycles of commercial reactors. The effect is that even with the very inefficient once-through fuel cycle – which only uses a fraction of the uranium fuel’s potential energy – uranium market prices have remained relatively low and stable even amidst geopolitical crises.
Despite this, the gradual rise in uranium market prices ($10/lb in 2003, $49/lb in 2022), as well as the rapid construction of new reactors is driving new exploration. Here recent innovations may make uranium fuel even more accessible to all nations, by unlocking the billions of tons of uranium found in plain seawater as well as the many tons of fly ash produced by coal plants every single day.
With a seemingly endless list of shortages of basic items trotted across newsfeeds on a daily basis, you’d be pardoned for not noticing any one shortage in particular. But in among the shortages of everything from eggs to fertilizers to sriracha sauce has been a growing realization that we may actually be running out of something so fundamental that it could have repercussions that will be felt across all aspects of our technological society: helium.
The degree to which helium is central to almost every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. Helium’s unique properties, like the fact that it remains liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, contribute to its use in countless industrial processes. From leak detection and welding to silicon wafer production and cooling the superconducting magnets that make magnetic resonance imaging possible, helium has become entrenched in technology in a way that belies its relative scarcity.
But where does helium come from? As we’ll see, the second lightest element on the periodic table is not easy to come by, and considerable effort goes into extracting and purifying it enough for industrial use. While great strides are being made toward improved methods of extraction and the discovery of new deposits, for all practical purposes helium is a non-renewable resource for which there are no substitutes. So it pays to know a thing or two about how we get our hands on it.
A nuclear power plant is large and complex, and one of the biggest reasons is safety. Splitting radioactive atoms is inherently dangerous, but the energy unleashed by the chain reaction that ensues is the entire point. It’s a delicate balance to stay in the sweet spot, and it requires constant attention to the core temperature, or else the reactor could go into meltdown.
Today, nuclear fission is largely produced with fuel rods, which are skinny zirconium tubes packed with uranium pellets. The fission rate is kept in check with control rods, which are made of various elements like boron and cadmium that can absorb a lot of excess neutrons. Control rods calm the furious fission boil down to a sensible simmer, and can be recycled until they either wear out mechanically or become saturated with neutrons.
Nuclear power plants tend to have large footprints because of all the safety measures that are designed to prevent meltdowns. If there was a fuel that could withstand enough heat to make meltdowns physically impossible, then there would be no need for reactors to be buffered by millions of dollars in containment equipment. Stripped of these redundant, space-hogging safety measures, the nuclear process could be shrunk down quite a bit. Continue reading “No-Melt Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Might Win A Few Hearts And Minds”→
When was the first nuclear reactor created? You probably think it was Enrico Fermi’s CP-1 pile built under the bleachers at the University of Chicago in 1942. However, you’d be off by — oh — about 2 billion years.
The first reactors formed naturally about 2 billion years ago in what is now Gabon in West Africa. This required several things coming together: natural uranium deposits, just the right geology in the area, and a certain time in the life of the uranium. This happened 17 different times, and the average output of these natural reactors is estimated at about 100 kilowatts — a far cry from a modern human-created reactor that can reach hundreds or thousands of megawatts.
The reactors operated for about a million years before they spent their fuel. Nuclear waste? Yep, but it is safely contained underground and has been for 2 billion years.
Hackaday editors Elliot WIlliams and Mike Szczys kick off the first podcast of the new year. Elliot just got home from Chaos Communications Congress (36c3) with a ton of great stories, and he showed off his electric cargo carrier build while he was there. We recount some of the most interesting hacks of the past few weeks, such as 3D-printed molds for making your own paper-pulp objects, a rudimentary digital camera sensor built by hand, a tattoo-removal laser turned welder, and desktop-artillery that’s delivered in greeting-card format.
Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!
Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!
We’re suckers for the Fallout aesthetic, so anything with a post-apocalyptic vibe is sure to get our attention. With a mid-century look, Nixie tubes, a brushed metal faceplate, and just a touch of radioactivity, this quantum random number generator pushes a lot of design buttons, and it pushes them hard.
Charmingly named “Chernobyl Dice”, this little gadget comes to us from [Nathan Griffith], and appears to be one of those “Why not?” builds we love so much. The heart of any random number generator is a source of entropy, for which [Nathan] chose to use six slightly radioactive uranium glass marbles. Those feature prominently in the front panel of the device, occasionally made to fluoresce with a few UV LEDs just because it looks cool. A Geiger tube inside the case is used to look for decay events from the marbles every millisecond. After some adjustment for the bias toward zeroes due to the relative rarity of decay events, the accumulated bits are displayed on eight Nixies. The box can be set to generate a stream of random numbers up to 31 bits long and send it over a USB port, or make random throws of a die with a settable number of sides. And when it’s not doing random stuff, it can just be a cool Nixie clock.
The discovery of nuclear fission in the 1930s brought with it first the threat of nuclear annihilation by nuclear weapons in the 1940s, followed by the promise of clean, plentiful power in the 1950s courtesy of nuclear power plants. These would replace other types of thermal plants with one that would produce no exhaust gases, no fly ash and require only occasional refueling using uranium and other fissile fuels that can be found practically everywhere.
As nuclear reactors popped up ever faster during the 1950s and 1960s, the worry about running out of uranium fuel became ever more present, which led to increased R&D in so-called fast reactors, which in the fast-breeder reactor (FBR) configuration can use uranium fuel significantly more efficiently by using fast neutrons to change (‘breed’) 238U into 239Pu, which can then be mixed with uranium fuel to create (MOX) fuel for slow-neutron reactors, allowing not 1% but up to 60% of the energy in uranium to be used in a once-through cycle.
The boom in uranium supplies discovered during the 1970s mostly put a stop to these R&D efforts, with some nations like France still going through its Rapsodie, Phénix and SuperPhénix designs until recently finally canceling the Generation IVASTRID demonstrator design after years of trying to get the project off the ground.
This is not the end of fast reactors, however. In this article we’ll look at how these marvels of engineering work and the various fast reactor types in use and under development by nations like Russia, China and India.