Thorium, fusion, and other energy miracles

There are existing solutions to our the energy crises facing us today, but they all suffer from being frustratingly imperfect, complicated, and not particularly easy to implement (at least not quickly). Some even require us to change our behaviors. And, most likely, we'd have have to use lots of these solutions all at once, further adding to the complication involved. It's no wonder then that, in our heart of hearts, most of us are holding out for a miracle — some new technology that could provide all the power we want, with few drawbacks, and few changes to our current infrastructure or social status-quo. But is that a good idea, or a waste of time and resources? In the first edition of a new monthly column for The New York Times, Justin Gillis writes about the allure of energy miracles, what they actually look like in reality, and whether there's really a dichotomy between using what we have and developing something better.


  1. Thorium isn’t some miracle energy source. It was just largely ignored by the U.S. government researchers once it became clear that it couldn’t be weaponized like uranium, then totally abandoned when Tricky Dick Nixon decided to instead fund breeder reactors, not because they were a better choice but because they were being researched in southern California, where he needed votes.

  2. We don’t have an energy problem.  We have a political problem.  Our current power structure is addicted to carbon.   The answer is renewables (solar, hydro, wind, wave, etc) and next generation nuclear (thorium reactors and deep burn uranium reactors) and maybe fusion in a few years.  I just hope we can get off carbon before something catastrophic happens but I don’t think it will happen.  Our leaders are myopic and short-sided to boot.

    1. This is mostly true. If we could credibly commit to saying, “We will no longer approve new fossil fuel power plants or extend the permits for current ones, and will not renew any permits for fossil fuel extraction past 2040,” then we would be able to do so without excessive hardship and in the end we’d be better off for it. But energy storage (mobile and grid-scale), large-scale incorporation of intermittent power sources, planning and zoning, building upgrades, dealing with the disproportionate near-term impacts on the very poor — these are still tricky even with perfect political will.

    2. I just hope we can get off carbon before something catastrophic happens

      I fear it’s already too late for that if you ask all the people who’ve lost loved ones and/or homes to extreme weather.

      1. Problem is turning laser into a stable-state energy source.  Hard to turn even regular bursts into something you can power a city with (not without a huge capacitor in between or battery).

        1. I think they wanna roll the fuel in beads down a ramp to the center, on a schedule, to keep it “sustained”.  But what do I know.  IANANS  I am not a nuclear scientist.

  3. Solar energy is all we need. The technology is already mature enough, and huge advances are still being made. The kind of money we waste on foreign oil and military outlays to protect it could have our energy infrastructure converted in no time.

    1. No time is an exaggeration, but with the amount we spend on foreign wars, we could move most of our infrastructure to solar in 10-20 years, without any technological breakthoughs.

      1. Well, we might want to make sure we have more efficient energy storage options for all the times the sun isn’t shining.

        1. Yes, that’s an issue, as it is with fusion as well. But all sorts of alternatives, new and old, are available. And whatever challenges arise are more than offset by the non-polluting, locally sourced and renewable aspects of solar.

          1. I’m totally pro-solar. It’s the “we could go near-totally solar without any technological breakthroughs” claim I’m not sold on yet.

          2. Skepticism is a good thing. Why don’t we defund some useless weapons to the tune of a billion or two and  use the money to prove the point one way or the other. We just might save the world in the process.

          3. @google-31aa7b1faf8f75eafe973c1a76064de4:disqus : Surely we could find more than a  billion or two in useless military spending.

    2. You must be smoking wacky stuff, dude.  Solar is so not ready for prime time. Maybe never will be. Same with wind. Both require complete back up systems for when sun does not shine or wind does not blow. Also, can only use them is certain locations so many parts of world, country cannot use them at all. 

    1. Very good source, thank you! Contains links to all kinds of relevant articles, including one wherein the author says that solar electricity is the obvious answer and would be at even half the efficiency we have already achieved.

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