Friday, January 31, 2014

Open source the development of the thorium molten salt reactor

Thorium molten salt reactors could save the world as we know it. The TMSR is 200x more efficient than the light water reactors we use with uranium. Thorium is 4x more abundant in the earth's crust than uranium and is fairly evenly distributed throughout the world. It is currently being stockpiled in crates as a waste material from rare earth mining and we have thousands of tons of thorium in storage in the United States alone.

TMSRs are not theoretical. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory ran a TMSR for several years without incident. The reason for this is simple: the TMSR is designed to shut down in case of a failure. Thorium is a fertile material, not a fissile material. It simply cannot have a runaway reaction. The fuel is a molten salt so you cannot have a meltdown. If there is a problem, the reactor shuts down passively. The fuel is held in the reactor by a frozen plug of thorium salt, and the plug is kept frozen by a fan. If power is lost, the fan stops spinning, the plug melts and the fuel drains into cooling tanks. This could have been Fukushima, but they were using light water reactors instead. Check out this video for a primer on thorium molten salt reactors and the many benefits thereof.

There is intense worldwide interest in thorium reactors. China and India are working on the problem of bringing thorium online with a huge budget for research and development. The United States? Not so much. There are entrenched incumbents in the United States that run uranium power plants and they're used to the huge profits from uranium with all the mining, refinement and inefficiencies that uranium brings, and they don't want to change that.

There is also a patent race on thorium tech, with China leading the way in an effort to lock the rest of the world out of thorium energy production. Even Bill Gates is getting into the act and wants to get his own patents in play. When Gates steps in with the intent to get patents on key technologies, we can only guess there will be trouble. Why do people get patents? To gain a temporary monopoly on technology they build. How well have patents worked out? There is no empirical evidence to the support the claims that patents increase innovation. Zero. It's assumed to be common sense that patents encourage inventors to do what they do.

But if you ask people like Nikola Tesla, you'll find that although he did get patents for his work, that wasn't the main reason he spent time building inventions. He did it because he enjoyed his work.

He's not the only one who likes to invent or innovate just because it's fun to do. The people who built the Linux Kernel like to innovate, too. Linux is the world's most important operating system, by far. It's everywhere. In your phone, your TV, your computer if you run it at home like I do, and everywhere on the internet. The fastest supercomputers in the world run Linux. There is simply no way that broad adoption of the use of Linux everywhere would occur with the heavy hand of intellectual property.

To encourage growth and adoption, Linux was released under the General Public License, a license that has protection under copyrights, but is generally considered to be "copyleft". You can use the software for any purpose you want. You can freely copy it. You can sell it for the nominal costs of reproduction. You have access to the source code. You can modify the source code and distribute binaries of the same, as long as the source code is available to all who ask for it, and that attribution to the original authors remains intact.

The GPL has created what I believe is the greatest collection of software knowledge ever assembled in the Linux Kernel. Fortune 500 hundred companies use it and contribute code to it. 75% of the code is contributed by paid programmers without any exclusive rights to the code that is eventually distributed - for free.

If we're going to save our planet, encumbering thorium power plant technology with patents is exactly the wrong way to go. Creating a commercially viable reactor under a GPL license would make the designs easier to disseminate, improve upon and service. When more people are allowed to contribute their ideas to the development of thorium reactors, our odds of creating a viable commercial reactor sooner than later, increase significantly. One pound of thorium will replace 1700 tons of coal. It's that important.

Some people will complain..."But who will invest in thorium reactors if they don't have the rights to them? Venture capitalists aren't as concerned with patents as with being first to market. In fact, some venture capitalists see patents as a tax on innovation. Patents will discourage the development and widespread adoption of thorium molten salt reactors. Placing development under the GPL will have the exact opposite effect and create a worldwide body of documentation for creating working, commercially viable TMSRs.

To save the planet, lets create an open source design of the thorium molten salt reactor, a reactor that can power our planet for the next 1,000 years.
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