Energy Intensity: The Futures We See

I’ve been getting bummed out lately. It’s been feeling like all I ‘m doing here is playing catch up to old ideas and old arguments against nuclear energy. That aggravates me because it means that we have lost control over the direction of the conversation. If we want the conversation to change, then we have to get out in front of it and start charting it’s course ourselves.

I have no idea how to do this. But! What I do know how to do is to talk way too excitedly about things that might as well be science fiction. And I figure that there are enough people working on how to bring nuclear into the present conversation that they will forgive me for turning into a 6 year old and racing on ahead to find some new paths to explore.

Dammit Timmy! Don’t go too far or you’ll get eaten by a bear!

I’m a Materials Engineer by training so I have what could be considered by others as an unhealthy fascination with metalworking and all manner of metal processing. Which is why I want to talk about this:

Molten metal, strong magnets, levitation, and a cool splat. what’s not to love?
But lets be honest, these guys look like they get confused about more than just magnets.

Induction heating/melting/smelting/mixing. Just one of the more impressive things that confuse the Insane Clown Posse about magnets. There are a few benefits to this technique over standard methods like blast furnaces or arc furnaces. Firstly, it doesn’t contaminate the molten metal with bits of carbon electrodes so you can work with higher quality assurances in your metals and alloys. Secondly it can be done in vacuum or inert atmospheres so that you again don’t have to worry about impurities in your melts or slag forming which reduces your material efficiency. Thirdly, due to the magnetic forces involved, you can actually mix the liquids while they are molten without touching them, which means you don’t need to put in mixers or dispersing agents so that, once again, you don’t need to worry about contaminating your material with whatever you would have used to mix it with other methods. Purer mixtures means higher quality final products since you have finer control over the entire process.

Plus you don’t have to use them for melting. you can also use them for heat treatments, other thermal processes on finished products, and basically any other situation where you need rapid heat production in a localized area…. And I need to move on before people start accusing me of running this article as a secret advertisement.

Okay so why am I so worked up for systems like this? Because this kind of technology is very like nuclear energy. It’s very power dense, it’s compact for it’s capability, the amount of options it provides for work and benefit are second to none, and finally because it’s clean. If the input electricity comes from a clean source, then this whole process of whatever you want to use it for is also clean. I don’t know how many of you have taken tours of metal foundries or other metalworking industries, but if you ever get the chance to, you’ll see that Clean is pretty rare in more ways than one.

dust, metal prills, slag flakes, and deposited metal vapour everywhere.

Plus, this kind of technology is an amazing building block for many kinds of metals processing. It can support things like 3D printing, automotive production, aerospace applications, they use it in production of silicon for single crystal solar cells and computer chips (they call it zone-refining instead of induction heating though).

So now that I’ve fan-boyed all over this, what the hell does this have to do with nuclear energy? It has to do with how people see the future. I asked some people over the past week or so what they see as the future if we get a handle on controlling our climate to our satisfaction. Overwhelmingly the answers boiled down to bringing up standards of living across the planet to what we would consider a western middle class and then we would have the ability to come to grips with social problems.

These are good things to focus on, but there was something about the answers that just didn’t quite satisfy me. Maybe I’m just a greedy person but I felt like the assumption that what could be considered a current middle class was just not enough to be aiming for. When I think about the future I would want for people I don’t picture western average. I think more like Star Trek.

Except for the fashion, I’m sure we can do better than two-tone jumpsuits and onesies.

Does that make me greedy? Or unrealistic? Potentially, but I’d rather be aiming for higher goals than what already exists. I want a world with so much energy that we are able to forgo mass-produced goods for mass-customized ones. Where production of goods is predicated on the quality of the good provided rather than the profit margin of the production run since there is no production run. Where advanced production technologies enable more people to own things that are built to last, so that they don’t have to worry about what they will do if it craps out on them unexpectedly, and that are able to be completely recycled when they aren’t needed/wanted anymore. And where the location of the production is irrelevant as it is a custom product anyways so there would be no savings in producing it overseas compared to locally.

But that can’t happen if we only aim for the current “best”. We need to push beyond what will get everyone to the level that we are at, and onto what it will take for everyone to go beyond our current level that is based on unsustainable practices. Induction melting is only my chosen placeholder metaphor for high energy processes and applications that under our current energy paradigm are too intensive to be considered viable. I just used it because it was the most interesting to me, I’m a metals nerd so sue me. But energy intensity is not the enemy of sustainability, because in order to do anything, it takes energy. I just want everyone to have enough energy available to them that they don’t need to choose between having the necessary products of civilization, and a thriving environment in which to enjoy that civilization.

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