Thursday, November 17, 2011

Into the Pea Ridge with Thorium

thorium1While doing research on a different topic, I ran into an article about a fellow named James Kennedy. He’s made a splash in Missouri for throwing money at unusual projects, such as building a smelter or buying a failing airport. One of his purchases was a shuttered mine called Pea Ridge.

Why might Kennedy find Pea Ridge a worthwhile investment?

Rare earth elements have become an urgent topic because they are needed in many high-tech products, from cellphones to laptops. They also are essential for cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions and radar systems, underscoring worry in Washington about U.S. dependency on China for strategic needs.

And Pea Ridge is lousy with rare earth metals. (They’re not that rare, actually, just not concentrated enough to be economical to mine in many cases. They inhabit slots 57 through 71 (the lanthanides) on the periodic chart, plus scandium (21) and yttrium (39), which are often found in the same ore deposits.)

But beyond scandium and yttrium, a non rare-earth metal is often found plentifully with them.

While the climate is right for selling Missouri-mined rare earth, Kennedy has encountered an obstacle: what to do with vast quantities of thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element that is a byproduct of rare earth extraction.

Our old friend thorium! I can think of a thing or two that could be done with it, though I imagine some of Kennedy’s problem lie with the fact that it is not much used at present and not much of a market exists for it.

Energy from thorium has been tried before in the United States and abandoned. But thorium power has many advocates and is undergoing a resurgence in parts of the world, particularly India and China.

Kennedy is proposing that the government become a partner in the enterprise. He believes that building a regional storehouse for thorium is the only means to overcome liability concerns, and he is pressing for legislation that would relax rules that classify thorium along with uranium for purposes of handling.

And then:

China, India, Japan, France, Russia and the U.S. are all currently developing thorium-based reactors, with various degrees of commitment.

India is already well into its thorium fuel development. The country's three-stage nuclear power plan laid out in the '50s was designed specifically to take advantage of India's vast thorium reserves. India has taken a more conventional route, utilizing uranium-catalyzed pressurized heavy water reactors that use thorium compounds as breeder fuel to produce more uranium.

India consequently may not be a good market for Kennedy, but there is at least a suggestion that processing and storing it while getting at the rare metals might be a forward-looking idea – if thorium can gain more traction than, say, fusion.

That’s a little glib, as the thorium fuel cycle is well-understood and nothing really excludes it from consideration. The U.S. experiments with it at Peach Bottom and Fort St. Varain in the seventies were not failures. It’s lack of pickup after that time may have had as much to do with the developed uranium market as any other factor.

But…

Time has a way of catching up with you, though, and sometimes catching you short:

After nearly three years of soaring prices for rare earth metals, with the cost of some rising nearly thirtyfold, the market is rapidly coming back down.

International prices for some light rare earths, like cerium and lanthanum, used in the polishing of flat-screen televisions and the refining of oil, respectively, have fallen by up to two-thirds since August and are still dropping. Prices have declined by roughly one-third since then for highly magnetic rare earths, like neodymium, needed for products like smartphones, computers and large wind turbines.

That’s from yesterday’s news. I don’t understand the world of elements well enough to grasp its ups and downs; still, it may well be that thorium proves to be the most useful item you can extract from Pea Ridge.

Thorium. A good faith effort to make a soft black rock attractive.

1 comment:

Paul Lindsey said...

Then there is the Bokan Mountain in Alaska, http://ucore.com/projects/bokan-mountain-alaska

and profiled in BusinessWeek:
http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/alaskas-billion-dollar-mountain-10272011.html

Of course, the local conservation groups have their take on it:
http://seacc.org/issues/mining/bokan-mountain-mine