04 January 2008

Molten Swing

This article from Power Engineering caught my attention today. One common claim about renewable energy is that you can't use it to make "base load"--the electrical power you need available all the time: day or night, rain or shine, wind...or no wind. My gut tells me that the claim is effectively true, though of course I'm biased and there vehement detractors (some of them Australian, apparently). My (developing) expertise in systems analysis--nuclear fuel cycle systems analysis, though, not the power grid--says that the question's probably harder to answer definitively than either side is willing to admit.

Anyway, the game would totally change if energy produced from renewables such as solar and wind could be efficiently stored. One interesting idea for storing solar power is to use the collected energy to heat up molten salts, which are suitable thermal-hydraulic fluids because of their high heat capacity and good conductivity. This is one of those great "now why didn't I think of that?" ideas, although the news note is a bit light on details. Let me know if you know anything about how the currently-employed technology (in the Nevada Solar One plant) works.

Speaking of molten salts as thermal-hydraulic fluids, I was (as usual) fairly impressed with the Wikipedia article on molten salt reactors. Check it out.

And on a totally unrelated note, here's some news about our continuing, tragicomic insistence that spending billions of dollars on missile defense is a good idea. (And as long as we're talking about missiles and whether they hit their targets, I can't help but point you toward "Nuclear Missile Testing and the Social Construction of Accuracy" by Donald Mackenzie, which I read some time ago in Richard Staley's excellent history of 20th century science class.)

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