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Powering our Future with Emma

By Lito Carasig - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In our never ending quest to find alternative sources of energy for bringing clean power to our daily lives, it is not often that we think of nuclear energy as such a source, especially considering the recent catastrophic events in Japan. However, with the help of EMMA (the Electron Model of Many Applications) we may just have a chance to prove that not all things nuclear are hazardous to human health.

Somewhere in the marshy flatland of Cheshire, England, sits EMMA. The Electron Model of Many Applications is a small scale particle accelerator which uses not plutonium nor uranium, but thorium – a naturally occurring and much more abundant chemical element - to create nuclear energy. 

Scientists around the world agree that thorium is not only found in abundance within nature, but it is also far more efficient the uranium or fossil fuels like coal when used for the purposes of producing energy.  It is estimated that one ton of thorium can generate energy equivalent to around 200 tons of uranium or 3.5 million tons of coal (that’s a lot of coal!). Moreover, the already pinpointed deposits of the element could produce the energy requirements of the entire plant for more than the next 10,000 years.  Compared to uranium, thorium is much easier and cheaper to refine, plus it is much safer since it is far less toxic than its uranium cousin.

Another factor which makes the use of thorium appealing is the fact that it generates power without producing carbon dioxide, thus it does not contribute to the world’s problem of increasing carbon emissions. 

Still another plus for thorium is that a thorium reactor will not be prone to a nuclear meltdown since to produce energy, the thorium reactor would need an outside stimuli to produce fission – thorium atoms would only release energy when bombarded with high-energy neutrons like those produced by a particle accelerator. Unfortunately this benefit has always proved to be a major hurdle when attempting to create small scale thorium reactors, but through EMMA, scientists have proven that it can be done and we may see other small scale reactors being bought online in the near future.

Particle accelerators have been around for more than 80 years now, but what makes EMMA different is the fact that it is the first “pocket-sized” machine of its kind (unlike its more famous cousin at CERN which measures 27 kilometers in length). Emma has a scaled down design to make it more practical and affordable to build. This becomes an incentive and may be the key factor for independent government-backed contractors to take on the production of such machines.

Though other sources of energy – wind, water and solar – may also prove promising, the amount of energy produced by these are minute when compared to the EMMA’s potential.  Scientists and developers would therefore be wise to focus their attention on this very viable source of alternative energy instead.

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