Explore Utah Science - Explore Utah Science - Energy http://www.exploreutahscience.org Mon, 22 Jan 2018 01:23:48 -0700 en-gb Will Depleted Uranium Be Coming to Utah? http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/135-will-depleted-uranium-be-coming-to-utah http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/135-will-depleted-uranium-be-coming-to-utah Yellowcake uranium

The US has a lot of depleted uranium that needs to be stored and EnergySolutions wants to get in on the action. Over the next few months, the Division of Radiation Control will be looking at a study on the safety of storing the low level radioactive waste, which may ultimately determine if depleted uranium comes to Utah.

The US has a lot of depleted uranium that needs to be stored and EnergySolutions wants to get in on the action. Over the next few months, the Division of Radiation Control will be looking at a study on the safety of storing the low level radioactive waste, which may ultimately determine if depleted uranium comes to Utah.

The US has 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium that needs to find a permanent resting place. The waste was generated as a byproduct during uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons and to produce the fuel used in nuclear power plants. EnergySolutions, the low-level radioactive storage facility in Clive, 65 miles west of Salt Lake City, may become one home for the waste, pending a decision from the state. But it's not an easy decision to make because depleted uranium is unlike other radioactive material stored in Clive, says Rusty Lundberg who is the Director of the Division of Radiation Control, which will oversee the decision making process.

"It has some unique characteristics that differs from other radioactive materials and wastes that they dispose of there," says Lundberg. "One of the most significant is that over a long period of time, depleted uranium and its decay products actually increase in radioactivity. Whereas the more normal process is that radioactive materials decay and continue to decay. So this makes this more unique and more important for our deliberate and more focused consideration and evaluation of this proposal."

Depleted uranium is only 60% as radioactive as natural uranium, but as it decays the byproducts are more radioactive and are also toxic in other ways. Thure Cerling is a professor of geology at the University of Utah.

"By itself, the depleted uranium is more dangerous as a toxin, than its radioactivity," says Cerling.

A large increase in radioactivity due to decay will not occur for a long time, peaking at 2.1 million years.

"Uranium, when it was taken out of the ground, may have been there for millions of years, so we know it can be in a configuration for millions of years," says Cerling. "And millions of years is the time scale that it will continue to be around."

To get a better handle on the health and safety risk that storage of the waste may pose to Utahns, the Utah Division of Radiation Control required EnergySolutions to complete a study, or performance assessment, that looks at many possible issues and scenarios that might threaten waste containment at their facility over the next 10,000 and more years. This includes the risk of ground water contamination, seismic activity, and the role plants, insects, and burrowing animals may have in compromising the waste containment structure. The embankment that EnergySolutions proposes to use to contain the waste is above ground. Current regulations only require that the embankment perform its function for a minimum of 500 years.

Utah is somewhat on it's own in figuring out how to regulate storage of depleted uranium since the federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency has not put forward clear rules. Director Lundberg says state and federal regulators are all coming to the conclusion that a site-specific evaluation, like the one EnergySolutions has undertaken, will be critical.

"The intent is that, to look at each individual site taking into consideration its unique physical and location characteristics, not only now, but in the long term, and make that judgment, based upon that input and that information is it acceptable for disposal," explains Lundberg.

None of this comforts Park City resident Travis Bray.

"Any person who studies any aspect of storage knows there is no such thing as 100,000 year concrete, it doesn't exist, at some point storage facilities will break down," says Bray.

Bray went to an open house last week hosted by the Division of Radiation Control, which is hoping to engage the public on the storage issue. Bray says he came to the open house because after just moving to the state in September, he recently found out there was a possibility that depleted uranium would be stored in his new home. He isn't just a concerned citizen, but one with a PhD in chemistry from Auburn University. He studied how radioactive heavy metals, called actinides, could affect the environment around the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

"I did four years of research modeling what's going to happen when Yucca broke down, what minerals will uptake actinides, the redox chemistry of these actinides in the environment, how are they going to move through," says Bray. "I mean, it's not a matter of if it's a matter of when," he adds.

Bray says he hopes people will still be living in the area thousands of years in the future and they will want to know what we did that might have compromised their environment.

Chris Sloan is a realtor in Tooele who also came to the open house. He supports EnergySolutions' plan and says the company is an important economic engine for the county.

"They support our youth, they support our business community. They employ a ton of our people, people that live and work in Toole County," says Sloan.

Sloan says he personally isn't worried about the long-term affects of storing depleted uranium near his community.

"If I'm going to live to be 61,050, then I may have some concerns," says Sloan. "Let me couch that by also saying that I'm also fairly certain that before it gets back to full strength, technology will also be evolving from the storage side. I have no problems sleeping at night knowing that the technology will advance over the time they are worried about the increased heat."

The Division of Radiation Control is expected to begin a technical analysis of the performance assessment soon, take public comments in July, and make a final decision at the end of next year.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Energy Thu, 21 Nov 2013 15:02:34 -0700
Is Nuclear Power in Utah’s Future? http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/131-is-nuclear-power-in-utah-s-future http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/131-is-nuclear-power-in-utah-s-future Is Nuclear Power in Utah’s Future?

Fears have prevented the construction of nuclear power plants for over 40 years, but Blue Castle Holdings is proposing to build a new one near Green River, Utah. The feasibility of the plant as well as water rights granted to the company were on trial last week.

Fears have prevented the construction of nuclear power plants for over 40 years, but Blue Castle Holdings is proposing to build a new one near Green River, Utah. The feasibility of the plant as well as water rights granted to the company were on trial last week.

Update (11/28/13): Utah Judge George Harmond ruled in favor of Blue Castle and approved water rights allocated from the Green River for use in a future nuclear power plant.

In 1953, General Electric released a promotional animated movie called A is for Atom. It explained nuclear fission to the public.

"What would happen, they [scientists] wondered, if they fired a neutron at a Uranium nucleus, already the heaviest in nature? Why not try? So they tried. And the result...nuclear fission. Instead of a minor change, the atom split in two. Truly a discovery to change the world."

It also extolled the virtues of nuclear power.

"The future supplying of electric power to entire cities is far from impossible. While nuclear power in locomotives, submarines, ships, and even very large airplanes may all but revolutionize future transportation on land, sea, and air."

The first commercial nuclear power plant went on-line in the US in 1958, there are now 65 throughout the country. But over the decades, accidents, including the one at Three Mile Island in 1979 and more recently Fukushima in 2011, have caused a backlash against nuclear power. Compounding the problem is the cost of building a new plant, which runs in the billions of dollars, and the difficulty of storing radioactive waste. These obstacles have prevented the construction of new plants in the US for more than 40 years.

Blue Castle Holdings wants to change that. Aaron Tilton, President and CEO of the company, says they are developing plans to build a plant near Green River, Utah, about 65 miles South of Price. He says the location is much safer than others like Fukushima.

"So what we've done is we looked over the Western United States for the development of our project early on," says Tilton. "We've selected a site that has what we consider the lowest potential for any of these natural disasters. There's no potential for wildfires there, there's no significant potential for earthquakes, it's outside of flood plains."

Tilton says there are number of reasons why Utah needs nuclear power. It's estimated the plant would be able to supply about 1 million homes with electricity. Nuclear energy produces less emissions than coal or even natural gas, which make up 96% of Utah's current energy sources. He also says it's important for a state to have a diverse energy portfolio.

"You need fuel diversification in order not to be subject to just these kinds of things, natural disasters or other things that might shut off one or multiple supplies of electricity."

The low emissions, including carbon dioxide, associated with nuclear energy have won over some who are worried about global warming and bad air. But not Matt Pacenza, Policy Director for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).

"Even if seismic activity itself may not be a core issue along the Green River, what we have certainly learned from the Japan experience is that anything that can disrupt power to a plant, can disrupt the flow of water to a plant, can have serious consequences," says Pacenza.

The first hurdle for Blue Castle was cleared last year, when the Utah State Engineer, Kent Jones, granted 53,000 acre feet to the plant. That's enough to supply up to 100,000 homes with water for a year. The water right had previously been issued to a coal plant, but that plant was never built, and the right was transferred to Blue Castle.

The development has caused concern among environmental groups including HEAL Utah. They fear that the Colorado River has already been over allocated. What's more, there is concern a nuclear power plant would take priority over other water rights because water must be used to keep the plant cool, even during a drought. They have sued Blue Castle, and the case was heard in court last week. Pacenza says while water, radioactive waste, and the inherent danger of nuclear power are all important, the defining issue is cost.

"People should be concerned about risks and they should think carefully about what could happen here or anywhere that you have nuclear power plants," says Pacenza. "But at the end of the day what has ultimately doomed nuclear power is that the dollars and cents just don't add up."

The financial well-being of the Blue Castle plant was also on trial last week since viability of the project is an important factor for receiving water rights. So far, the company has raised just $17 million towards the expected $100 million dollar cost to get a license. In total, the project is expected to cost around $17 billion dollars and will require buy in from existing energy companies, none of which have publically expressed an interest in the project.

A ruling is expected within 60 days.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Energy Mon, 30 Sep 2013 06:35:36 -0600
Implications of New Ruling on Oil Shale and Tar Sands - KCPW http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/110-implications-of-new-ruling-on-oil-shale-and-tar-sands-kcpw http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/110-implications-of-new-ruling-on-oil-shale-and-tar-sands-kcpw Implications of New Ruling on Oil Shale and Tar Sands - KCPW

(Audio) The Department of Interior has opened up over 800,000 acres of western lands for research and developemnt of crude oil substitutes, nearly one-third less than originally proposed during the Bush administration.

(KCPW News) Late last month, the US Interior Department finalized a new set of rules pertaining to Oil Shale and Tar Sands development on federal lands. KCPW’s Roger McDonough looked into what the decision means for Utah’s 23 million acres of public lands.

Listen to the story by KCPW's Roger McDonough

scarpenter@kcpw.org (Roger McDonough) Energy Thu, 11 Apr 2013 00:00:00 -0600
From Cheese Car to Green Car http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/83-from-cheese-car-to-green-car http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/83-from-cheese-car-to-green-car From Cheese Car to Green Car

Researchers temporarily set a land speed record with a race car that ran on fuel made from cheese. Now they are making fuel from algae.

A cheese-powered race car made headlines across the nation when it set the land speed record for the small diesel engine category last September at the Bonneville Salt Flats. While the record of 64.396 miles per hour was later beaten, this was the first time a demonstration project was fueled by biodiesel made from the byproducts of cheese.

The race car project is a collaborative effort led by Utah State University researchers Byard Wood, Lance Seefeldt, and Bruce Bugbee whose expertise cover the gamut of engineering, biochemistry, and plant biology.

To make the cheesy fuel, the researchers first grew yeast in a stew of cheese byproducts, water and whey protein. Then they extracted energy-rich lipids, fats and sterols similar to cholesterol out of the yeast, and converted it into the fuel that powered the Aggie A-Salt Streamliner's 836cc engine. This demonstration project is now being adapted to synthesize biofuels from algae or other microbes that can be cost-competitive with petroleum fuels.

Algae as Fuel

Algae can have high lipid content and can yield far more biofuel by weight than other sources such as palm or soybeans. As an added bonus, they wouldn't compete for many of the high quality land resources that are used to grow food crops.

But there are challenges to creating fuel from algae including choosing or developing a strain of algae that will always thrive and deliver high yields of lipids for conversion to fuel, says Bugbee. "This is agriculture. We're at the same point [with biofuels] that mainstream agriculture was at 100 years ago."

His group is responsible for helping to develop algae strains that will be useful for creating biofuel, " [We] winnowed down the number of algae strains...from 3,000 to six," says Bugbee. He adds that even with the right candidates, actually getting the organisms to reliably produce fuel involves a lot of calculated trial and error. "We have to stress the algae to create lipids," he says. "We have to harvest them at just the right time. And we have to do it consistently."

Bugbee says currently about one in four batches is lost before it yields high lipids. But on the positive side, each batch only takes seven days to mature.

Will Algae Fuel Ever Be Cost Effective?

Skeptics doubt whether production-costs for algae-derived fuel can ever be brought low enough to compete on the market with conventional fossil fuels. So far, nobody has perfected a reliable, economical model for growing and harvesting algae and converting it to biofuel on a commercial scale. A recent report from The National Academy of Science Research Council says challenges with energy, water, and nutrient resources will make it difficult for algae biofuels to become a sustainable energy source.

Aware of these limitations, the USU team will initially be aiming for a smaller market: biodiesel additives.

Today, nearly 5 percent of the diesel most U.S. drivers put in their tanks, about 50-million barrels, is actually biodiesel additives. Though smaller, this market is more lucrative than fuel. "Flying J [travel center] is paying $5 a gallon for biodiesel from soybeans," says cheese car racer and research assistant Michael R. Morgan.

The niche market didn't exist until 2006, when the Environmental Protection Agency mandated that the U.S. reduce sulfur content in diesel fuel. Though sulfur increases emissions, it is beneficial to engines because it increases lubricity. Without another element to compensate, diesel engines running 'Ultra-low sulfur diesel' ULSD would grind their metal parts. Biodiesel from crops like soybeans has the lubricant qualities modern diesel engines need without the sulfur.

To be competitive, the USU's algal-biofuel must be no more costly than soybean biodiesel. Seefeldt says the USU team has made big strides bringing down the costs of algae-biodiesel. "We are developing several approaches that simplify the extraction process from algae," he explains. "Most significant is a procedure that extracts all of the lipids without having to remove any water from the algae."

The USU group has a lot of competition with companies and Universities across the globe investing in research into algae. Now the race is really on.

The group published their results of the engine performance and emissions characteristics of each of their microbial fuels in Energy and Fuels on November 12, 2012. Here.

eric@sanpetemessanger.com (Christian Probasco) Energy Thu, 31 Jan 2013 06:22:34 -0700
Can We Store Energy From the Sun and Wind? http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/58-can-we-store-energy-from-the-sun-and-wind? http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/58-can-we-store-energy-from-the-sun-and-wind? Can We Store Energy From the Sun and Wind?

Renewable energy use is on the rise, but the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. Green energy producers are looking for ways to generate a constant supply for a power hungry utility grid, and Utah's unique geology may provide the perfect tool.

In the sagebrush desert between Milford and Delta, the constant wind can drive you mad. But in Utah this wind also means power. Fields of giant wind turbines turn here almost constantly, weaving wind into electricity that's transmitted to California. Still, most Utahns get 3 quarters of their electricity from fossil fuels like coal or natural gas.

Utah is 40th overall among U.S. states in generating renewable energy. But according to a 2010 Utah state collaborative study, this western pocket of the state has abundant resources for generating wind, solar, and geothermal energy. Energy developers are gauging the possibilities, but utilities hesitate to embrace renewable energy on a large scale. Sunlight and wind ebb and flow with the cycles of nature, making it difficult to integrate their energy into the utility grid. David Eskelson with Rocky Mountain Power says there are many difficulties with solar energy.

"Solar is great. But it doesn't follow customer behavior as a utility product. As a homeowner wanting to shave kilowatts off their bill, it's great." But says Eskelson, "As a large central station, a utility tool, it doesn't really help us because it peaks around mid-day. The peak demand for electricity on our system on a summer day, really gets started about 3 in the afternoon and stays high until 9 or 10 pm."

Capturing Wind and Solar Power in Salt Caverns

What if all this sporadic energy from the sun and wind could somehow be captured and stored for times when it's most needed? The solution might just be hidden below the ground says Rob Webster.

"When we identified this salt area in the West, about 5 years ago, it was in a very strategic location."

Webster is a geologist and co-founder of Magnum Gas Storage. He says his company began exploring an underground salt deposit in this region a few years ago. They partnered with the state of Utah and asked Sandia National Labs with the Department of Energy to help them drill core samples and do other tests.

"Low and behold, at the end of that period and a lot of money spent, we really have world-class salt deposit here in Utah, that has high feasibility for development," says Webster. "And one that we think will serve as an "energy hub" for gas and electric integration for decades to come."

The deposit is more than 2 miles across, 1 mile deep, and impermeable to the elements. Webster says Magnum is now looking to carve out its first large cavern – the size of the empire state building - for storing natural gas. But he says such a cavern could also be used for something called compressed-air-energy-storage, or CAES. Stephen Bauer is a geo-mechanics engineer with Sandia Labs.

"Basically, you store the energy as a compressed gas by pumping it underground when electricity is inexpensive, or there's extra energy that you can't use otherwise," says Bauer. "And you let it out, and harvest that energy."

CAES can store hundreds of megawatt-hours of surplus energy in the form of compressed air. When renewable power sources can't keep up with demand, stored compressed air is released, driving turbines that generate supplemental electricity for the grid.

"So it's simple in concept. It's simple in practice. And I think it's a viable industry the country could become involved in," says Bauer.

Utility-scale CAES facilities currently exist in only two places in the world – one in Germany, and the other in McIntosh, Alabama – and both are over 20 years old. And while other types of storage are being studied in Utah, like pumped hydro storage and large battery technologies, Bauer says CAES is a proven technology that can be cost-effective and reliable. That's why it's being explored and developed across the U.S.

Storing Renewable Energy in the Future

"We don't really need energy storage to support renewables right now. It's just preparing for the future," says Arun MakHijani.

Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Maryland, and he's studied Utah's renewable energy potential. He explains that storage would only be necessary once renewable energy makes up a sizable percentage of the energy that's feeding the grid.

"You begin to need storage when you have 20 to 25 percent of your capacity filled by renewables, on average," says Mahhijani. "So that sometimes it's 50 percent, 60 percent, 70-percent. So those are the times when storage helps make your system more flexible."

In 2010, Makhijani compiled a report commissioned by HEAL Utah, an environmental advocacy nonprofit. He projects that compressed air energy storage could help Utahns meet all of their energy needs. In fact, combined with a smarter grid, more transmission, and efficiency measures, his report says Utahns could get by with just wind and solar resources alone.

"You don't have to use all of them. A fraction of them would be enough," says Makhijani.

But developing a CAES facility would require time, and, of course, money. And with natural gas prices at record lows, Stephen Bauer says such a facility right now would be a risky bet for investors.

"A significant bet – a 2 to 3 hundred million dollar bet – that the economics are correct in 2 to 3 years," says Bauer. "It would take that long to develop the cavern. And at the same time, finance the surface facilities."

So far PacifiCorp – the utility that supplies most of Utah with power – has no plans for developing CAES. But since 2012, Utah permits large private power users to purchase electricity directly from renewable sources, meaning businesses could push the market for green energy. And considering that this age of cheap and abundant natural gas will eventually fizzle out, Makhijani says businesses with long-term vision will ultimately have the advantage.

"I think Magnum is doing a smart thing by initially building a gas storage reservoir that might also be used in the future as a compressed air reservoir, depending on how the demand for the various services changes over time," says Makhijani. "The reservoir is going to be there for them."

Here in the desert, north of Milford, most of this energy that blows from the west and shines from the sky, for now, remains untapped.

[Music: Boards of Canada, Dayvan Cowboy]


rosschambless@hotmail.com (Ross Chambless) Energy Mon, 26 Nov 2012 01:00:00 -0700
CO2 To Go Underground http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/6-co2-to-go-underground http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/energy/item/6-co2-to-go-underground CO2 To Go Underground

About 66 percent of Utah's total carbon dioxide emissions are coming from coal-fired power plants. Researchers are hard at work trying to capture that CO2 and store it underground.

About 66 percent of Utah's total carbon dioxide emissions are coming from coal-fired power plants. Geophysicists, engineers and geologists are hard at work, trying to figure out how they can safely capture the CO2 after the coal is burned and store it underground. Yet, as Ross Chambless reports, who exactly will take responsibility for the CO2 after it's pumped underground is still unclear

Here, just south of Green River Utah is Crystal Geyser, an example of how CO2 naturally wants to leak to the surface, bubbling up cold water along with it. Someone drilling for oil here in the 1930s drilled through a natural CO2 aquifer, about 800 meters under the ground.

Knowing that CO2 is naturally stored beneath the ground, scientists are now studying how to inject the gas deep into the earth as a way to reduce global warming. In a humming University of Utah laboratory, Brian McPherson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, shows me a small pocket sized card showing the geological layers of time bellow the ground. "We are looking at the Jurassic time period for most, which is 175 million years ago." That's where he plans to inject CO2 being emitted from Utah's coal fired power plants.

McPherson has been leading a regional partnership since 2003 to locate the best places in Utah and other western states where CO2 could safely be injected and stored permanently. "Lets see...three kilometers, 30 degrees per kilometers, that's 90 degrees plus 10 degrees, so about 100 degrees Celsius so a little over 200 degrees Fahrenheit." Using sophisticated gas compression equipment they simulate with stone samples the actual conditions the CO2 will experience.

"What we think is going to happen is that there will be chemical changes, some structural mechanical changes, but what we would like to do is develop the ability to engineer those changes. McPherson is carrying out 120 million dollars of research mostly funded by the department of energy. The federal government is now investing in dozens of projects across the US to match carbon capture and sequestration efforts in other countries.

However, skeptics like the Sierra Club and others say the possibility of CO2 leaking could make it dangerous. But, McPherson believes the chances of such leaks are minimal. He says the technology of injecting gases like CO2 or natural gas has actually been well developed in the last 30 years by the oil and gas industry for the purpose of oil exploration or storing natural gas underground. "It's effectively the same technology just applied with a different type of gas and perhaps greater rates. So we will store a lot more CO2 than typically stored in a natural gas storage site. That's the difference. The testing that were carrying on and the commercial plans are for much deeper storage. Natural gas storage sites typically a few thousand feet, a couple thousand feet maybe. We are going to go very deep 5-10,000 feet you know 1-2 miles deep."

But there is one pending issue that unsettles carbon capture and storage researchers like McPherson. "Liability. The science and the technology, I think we have that under control. When it comes to carbon capture and storage specifically, the very open ended question is the liability, who will take responsibility for that CO2 when it is put deep into the subsurface."

"Were exploring the liability issues, we don't have answers to those yet." Diane Neilson, the governor's energy advisor says the state is now determining permits and regulations for drilling projects and CO2 injection tests, but that state governments the federal government and energy companies will have to develop a regulatory framework, and quickly. "I think the uncertainty about who takes responsibility will slow the process. The lack of a regulatory framework will slow the process. I think even in the testing time frame when we're setting those parameters, the inability of a state or federal government or the company doing the work to step forward and assume the responsibility will cause concern."

Ultimately, retrofitting existing power plants means energy costs for everyone will be more expensive. Individual coal power plants may incur higher operating cost upward 20-50% according to McPherson and others. With most of the expense coming from developing the chemical processes involved with capturing the CO2. Those who question the viability of CO2 sequestration say this will expose the true cost of coal energy and that the valuable funds should instead go towards energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

Still McPherson says carbon capture and storage can be done relatively quickly and may not cost so much. "On the other hand if a carbon tax or cap and trade system is instigated then that will spread those costs across many different sectors as apposed to just the electricity rate payer. I suspect it will lead to like another incremental cost increase at the gas pump so to speak."

For now McPherson's university research team is prepared to move forward with Utah's first commercial size testing. Partnering with engineers from headwaters clean carbon services, a large oil and gas development company based in Utah. Their plan is to start injecting 1 million tons of compressed CO2, about the size of New York's empire state building every year for four years at a location in central Utah.

This story originally aired 3/23/09

UPDATE: McPherson and his team received a 5 million dollar grant in September 2010 from the U.S. Department of Energy to identify possible CO2 capture locations.

rosschambless@hotmail.com (Ross Chambless) Energy Sun, 21 Oct 2012 00:00:00 -0600