Proof that not all old technology is dead

News that China is investing heavily in the use of thorium in a next generation of nuclear power stations should not come as much as a surprise. The technology will provide clean, plentiful power at a significantly lower cost than uranium based nuclear fuel. Cheap and abundant power is something the Chinese need and if their involvement in the development of thorium leap frogs them in the forefront of green energy, then good on them.

The fact that the technology has languished undeveloped for over half a century and was killed off by the Americans, as it didn’t produce bomb grade uranium, demonstrates that not all technologies we use today are in fact the best. More often than not decisions have been made, and most likely short sighted ones, to pursue one type of technology rather than another. Most people, like me, would assume because one is more superior to the other but in some cases it shows that money, greed and power are at the root of these decisions as to why the better technology isn’t developed further.

It reminds me that early last century we had electric cars but for whatever reason petrol became the chosen technology. Most people think that electric cars are a recent invention but actually they have been around as long as the engine. Imagine what our electric cars would look like today if they had been developed as much as the engine? Also, on the subject of oil, a number of scientists from around the world have claimed to make a car run on water (the reverse of a hydrogen fuel cell), only to mysteriously die or for their invention to disappear. Conspiracy theorists say that the technology has been suppressed by the oil companies to guarantee their market position. Read into that what you will.

And much is the same in the telecoms market. The problem with the idea of thorium as a nuclear fuel is that it undermines all the businesses that have invested so heavily in uranium. In the same way it has taken our telcos quite a while to stomach the shift to fibre as their investment in copper and importantly their telephone exchange infrastructure is one that they can only shift from slowly. I understand before we adopted ADSL for national deployment, powerline technology was being evaluated by them, and could have been the technology we use widely for connectivity today. Trials in 2003 showed it was achieving similar speeds to ADSL and in many ways offered more potential than DSL. I remember seeing a demonstration in Birmingham in 2005 of 40 Mb/s being shifted over medium and low voltage circuits. Ironically it is this ‘dead’ technology that got me interested in telecoms in the first place.

Ok there are a lot of hurdles when adopting a new technology and pushing it out to market but it is a shame that good technologies are being side-lined for the wrong reasons. So maybe we should be glad that there are countries such as China who have a long term plan and are willing to ignore warnings and review previously discarded technologies for their benefit (and mankind).

1 Comment

  • In fairness thorium wasn’t just abandoned for the “weapons” aspect as at the time it was also a more complicated design to engineer and there was a greater chance of explosion due to some of its gas output, at least that’s what I can recall from reading about it. But by modern standards of engineering I’d agree, we should pursue it.

    Also I’d say that Powerline is a bad example. It looked good on paper but in practice the service still had a lot of problems and was far from a magical or practical solution. I can recall spending a lot of time investigating it and ended up feeling that it just wouldn’t work the way people wanted it to.

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