Monday, March 23, 2009

A very unusual way to boil water

In 1831, Michael Faraday discovered that if an electrical conductor (a copper wire, for example) is passed through a magnetic field, there will be an electrical current induced in that conductor. That's pretty much the essence of the story of electricity as we know it today. The refinements that we've learned since then are icing on the cake.

An electric generator is a device used to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. That is to say, mechanical energy is used to pass that conducter through a magnetic field, and the electricity thus produced is sent through wires to your home.

"Mechanical energy" (the energy needed to spin the conductors around within that magnetic field) might be sourced from wind power or water power, but far more commonly that mechanical energy comes from steam power.

Steam is created by boiling water. The steam thus produced is blasted into a turbine which turns the electrical generator. The means used to boil the water can be oil or gas (or wood, or whatever) but by far the most common fuel used to boil water for electrical generation is coal.

Boiling water with heat made from coal is costly both in dollars and also to our environment. Janet can testify to the latter. Burning coal is also a dirty proposition and VERY expensive to make even half clean with scrubbers.

Another way to boil water is much cheaper and much MUCH cleaner (if guarded properly.) This is by using nuclear energy to produce the electricity.

A lot of people have a mental image that in order to produce electricity in a nuclear power plant, uranium fuel rods are somehow mysteriously rubbed together by scientists and electricity is given off in the process.

In reality, making the atoms in uranium excited (VERY excited!) in things called "fuel rods" simply makes the fuel rods very hot. Very hot indeed. But basically, if you cover the fuel rods with water, the water will boil and turn to steam like any other boiling water. Hence the title to this post: "A very unusual way to boil water."

Uranium is very cheap. Uranium is very efficient - it lasts for a very long time (a very long time indeed compared to coal.) Thus you have a cheap fuel that lasts for a long time which can produce steam and spin generators to make large amounts of electricity for a very long time. Very cost effective.

::Fran Drescher as The Nanny: "Sooooo....what's yer PRAHHHHH-blem???::

Well, the problem are the Homer Simpsons of the world employed at nuclear power plants who are too bored or too sleepy to do one simple thing: make sure they watch that the level of the water stays covering the uranium fuel rods. Even Dr. No knew enough to do that. (Although he, or Ian Flemming, were not all that clear on containment procedures.)

In a way this IS rocket science, but in a very real sense it is not: what idiots could not watch water level gauges and read sensors and look into tv monitors and cause water valves to be turned when needed?

What idiots? Well, the idiots at Three Mile Island for one. And the idiots at Chernobyl for another.

You see, when the water boiling on your stove boils away, the dry pan gets very hot indeed, and fires result.

When nuclear reactions are taking place and the hot fuel rods are not kept covered with water, they get very hot too. So hot they will melt anything they come in contact with. Metal. Concrete. Dirt. Ah. Dirt. They will continue melting all the way through the earth, all the way to China. The China Syndrome. That's a theory. It has never actually happened.

So, today, in the U.S., we still put up with 19th century methods of burning coal and other fossil fuels to boil water, rather than make sure idiots are properly trained and watched closely.

The last U.S. commercial nuclear power generator to go on-line was on February 7, 1996.

Of course something else happens when you don't properly keep the nuclear fuel rods and contaminated materials safely within the containment system, and that "something" certainly must not be overlooked.

[To be continued.]

[Yes, Dear A., I know all about France's fine 86% nuclear production. Just wait, please.]


  1. Still waiting.....

    What is it I'm, waiting for?

  2. Waiting to not rewrite my post before it's finished. For now, just marvel at my incredible insight, K?

  3. This is great, Max. My father was an electrical engineer. He would have loved this.

    I have questions, but I will wait until the next part, because you may be intending to answer them.

  4. You must have anticipated my walk by the river, our dwindling river because of the not-as-competent-as-you-might-like people who control the hydroelectricity power station. What if they were in control of nuclear energy? We have one not far away, as nuclear fall-out goes....

  5. We have a nuclear power plant nearby too. After 9/11 I was waiting for the terrorists to come and attack me.

    Me personally. I don't care about everybody else...

  6. Now this at least was interesting. It sure beats watching you smack little Canucklehead around.

  7. Sorry - WAY off topic.
    I'm currently thinking of getting a podcast going - maybe every week or two. I still have to learn how and get everything I need but I should be ready in a couple of weeks. Anyway, my plan is to pick a weekly subject - talk to people about said subject on Skype. record, edit - add wacky sound effect and publish. Here's the million dollar question - you interested or know anyone who might be? I'm hoping for funny but I'm willing to make an exception in your case. CHEERS!

  8. You know, you're making me think. That's not nice of you...

  9. Hey, Max, are you there? Everything OK? It's not like you to be away for 3 days!

  10. @Janet - Electrical engineers (and rocket scientists) require much more precision. This post would only frustrated him. But you had better ask your questions while you can before my attention shifts back to Northern Ireland. :)

    @A. - See, I knew you couldn't resist introducing nuclear "fallout" which wasn't due until next semester. That's why you were asked to wait. But no. Now the whole class is starting to suspect nuclear energy is not safe. Thanks a lot. :)

    @Angelika - I am still trying to pinpoint where you live, but I will guess TVA. Thank god terrorists are stupid and choose to crash airplanes into office buildings instead of other things. And now that Bush is no longer here to protect us, who knows? Heh. Well, not "heh", but what the hell can one do?

    @Ettarose - Nothing beats watching me smack Canuclehead around. It is the only reason Sage even bothers to come to class. :)

    @Canucklehead - See? That's why you can't ever rub a fucking balloon against something properly - you just don't pay attention to what I am saying. ::Lifts his knee sharply to get Canuck's momentary attention::

    No. Leave us alone.

    @Alison - Sorry. But you make me think too, so it's only fair. :)

    @Janet - Yes. Yes. Sure it is. Even longer sometimes. Like Elvira**, I brood over the deep. And then I create. :)

    (**Note to newcomers who never frequented Max' pub, the infamous Slap & Tickle: Relax Max has a clear channel to God. She and Max talk every evening. God's name is Elvira.)



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