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Ulstein’s Nuclear-powered Thor and its All-electric Companion Vessel Are a Zero-Carbon Solution for Marine Tourism

Peter Lobner

1. Introduction

In June 2022, the Norwegian firm Ulstein (https://ulstein.com) announced their conceptual design of a Replenishment, Research and Rescue (3R) vessel named Thor that will be powered by a thorium molten salt reactor (MSR). This vessel can function as a seaborne mobile charging station for a small fleet of electrically-powered expedition / cruise ships that are designed to operate in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Arctic and Antarctic. Other environmentally sensitive areas include the West Norwegian Fjords, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites that will be closed in 2026 to all ships that are not zero-emission. In the future, similar regulations could be in place to protect other environmentally sensitive regions of the world, thereby reinforcing Ulstein’s business case behind Thor and its all-electric companion vessels.

Ulstein’s Thor MSR-powered vessel (left) and 
Sif electrically-powered expedition / cruise vessel (right). 
Source: Ulstein

2. The MSR-powered Thor charging station

Thor is a 149-meter (500-foot) long, zero-emission, nuclear-powered vessel that features Ulstein’s striking, backwards-sloping X-bow, which is claimed to result in a smoother ride, higher speed while using less energy, and less mechanical wear than a ship with a conventional bow. 

For its R3 mission, Thor would be outfitted with work boats, cranes, a helicopter landing pad, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned surface vessels, firefighting equipment, rescue booms, a lecture hall and laboratories.

As a charging station, Thor would be sized to recharge four all-electric vessels simultaneously.

Thor.  Source: Ulstein

Thor also could serve as a floating power station, replacing diesel power barges in some developing countries or in some disaster areas while the local electric power infrastructure is being repaired.

Ulstein projects that an operational Thor vessel could be launched in “10 to 15 years.” However, the development and licensing of a marine MSR is on the critical path for that schedule.  

Thor, starboard side views.  Source, both graphics: Ulstein

3. The all-electric Sif expedition / cruise ship

Sif, named after the goddess who was Thor’s wife, is a design concept for a 100-meter (330-foot) long, all-electric, zero-emission expedition / cruise ship designed to operate with minimal impact in environmentally sensitive areas. The ship will be powered by a new generation of solid batteries that are expected to offer greater capacity and resistance to fire than lithium-ion batteries used commonly today.  It will be periodically recharged at sea by Thor.

The ship can accommodate 80 passengers and 80 crew. 

Sif, starboard side view.  Source, both graphics: Ulstein

4. A marine MSR power plant

The pressurized water reactor (PWR) is the predominant marine nuclear power plant in use today, primarily in military vessels, but also in Russian icebreakers and a floating nuclear power plant in the Russian Arctic. 

Ulstein reported that it has been exploring MSR technology because of its favorable operating and safety characteristics. For example, an MSR operates at atmospheric pressure (unlike a PWR) and passive features and systems maintain safety in an emergency. If the core overheats, the molten salt fuel/coolant mixture automatically drains out of the reactor and into a containment vessel where it safely solidifies and can be reused.  You’ll find a good overview of MSR technology here: https://whatisnuclear.com/msr.html

While a few experimental MSRs have operated in the past, no MSR has been subject to a commercial nuclear licensing review, even for a land-based application. Ulstein favors a thorium-fueled MSR. The thorium-uranium-233 fuel cycle introduces additional technical and nuclear licensing uncertainties because of the lack of operational and nuclear regulatory precedents.

Several firms are developing MSR concepts. However, the combination of a marine MSR and a thorium fuel cycle remains elusive. Two uranium-fueled marine MSR design concepts are described below.

Seaborg Technologies

The Danish firm Seaborg Technologies (https://www.seaborg.com), founded in 2014, is developing a compact MSR (CMSR) with a rating of about 250 MWt / 100 MWe for use in power barges (floating nuclear power plants) of their own design (see my 16 May 2021 post). The thermal-spectrum CMSR uses uranium-235 fuel in a molten proprietary salt, with a separate sodium hydroxide (NaOH) moderator.  

A Seaborg Technologies CMSR module could generate 100 MWe. Dump tank shown below reactor. Source: Seaborg via NEI (2022)

Seaborg’s development time line calls for a commercial CMSR prototype to be built in 2024, with commercial production of power barges beginning in 2026. 

Source: Seaborg (2022)

In April 2022, Seaborg and the Korean shipbuilding firm Samsung Heavy Industries signed a partnership agreement for manufacturing and selling turnkey CMSR power barges. 

On 10 June 2022, Seaborg was selected by the European Innovation Council to receive a significant (potentially up to €17.5 million) innovation grant to help accelerate their work on the CMSR.

CORE-POWER and the Southern Company consortium

The UK firm CORE-POWER Ltd. (https://corepower.energy), founded in 2018, began with a concept for a compact uranium-235 fueled, molten chloride salt reactor named the m-MSR for marine applications. This modular, inherently safe, 15 MWe micro-reactor system was designed as a zero-carbon replacement power source for the fossil-fueled power plants in many existing commercial marine vessels.  It also was intended for use as the original power source for new vessels, as proposed for the Earth 300 Eco-Yacht design concept unveiled by entrepreneur Aaron Olivera in April 2021 (see my 17 April 2021 post). The power output of a modular CORE-POWER m-MSR installation could be scaled to meet operational needs by adding reactor modules in compact arrangements suitable for shipboard installation. 

A set of six small, compact CORE-POWER m-MSR modules
could generate 90 MWe. Dump tank not shown. Source: CORE-POWER

In November 2020, CORE-POWER announced that it had joined an international consortium to develop MSRs. This team includes the US nuclear utility company Southern Company (https://www.southerncompany.com), US small modular reactor developer TerraPower (https://www.terrapower.com) and nuclear technology company Orano USA (https://www.orano.group/usa/en). In the consortium, TerraPower is responsible for the fast-spectrum Molten Chloride Fast Reactor (MCFR). CORE-POWER is responsible for maritime readiness and regulatory approvals.

This consortium applied to the US Department of Energy (DOE) to participate in cost-share risk reduction awards under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), to develop a prototype MCFR as a proof-of-concept for a medium-scale commercial-grade reactor. In December 2020, the consortium was awarded $90.4 million, with the goal of demonstrating the first MCFR in 2024.  DOE reported, “They expect to begin testing in a $20 million integrated effects test facility starting in 2022. The team has successfully scaled up the salt manufacturing process to enable immediate testing. Data generated from the test facility will be used to validate thermal hydraulics and safety analysis codes for licensing of the reactor.”In February 2021, CORE-POWER presented the MCFR development schedule in the following chart, which shows the MCFR becoming available for deployment in marine propulsion in about 2035.  This is within the 10 to 15 year timescale projected by Ulstein for their first Thor vessel.

Source: CORE-POWER (2021)

5. In conclusion

A seaborne nuclear-powered “charging station” supporting a small fleet of all-electric marine vessels provides a zero-carbon solution for operating in protected, environmentally sensitive areas that otherwise would be off limits to visitors. Ulstein’s concept for the MSR-powered Thor R3 vessel and the Sif companion vessel is a clever approach for implementing that strategy.

It appears that a uranium-fueled marine MSR could be commercially available in the 10 to 15 year time frame Ulstein projects for deploying Thor and Sif.  The technical and nuclear regulatory uncertainties associated with a thorium-fueled marine MSR will require a considerably longer time frame. 

6. For additional information 

Ulstein Thor & Sif

Video

Seaborg CMSR

CORE-POWER m-MSR

The Event Horizon Telescope Team has Produced the First Image Showing the Shadow of the Sgr A* Black Hole at the Center of our Milky Way Galaxy

Peter Lobner

Background

The first-ever direct image of a black hole was released on 10 April 2019 by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) team and the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The target for their observation was the supermassive M87* black hole at the center of the distant Messier 87 (M87) galaxy, some 54 million light years away. The EHT team estimated that M87* has a mass of about 6.5 billion Solar-masses (6.5 billion times greater than the mass of our Sun), and the black hole consumes the equivalent of about 900 Earth-masses per day. One Solar mass is roughly equivalent to the weight of the Sun and about 333,000 times the mass of Earth. Gases orbiting around the giant M87* black hole take days to weeks to complete an orbit. For more information on the first M87* black hole image, see my 10 April 2019 article here: https://lynceans.org/all-posts/the-event-horizon-telescope-team-has-produced-the-first-image-showing-the-shadow-of-a-black-hole/

For decades, there has been mounting evidence that there is a massive black hole, known as Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short, at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.  Its presence has been inferred from the motions of visible stars that are orbiting under the gravitational influence of the black hole or are in the general vicinity of the black hole.  Using observed data from more than 30 stars in the region around the galactic center, scientists developed high-resolution simulations that helped refine estimates of the location, mass and size of the Sgr A* black hole without having data from direct observations.  For more information on this work, see my 24 January 2017 article here: https://lynceans.org/all-posts/the-black-hole-at-our-galactic-center-is-revealed-through-animations/

First-ever image of Sgr A*

On 12 May 2022, the EHT team and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) held a press conference and released the first-ever image to directly show the ring of glowing gas surrounding the Sgr A* black hole.  You can read their press release here: https://eventhorizontelescope.org/blog/astronomers-reveal-first-image-black-hole-heart-our-galaxy

Initial EHT team and ESO results from their Sgr A* observations have been published and are available on The Astrophysical Journal Letters website here: https://iopscience.iop.org/journal/2041-8205/page/Focus_on_First_Sgr_A_Results

First-ever image looking down into the ring of rotating, glowing gas
surrounding Sgr A*. Source: EHT Collaboration
Composite image showing the location of the Sgr A* black hole (inset) in a composite 
X-ray/infrared NASA image of the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. 
Source: EHT Collaboration & NASA

Even though it was much closer than M87*, getting an image of Sgr A* was much harder because the Sgr A* black hole had to be viewed through the densely populated central plane of our Milky Way.  The Sgr A* radio frequency (millimeter wave) observations were made in 2017 at a wavelength of 1.3 mm (230 GHz), the same as the first image of M87*. 

Details that have emerged so far from the Sgr A* observation include the following.

  • Sgr A* is about 27,000 light years away, at the heart of our own galaxy (about 2 thousand times closer than M87*, which is in a different galaxy). 
  • Sgr A* has a mass is about 4 million times the mass of our Sun, which is just a small fraction (1/1,500th , or 0.07%) of the mass of M87*.
  • The glowing gas ring surrounding the Sgr A* black hole has an outer diameter of about 72 million miles (115 million km) across, which is approximately the diameter of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun in our solar system. The EHT team reported, “We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.”  By comparison, M87* is vastly larger, with the inner black hole region measuring about 23.6 billion miles (38 billion km) across (about 330 times the diameter of the entire Sgr A* black hole, including the glowing gas ring), as shown in the following scale diagram.
Comparison of the sizes of M87* (left) and Sgr A* (right). 
Source: EHT Collaboration (acknowledgment: Lia Medeiros)
  • The two black holes subtend approximately the same angle when viewed from Earth. The EHT team reported that the M87* bright emission disk subtends an angle of 42 ± 3 microarcseconds.
  • Gases orbiting around the Sgr A* black hole take mere minutes to an 1 hour to complete an orbit.  The fast moving gases blur the image for an EHT observation typically lasting several hours. The released image of the Sgr A* black hole is an average of many different images the EHT team extracted from the data.
  • Sgr A* is far less active than M87*, and consumes only about 1/1,000th the mass per day (equivalent of about 1 Earth-mass per day).
  • The source of the three bright spots in the glowing gas ring are unknown at this time.  They may be artifacts of the EHT observation process.

Follow-on EHT observations will benefit from additional telescopes joining the EHT network and significant technical improvements being made to the EHT telescopes and network systems.  For example, operating the telescopes in the EHT array at a shorter wavelength of 0.87 mm (frequency of 345 GHz) will improve angular resolution by about 40%. More frequent observations and faster data processing would enable time-lapse movies to be created to show the dynamics of gas motion around the black hole. Details on planned improvements are discussed in my 9 April 2020 article here: https://lynceans.org/all-posts/working-toward-a-more-detailed-view-of-a-black-hole/

For more information

Hey, PG&E! Energy Storage is Not the Same as Energy Generation!!

Peter Lobner, updated 20 February 2022

The two-unit Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which is owned and operated by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), is the last operating nuclear power station in California. In the five year period from 2016 – 2020, the average annual load factor performance of these power plants was as follows:

  • Diablo Canyon 1:  1,138 MWe net @ 91.56% = 1.042 Gigawatt-years (GW-years) generated per year
  • Diablo Canyon 2:  1,118 MWe net @ 85.64% = 0.957 GW-years generated per year

Over that five year period, the average annual amount of electricity delivered to the California electrical grid by the two-unit Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was about 2.0 GW-years (2,000 Megawatt-years or 17,520,000 Megawatt-hours). On a daily basis, that’s an average of about 48,000 MW-hours. This electricity was generated reliably, 24/7 (except during planned outages), with zero carbon emissions.

The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in Avila Beach, CA. 
Source: Joe Johnston / San Luis Obispo Tribune via LA Times (2018)

In 2016, I reported (http://lynceans.org/all-posts/the-nuclear-renaissance-is-over-in-the-u-s/):

“On 21 June 2016, PG&E issued a press release announcing that they will withdraw their application to the NRC for a 20-year license extension for the Diablo Canyon 1 & 2 nuclear power plants and will close these plants by 2025 when their current operating licenses expire.  PGE will walk away from about 41 GW-years of carbon-free electric power generation.”

The shutdown plan was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in January 2018.

In 2019, PG&E reported that their mix of generation sources (owned and purchased from a third-party) looked like this:

Source: PG&E (2019)

A few interesting points about this PG&E generation source chart:

  • Nuclear power generation is the biggest piece of the pie chart. Shutdown of Diablo Canyon by 2025 will eliminate this piece.
  • Renewables include wind, solar, small hydro, geothermal and biomass / waste.  Batteries are not included because they are energy storage devices, not energy generation sources.  The energy stored in a grid-scale battery comes from a generator, or simply, from the grid.
  • Large hydro depends on the associated reservoirs having enough water in them. The Edward Hyatt hydroelectric power plant at Lake Oroville (California’s second-largest reservoir) was shut down in August 2021 for the first time since it opened in 1967 because of low water levels during the persistent drought affecting the US West. Power production at Oroville resumed in January 2022 with only a single hydroelectric generator, after heavy winter precipitation increased lake water level. If the drought continues, the large hydro piece of the pie chart will shrink.

Another point is that the PG&E generation source mix is quite different from the California state-wide generation source mix reported by the California Energy Commission in 2020 and shown in the following pie chart.  Not all of the generation sources represented in this chart are physically located in California (more on that later).

Source: Data from California Energy Commission (2020)
 

Diablo Canyon has a disproportionate impact on the PG&E  generation mix because they own the nuclear power plant and they take credit for its entire net generation.  State-wide, nuclear power makes up only 9.33% of the state generation mix in a much larger electric power market.

When Diablo Canyon is shut down in 2025, I would think that the PG&E energy generation mix will look a lot more like the California state-wide generation mix, with most of the nuclear power generation share being replaced, at least in the short term, by fossil fuel-powered generators.

In January 2022, PG&E announced that they have a plan: “PG&E Corp. said it has reached agreements to install nine new battery energy storage projects as part of a push to replace a retiring nuclear power plant and help decarbonize California’s power grid.”

So, let me see if I’ve got this right.  PG&E is going to use grid-scale storage batteries that produces zero carbon emissions during their operation to partially replace a nuclear power generating station that produces zero carbon emissions during 24/7 operation. Where will the power come from to charge those batteries?  It’ll come from the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) grid, which has the California state-wide generation source mix shown above, with almost 40% coming from fossil fuel-powered generators in 2020, and likely to increase after Diablo Canyon’s retirement. So, one charge-discharge cycle of a grid-scale battery isn’t carbon-free.

PG&E further announced, “The proposed projects would have a total capacity of about 1,600 megawatts, which would bring its total battery energy storage capacity to more than 3,300 gigawatts by 2024…”

On the surface, that sounds like an impressive amount of battery capacity, but let’s put it in perspective.

The former Moss Landing fossil power station on Monterey Bay was decommissioned and transformed into a grid-scale energy storage facility. In August 2021, after completing Phase II of the transformation, the facility was operating with a capacity of 400 MW / 1,600 MW-hours, making it the world’s largest grid-storage project. The facility’s owner, Vistra Energy, said the Moss Landing facility could be expanded to a capacity of up to 1,600 MW / 6,000 MWh.

At its current discharge capacity of 400 MW, the Moss Landing batteries could discharge their full energy storage capacity of 1,600 MW-hours in about four hours.  Then the battery is “empty” and needs to be recharged from the CAISO grid (as we discussed, that’s about 40% from fossil-powered generation sources in 2020). Of course, a grid-storage facility wouldn’t be operated regularly on such a stressful cycle. But my point is that the world’s largest grid-storage project is be capable of delivering no more than 3.3% of the 48,000 MW-hours of electricity delivered daily, 24/7, with zero carbon emissions, by the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

California has a huge, and growing, energy problem of its own making. With Diablo Canyon and several fossil-powered generators scheduled for retirement in the next few years, the state needs new generating capacity.  However, the development time scale for a new large generating facility in California, especially considering the state’s challenging regulatory environment, might have to be measured in decades.

One of California’s solutions to its shortfall of electrical generating capacity is to import electric power from other states and nations.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that California was the largest net electricity importer, by a wide margin, of any state in 2019. Its net electricity imports were 70.8 million MW-hours, or 25% of the state’s total electricity usage. California utilities partly own and import power from several power plants in Arizona and Utah. In addition, California’s electricity imports include hydroelectric power from the Pacific Northwest and power from fossil and wind generators in Mexico.

Source: EIA

Grid-scale battery storage is not going to solve the state’s shortfall of electrical generating capacity. Rather, the batteries are a means to mitigate short-term demand peaks and help stabilize the grid as generators attempt to match energy supply with demand.

Another mitigating measure used by CAISO is a “flex alert,” which asks consumers to cut back on electricity usage and move their electricity usage to off-peak hours, typically after 9 pm.  CAISO issued five flex alerts in 2020 and eight in 2021. When a grid-scale battery is discharged during a flex alert, recharging it would add a large load on an already strained grid; probably not a good idea.

California is throwing away valuable 24/7 generating capacity and replacing it with intermittent renewable generators, with grid-scale energy storage facilities to provide short-term mitigation that doesn’t address the real underlying problem.  There is no substitute for adequate generating capacity, sized to meet the current and future demands of businesses and individuals as we try to move together into a more electrified future.

Failing that, I can see increasing electric power rates, more flex alerts, and in California, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some form of legislated energy rationing coupled with higher energy use taxation. So much for that vision of a more electrified future.

Don’t sell you gasoline or diesel-powered car yet.  You may need it during the next flex alert.

20 February 2022 update: Moss Landing battery fires

Since becoming operational, Vistra Energy’s Moss Landing battery storage facility on Monterey Bay experienced two damaging fire events in lithium-ion battery packs. A fire on 4 September 2021 set off fire suppression system sprinklers that damaged about 7,000 batteries. Vistra Energy reported corrective actions following this fire on 21 January 2022.  Another fire on 13 February 2022 resulted in 10 melted lithium-ion battery packs. The latest fire event was contained by the facility’s fire suppression system. Vistra reported that it was looking further into the latest incident, while the Moss Landing facility remains offline during the investigation.

For more information

Veteran LSR Car Little Giant Raises the US National Electric Car Speed Record

Peter Lobner, 2 November 2021

In 2016, I wrote about Ohio State University’s Venturi Buckeye Bullet-3 (VBB-3) all-electric, four wheel drive land speed record (LSR) car, which set an FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) world electric vehicle two-way land-speed record (Category A Group VIII Class 8) at an average speed of 341.4 mph (549 kph) on 19 September 2016. (http://lynceans.org/all-posts/vbb-3-the-worlds-most-powerful-electric-car-will-challenge-the-land-speed-record-in-2016/)

That FIA two-way world speed record still stands, but on 1 October 2021, the Team Vesco 444 reVolt Systems streamliner, Little Giant, set a faster US national electric vehicle Class E3 record at 353.870 mph (569.499 kph) driven by Eric Ritter.  This is a US national record because the team was not able to recharge to Little Giant’s batteries fast enough to enable it to make the return runs within the 60 minute time limit set by the FIA for world records. The highest recorded speed of the Little Giant on the four runs was 357.0 mph (574.5 kph).

Little Giant electric LSR car and the team members at the 
2021 Bonneville Speed Week. 
Source: Team Vesco via WonderfulEngineering

You can watch a short video of the 1 October 2021 speed run from the driver’s perspective here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cji50zWnxjE

Two views of the narrow, streamlined, all-electric incarnation of the veteran LSR car Little Giant.
Source, both photos: Team Vesco

The Little Giant was powered by two highly modified Tesla electric motors and 1,152 prismatic (not cylindrical) lithium-ion battery cells.  Engine power and battery rating were not revealed.  As a point of comparison, the VBB-3’s battery was rated at 2 MW.

Little Giant electric LSR car with the upper body panel removed. Source: Team Vesco

Little Giant is a veteran streamliner that made its debut at the 1957 Bonneville Speed Week, where it reached a speed of 169 mph and received the “Best Engineered Car of the Year” award.  Over the years, it has been rebuilt several times.  Through 2020, Little Giant was powered by a variety of piston engines. You’ll find more history on this car here: https://www.teamvesco.com/history.html

Well done to the Team Vesco 444 reVolt Systems efforts to raise the electric car land speed record! 

For more information

Video

First-ever Lower Colorado River Basin Water Shortage Declaration

Peter Lobner, updated 17 September 2011

At its maximum capacity, Lake Mead water level is at an elevation of 1,220 feet (372 meters) at the Hoover Dam and holds 9.3 trillion gallons (36 trillion liters) of water. It was last at its maximum capacity in 2000 and has been declining since then as shown in the following graph.

Source: Universe Today, data via US Bureau of Reclamation & NASA

In my 18 June 2021 post, I discussed the Lake Mead water supply for Las Vegas and the alarming trend of decreasing water level in Lake Mead as a result of the persistent drought in the watershed for the Colorado River. 

In July, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing additional water from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell (which is upstream of Lake Mead) in an attempt to stabilize the lake level and maintain hydropower generation at the Glen Canyon dam (which forms Lake Powell). 

The following chart shows that the Lake Mead water level was at 1,067.72 feet on 17 August 2021, more than seven feet below the 1,075 foot threshold for triggering a water shortage declaration.  The lake level appears to have temporarily stabilized, possibly benefiting from the increased releases into upstream Lake Powell.

Source: Universe Today, data via US Bureau of Reclamation & NASA

On 16 August 2021, the Bureau of Reclamation issued their much anticipated projection of 2022 operating conditions for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. They reported: 

“Given ongoing historic drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam will be reduced in 2022 due to declining reservoir levels. In the Lower Basin the reductions represent the first “shortage” declaration—demonstrating the severity of the drought and low reservoir conditions.”

The planned actions in response to this first-ever shortage declaration take effect on 1 January 2022, as described in the Bureau’s news release here: https://www.usbr.gov/newsroom/#/news-release/3950

In summary, the following cuts in Colorado River water allocations are expected:

  • Arizona:  Loses 18% of the state’s annual apportionment
  • Nevada:  Loses 7% of the state’s annual apportionment
  • Mexico:  Loses about 5% of the country’s annual allotment

California has more senior water rights than Arizona and Nevada and will be spared immediate cutbacks when they are implemented on 1 January 2022.

Additional cuts in water allocations will be triggered if Lake Mead water level continues to decline to the following thresholds:  1,050 feet, 1,045 feet, and 1,025 feet.

Let’s pray for a lot of wet weather in the US southwest.

For more information

Could Nuclear-Powered Crypto Currency Mining Become a Trend?

Peter Lobner, updated 9 December 2021

The term “bitcoin mining” has become a colloquial expression, but the actual activity involved in mining a crypto currency isn’t intuitively obvious to the casual observer. Marcus Lu, reporting for Visual Capitalist, can help us out here.  He explained:

“When people mine bitcoins, what they’re really doing is updating the ledger of Bitcoin transactions, also known as the blockchain. This requires them to solve numerical puzzles which have a 64-digit hexadecimal solution known as a hash. Miners may be rewarded with bitcoins, but only if they arrive at the solution before others. It is for this reason that Bitcoin mining facilities—warehouses filled with computers—have been popping up around the world. These facilities enable miners to scale up their hashrate, also known as the number of hashes produced each second. A higher hashrate requires greater amounts of electricity, and in some cases can even overload local infrastructure.”

So your basic crypto currency miner needs a lot of computer processing power, electric power and an internet service provider.  To get started, all of that requires some hard currency, unless you can find a work-around. Now, a few recent headlines make a bit more sense:

  • “1,069 Bitcoin Miners Steamrolled In Malaysia for Stealing Energy,” 17 July 2021
  • “Illegal Crypto Mining Farm With Almost 5,000 Computers Busted in Ukraine – The illegal operation cost between $186,000 and $259,300 in electricity to the state each month.” 12 July 2021
  • “Police find bitcoin mine using stolen electricity in West Midlands (UK),” 28 May 2021
  • “U.S. small towns take on energy-guzzling bitcoin miners,” 13 May 2021
  • “Cryptocurrency miners grapple with major energy crunch in Kazakhstan,” 27 November 2021

These headlines suggest that crypto currency mining can generate significant wealth, and, for some, this prospect is worth the risk of being caught stealing a lot of electricity.  

Sam Ling, writing for Miner Daily in May 2021, describes his methodology for estimating the cost to mine a bitcoin, which depends on many factors, including the cost of electricity and the cost, processing power and lifetime of the computers.  Ling estimates: “It currently costs between $7,000-$11,000 USD to mine a bitcoin. …… As the price of BTC is $56,000, it remains very profitable to mine bitcoin.” You’ll find more details here: https://minerdaily.com/2021/how-much-does-it-cost-to-mine-a-bitcoin-update-may-2021/

Of course, there are many legitimate businesses mining bitcoins.  You’ll find a list of the top bitcoin mining firms here: https://www.ventureradar.com/keyword/Bitcoin%20Mining

At the industrial-size end of the crypto mining facility spectrum, US power company Talen Energy announced in July 2021 that it is planning to develop a nuclear-powered crypto mining facility and data center adjacent to its two unit, 2,494 MWe Susquehanna Steam Electric Station in Pennsylvania. The first phase of the crypto mining facility will require 164 MW of power and is due to come online in Q2 2022. When complete, the crypto mining facility will require 300 MW of on-site power supplied from the nuclear power plants via two independent substations.  The potential exists to expand the crypto mining facility to 1,000 MW capacity in the future.

The planned Talen Energy crypto mining facility at the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station.  Source: DataCenterDynamics via Interesting Engineering

In May 2021, Nic Carter reported in the Harvard Business Review, “According to the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance (CCAF), Bitcoin currently consumes around 110 Terawatt-Hours per year — 0.55% of global electricity production, or roughly equivalent to the annual energy draw of small countries like Malaysia or Sweden.”  That would put current global crypto currency mining energy consumption at about 30th place among all nations in the world.  In the future, energy consumption for crypto currency mining is certain to increase, perhaps dramatically.  Is there an upper limit?

The current trend in tracked by Digiconomist with their Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, which provides the latest estimate of the total energy consumption of the Bitcoin network. The following chart is from their website here:  https://digiconomist.net/bitcoin-energy-consumption/

While the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station is fortunate to have a gained a new customer for their electric power, Exelon Generation reported in June 2021 that three of its Illinois nuclear power plants, Byron, Dresden, and Quad Cities, did not clear the PJM Interconnection capacity auction. This means that these Exelon nuclear plants have lost a customer for their future electric power generation. The issue is complex, but appears to be rooted in power auction rules that are, at least in part, inconsistent with the nation’s goal of reducing the overall carbon footprint of electric power generation. Exelon explained:

“Byron and Dresden, despite being efficient and reliable units, face revenue shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars because of declining energy prices and market rules that allow fossil fuel plants to underbid clean resources in the PJM Interconnection capacity auction.”

In mid-September 2021, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an energy bill (Senate Bill 2408) that included provisions for Exelon to receive the financial incentives it needed to keep the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants open.  Exelon subsequently confirmed that the plants will continue operating for at least six more years (thru 2027).

Exelon is not the only US nuclear power utility with this type of issue. Several more US nuclear power plants are at risk of retiring prematurely instead of seeking a license extension to operate for another 20 years generating zero-carbon electricity.  S&P Global Platts provides a good overview of the seriousness of the current situation in the following infographic:

Source: S&P Global Platts, 3 May 2021

Congress and the state governments need to act now to protect the nuclear power plants at high risk of premature closure, and ensure their continued operation as generators of zero-carbon electricity.

Perhaps the planned Talen Energy crypto currency mining venture points to an odd synergism between miners and nuclear power plant operators. Instead of retiring nuclear power plants that are struggling financially, it may make sense to the owners to build crypto mining facilities and reap the profits from crypto currency sales. Taken to its extreme, you can imagine a nuclear power plant diverting all of its zero-carbon electric power output to its own very profitable crypto mining facility. Just imagine how many Bitcoins could be generated by diverting all US nuclear power plant electricity generation (about 20% of total US electricity generation) to power crypto currency miners. 

Going back to my question “Is there an upper limit?,” I’m afraid only time will tell.  

For more information

Nuclear power plants at risk of closure

Bitcoin miner energy theft & adverse impacts on electrical grids

On the Threshold of a Dream

Peter Lobner, Updated 29 September 2021

That’s the title of my favorite Moody Blues album.  It’s also the current status of commercial civilian access to space.  

The leading contenders are Richard Branson, with his firm Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc., and Jeff Bezos, with his firm Blue Origin. 2021 is the year both firms plan to make their first commercial civilian sub-orbital flights with paying customers.  

On 25 June 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted approval of Virgin Galactic’s full commercial space-launch license.  The FAA also is reviewing Blue Origin’s commercial space-launch license application, and final approval is expected soon. For commercial spaceflight, the FAA’s primary regulatory role is to ensure that the spaceflight activity is not a hazard to the general public or other aviation activities. The FAA does not regulate the design and operating characteristics of the spacecraft, as it does for commercial aircraft.  Passengers flying on commercial spacecraft must acknowledge the risk by signing a waiver….and people are lining up and will be paying hefty sums to become civilian astronauts.

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic successfully completed its third manned test flight of the Spaceship II on 22 May 2021, with VSS Unity flying for the first time from New Mexico’s Spaceport America, which is located in the high desert near the small town of Truth-or-Consequences. I visited Spaceport America in 2015 when it was a complete but very quiet place, with only a Spaceship II mockup.  That has all changed in 2021 as Virgin Galactic completed its testing program and is now preparing for its first commercial flights.

Spaceship II  flight profile. Source: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship II being carried aloft by the White Knight Two mothership. Source: Virgin Galactic
Spaceship II, VSS Unity, being dropped from the White Knight Two to start its third manned test flight on 22 May 2021.  Source: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic will be flying its two Spaceship II vehicles, VSS Unity and VSS Enterprise, from its base at Spaceport America.  Virgin announced that the next sub-orbital flight is scheduled to occur on 11 July 2021 and Richard Branson is expected to be among the six people on board, all Virgin employees.

Virgin Galactic’s long-range plan is to operate 400 flights per year, per spaceport.   To achieve this goal, Virgin recently completed the first of its next generation Spaceship III vehicles, VSS Imagine, and has started manufacturing the next Spaceship III, VSS Inspire.

Introducing Spaceship III, VSS Imagine. Source, both photos: Virgin Galactic

You can read the latest news on Virgin Galactic’s commercial space program at the following link:  http://www.virgingalactic.com/

Also check out their Virgin Galactic Press Assets webpage, here: https://pressftp.virgingalactic.com/virgingalactic/press

Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft is named for US astronaut Alan Shepard, who made the first US sub-orbital flight on 5 May 1961 on the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission and became the second man in space (after Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin). To date, Blue Origin has made 15 consecutive unmanned launches with successful crew capsule landings, plus a successful pad escape test in 2012.

Contingent on receiving FAA license approval, Blue Origin announced that it has scheduled its first manned flight on 20 July 2021 from its west Texas launch facility near the town of Van Horn.  This is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The four passengers for the first New Shepard manned sub-orbital flight will be Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk (who is the last surviving member of NASA’s 13 female astronaut candidates for Project Mercury in the 1960s), and a fourth (as yet unnamed) passenger who won an auction by bidding $28 million for the last passenger seat.    That amount will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and help invent the future of life in space.

New Shepard flight profile.  Source: Blue Origin
A New Shepard launch.  Source: Blue Origin
A New Shepard launch vehicle makes an autonomous landing.  Source: Blue Origin
The crew capsule is recovered separately.  Source: Blue Origin

Blue Origin advertises, “This Seat Will Change How You See the World.”  I have no doubt that it will. Find out more by visiting the Blue Origin website at the following link: http://www.blueorigin.com

Update 3 Sep 2021: The threshold has been crossed

Congratulations to Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin for their first successful suborbital passenger flights.

On 11 July 2021, the Virgin Galactic flight named Unity 22 took off from Spaceport America with pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci and four passengers: Richard Branson, Beth Moses (Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor), Sirisha Bandla (VP of government affairs), and Colin Bennett (lead operations engineer). The flight reached a peak altitude of 282,000 feet (53.5 miles / 86.1 kilometers) and flew back for a landing on the runway at Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic says that it already has more than 600 reservations at a “ticket” price of $250,000 apiece.  Expensive?  Yes, but such a trip was impossible to do even a year ago.  Regular passenger flights are expected to start in 2022. What will the price for this type of trip into space be in a decade?  Probably still pretty expensive, but this is just a first step in democratizing space.

L-R: David (Mac) Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla & Mike (Sooch) Masucci. 
Source: Virgin Galactic

On 20 July 2021, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation issued an order revising their criteria for its FAA Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program.  SpaceNews reported: “According to the order, the FAA will award wings to commercial launch crew members who meet the requirements in federal regulations for crew qualifications and training, and fly on an FAA-licensed or permitted launch to an altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers). The order also requires those crew members to have demonstrated ‘activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.’ The last provision is new in the order.”  

Commercial Space Astronaut Wings previously were awarded to Dave Mackay, Mike Masucci and Beth Moses for their roles as crew during flight testing of Spaceship II. The first commercial astronaut wings were awarded in 2004 to Virgin Galactic pilots for Spaceship I, Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie.

The FAA approved Blue Origin’s flight on 12 July, one week before the 20 July 2021 launch date.  The autonomous New Shepard vehicle does not have a pilot or crew.  The 20 July flight carried four passengers: company founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, former astronaut candidate Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen. The flight reached a maximum altitude of 351,000 ft (66.5 miles / 107 kilometers), above the Kármán Line at 62 miles / 100 kilometers above mean sea level. None will likely meet the updated FAA criteria for commercial astronaut wings.

L-R: Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos & Wally Funk.
Source: Blue Origin
The Blue Origin suborbital flight passengers in front of the New Shepard rocket that launched them into space and returned separately for a soft landing. Source: GeekWire / Alan Boyle

I’m looking forward to a day when suborbital flights are commonplace and orbital tourism is becoming a reality.  This day is not far away.

Update 29 Sep 2021: Virgin Galactic cleared to resume flights

Virgin Galactic reported: “The FAA today advised Virgin Galactic that the corrective actions proposed by the Company have been accepted and conclude the FAA inquiry, which began August 11, 2021. They include:

  • Updated calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights. Designating a larger area will ensure that Virgin Galactic has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions.
  • Additional steps into the Company’s flight procedures to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.”

Best wishes to Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin as they continue to develop their paths for private access to space.

For more information

Las Vegas Made a Good Bet on the Third Straw

Peter Lobner

Las Vegas relies on Lake Mead for 90% of its water needs. Currently, water from Lake Mead can be supplied to Las Vegas by three intakes at different levels in the lake.  The newest, and deepest, is known as the “third straw” intake (IPS-3), which taps into the lake at 860 feet above sea level. That’s 190 feet below the highest existing intake, IPS-1, at 1,050 feet.

The operation of this three-intake system is explained in Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) short video, “How does the SNWA’s Low Lake Level Pumping Station protect our drinking water supply?” at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDDuid6XJnw&t=39s

You’ll find Lake Mead current water level and historical water level data here:  http://mead.uslakes.info/level.asp

On 18 June 2021, the lake level was 1,070.43 feet MSL at 5:00 PM.  This is 158.57 feet below the “full pool” level of 1,229.00 feet and is only 20.43 feet above the highest (IPS-1) intake.

Source: http://mead.uslakes.info/level.asp

On 10 June 2021, Lake Mead water level was 1,071.51 at 7:00 AM and was about 36% full.  The lake had not been this low since July 2016.  Using just the 10 June and 18 June data points, lake water level currently is decreasing at about 1.5 inches per day.

Runoff from the Rocky Mountain snowpack is essentially over this year, so water level is expected to continue declining until the start of the next rainy season in November.

The first-ever official federal water shortage declaration is expected in August 2021, when the Bureau of Reclamation issues its regularly scheduled long-term water level projection.  A Level 1 declaration would be implemented in January 2022 under agreements negotiated with seven states that rely on Colorado River water: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Water from the Colorado River serves 40 million people in these states and Mexico.

Let’s pray for a lot of wet weather in the US southwest.

For more information

What Do a Tidal Turbine and an Airship Have in Common?

Peter Lobner

Orbital Marine Power (https://orbitalmarine.com) is developing a large, moored tidal turbine, the O2, which they claim is the most powerful tidal turbine in the world. The O2 soon will be deployed at sea off the Orkney Islands, northeast of Scotland. 

Rendering of the O2 tidal turbine. Source: Orbital Marine Power
Side view of the O2 tidal turbine. Source: Orbital Marine Power

Key features of the O2 tidal turbine are:

  • 74 meter (243 ft) tubular steel hull with fore and aft mooring connections.
  • Hydraulically-actuated steel legs extending from the hull support the generator nacelles and rotors that are deployed underwater after the hull has been moored using a four-point mooring system.
  • Two 20 meter (65.6 ft) diameter, 2-bladed rotors give the O2 more than 600 m2 (6,458 ft2) of swept area to capture flowing tidal energy.
  • Blade pitch control enables bi-directional operation of the turbines with the hull in a fixed moored position (the hull doesn’t swing with the tide).
  • Each rotor drives a 1 MWe generator housed in the nacelle.
  • Power is delivered to shore by a submarine cable.

Here are three short videos that will give you a quick introduction to this remarkable machine:

O2 tidal turbine being moved in the shipyard in March 2021, prior to launch. The rotors are not yet attached to the nacelles. Source: Orbital Marine Power video screenshot
O2 with the rotors attached in the water, under tow. Source: Orbital Marine Power

If the O2 demonstration proves to be successful, Orbital Marine Power plans to develop and deploy larger tidal turbines in the future.

So, what does the O2 tidal turbine have in common with an airship?  The Aeromodeller II airship design developed by Belgian engineer Lieven Standaert implements an airborne mooring as a means to generate power using two wind turbines while remaining aloft.

Ground anchor enables propellers to function as wind turbines for power generation while tethered.
Source: Inhabit.com
Rendering of Aeromodeller II shown tethered. Source: www.aeromodeller2.be

Both the O2 tidal turbine and the Aeromodeller II airship are buoyant vehicles in their respective media (water and air, respectively) and both are designed to extract power from that medium while moored (or tethered).  Important differences are that the O2 tidal turbine is permanently moored and supplies power to users on land.  The Aeromodeller II drops its anchor periodically to recharge its own power system while tethered and then raises its anchor to continue its journey. You’ll find more information on the Aeromodeller II airship in my separate article here:  https://secureservercdn.net/198.71.233.183/gkz.aeb.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Aeromodeller-2-converted1.pdf

The Bloodhound LSR Car is Biding its Time While on Display at the Coventry Transport Museum

Peter Lobner

I’ve reported previously on the Bloodhound LSR (land speed record) car in 2015, 2017, and lastly in 2019 when driver Andy Green made a series of high-speed test runs on the Hakskeen Pan in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. On 17 November 2019, he achieved a top speed run at 628 mph (1,010 kph). The primary goal of the 2019 test campaign was to validate vehicle design and operation during high-speed runs up to 621 mph (1,000 kph).  To that, the team responded, “Mission accomplished.” You can read my post on the Bloodhound LSR’s 2019 campaign here:  http://lynceans.org/all-posts/land-speed-record-lows-and-highs-in-2019/

The 2019 test runs also were intended to provide an opportunity to fine-tune Bloodhound LSR before attempting a world land speed record run in 2020.  However, lack of funds in 2020 deferred installing the Nammo rocket engine needed for the land speed record attempt.  The worldwide COVID pandemic further intervened, cancelling a record attempt in 2020 and 2021.

The owner, Ian Warhurst, who had previously rescued the Bloodhound LSR from insolvency and then funded the 2019 high-speed tests, put the vehicle up for sale in January 2021.  On 17 May 2021, the Bloodhound LSR team and the Coventry Transport Museum in Coventry, UK, announced the Bloodhound LSR jet car had moved into a new home in the museum where it is now on public display as part of the Biffa Award Land Speed Record Exhibition.

The Bloodhound LSR team reported, “….the sponsorship team are busy raising the funding required to attempt a new world land speed record, with a speed above 800mph. Once the required funding and investment has been raised, Bloodhound will leave the museum and be prepared for the record-breaking campaign.”

Bloodhound LSR on display at the Coventry Transport Museum
Source: Bloodhound LSR

In the Biffa Award Land Speed Record Exhibition at the Coventry Transport Museum, Bloodhound LSR joins two UK world land speed record holders: Thrust2 and ThrustSSC.

On 4 October 1983, Richard Noble drove the Thrust2 to a world land speed record two-way average speed of 633.468 mph (1,019.468 kph) in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA.

Thrust2 on display at the Coventry Transport Museum.
Source: AJB83 at English Wikipedia

On 15 October 1997, Andy Green drove the ThrustSSC to a new land speed record and broke the sound barrier with a speed of 763mph (Mach 1.020, 1,228 kph) in the Black Rock Desert. This occurred 50 years after Captain “Chuck” Yeager, flying the Bell X-1 rocket-powered aircraft, made the first supersonic flight on 14 October 1947.

ThrustSSC on display at the Coventry Transport Museum
Source: CTM via Vauxford (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Now would be a good time to visit the Coventry Transport Museum (https://www.transport-museum.com).