Saturday, April 27, 2013

Post # 82: The Hoax of Higher Education

Got your attention?

There was a fascinating article in today's Wall Street Journal entitled, "The Diploma's Vanishing Value," by Jeffrey Selingo.  The article details the fact that many two-year, Associate Degree individuals are beginning their professional careers with salary levels higher than many four-year college graduates.  For instance, in my home state of Tennessee, the article points out that "the average first-year salaries of graduates with a two-year degree are $1000 higher than those with a Bachelor's Degree."

The article goes on to say, "Technical degree holders from the state's community colleges often earn more their first year out than those who studied the same field (my emphasis) at a four-year college."  As an example, the article cites data for graduates in health professions from Dyersburg State Community College.  Turns out, "They not only finish two years earlier than their counterparts at the University of Tennessee, but they also earn $5,300 more, on average, in their first year after graduating."

The phenomenon is not, of course, limited to my home state.  Mr. Selingo also relates that in Virgina, graduates with two-year technical degrees from community colleges make $20,000 more in the first year after college than do many Bachelor's Degree graduates from the state's four-year colleges. (Those of you who wish to know more about this phenomenon can go to for access to a cache of raw data.)


I grew up in a world where "higher education" was the key to a better life at a time when there were no two-year community or technical colleges.  I worked my way through seven years of college (with the help of a scholarship or two, a 30 hour a week job when I was a freshman, a wonderful Cooperative Engineering (Co-op) program, and a graduate research grant.  As the cost of "higher education" has skyrocketed in recent years, it has become more and more difficult for a young person to replicate my college experience.

I know of a situation in which a young person recently graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in economics from one our nation's premier universities.  Despite working for "spending money" through all four years of undergraduate study, this young person graduated with over $100,000 in educational loan debt.  Think about that!  What can you do with a Bachelor's Degree in economics that will realistically allow you to pay-off $100,000 in loan debt before you are 40 years old?  I maintain that the educational system failed that young person. 

This is the little "dirty secret" of higher education:  Society does not reward many, many "professions" and fields of study.  It's absolutely wonderful (from the standpoint of personal satisfaction) if one wishes to pursue an undergraduate degree in some field of little commercial value – but we have an obligation to our youth to help them make informed decisions about such things.  And we aren't doing it.

Some hard truths:
  • A four-year college isn't right for everyone
  • A 4-year Bachelor's Degree in many fields does NOT guarantee a financially-secure future
  • Speaking strictly in economic terms, many college degrees aren't worth their cost
  • Our nation desperately needs health technicians, physical therapists, radiological protection technicians, instrument technicians, auto mechanics, plumbers, etc., etc., etc., – and one can make a good living in these careers.
How does this relate to energy and society?

Knowledge discovery and innovation often occurs within the hallowed halls of research institutions, national laboratories, and academia.  But SOCIETAL IMPACT only occurs when this knowledge and innovation is converted to hardware installed in the field.  I'm speaking of power plants, electrical distribution networks, hospitals, telecommunications networks, and so forth.  This impact cannot occur without an army of skilled and passionate professionals – many of whom will be trained in our two-year technical colleges and community colleagues.  And many of whom will go on in life to be entrepreneurs who start their own businesses.  When it comes to education, we need it all... Ph.D, Master's Degrees (the degree I still consider to be the ideal "do it all" degree), Bachelor's Degrees, and Associate Degrees – to get the job done!  And the common thread? STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

So, "hats off" to our nation's two-year colleges and to those who are increasingly seeing them as a pathway to the future.   These intrepid souls are proving that "grey collars" often lead to "greenbacks" (as in $$$$$).

Just Thinking...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Post # 81: The Rediscovery Of Fire – Dusting Off "Old Technologies"

I've been thinking recently about the role of scientific and technical knowledge retention and transfer in an increasingly complex and fast-paced world.

My thinking was catalyzed by a chorus of recent news releases and internet postings heralding the "new discovery" by someone that molten salt reactors (MSRs) can transform the world by providing cheap electricity, utilizing thorium, burning plutonium, and destroying actinides and radioactive waste.  Without addressing the technical validity of these assertions, let me say I find this "discovery" or more accurately "re-discovery" phenomenon fascinating from the standpoint of knowledge retention and inter-generational knowledge transfer (or lack thereof).  I wonder how many times through the ages fire has been "discovered"?

One of the reasons the molten salt reactor example is so interesting is that virtually all of the asserted benefits of of molten salt reactors were originally cited in the mid-to-late-1950's (when I was a toddler...) In fact, Briant and Weinberg asserted most of the benefits (including the ability to run on uranium, thorium, and plutonium fuel cycles) in their 1957 paper in Nuclear Engineering and Design.  Subsequently, these attributes have been explored on a cyclical basis by a variety of domestic and international entities and collaborations, with the last real flurry of interest in the MSR coming a decade or more ago when there was renewed interest in the potential use of MSRs for radioactive waste transmutation.  But enough about MSRs.  They are simply the example that triggered this stream of consciousness.

Now back to knowledge retention and transfer...

Throughout my 30+ years in the energy R&D field, I've observed that the "dusting-off" of, or "re-look" at "old technologies" and technical approaches is generally wise whenever one or more of Three Criteria are met:

(1) A scientific & technical discovery has been made (such as the understanding of a fundamental phenomenon) that provides a critical insight previously unknown;

(2) Changes and evolution in base or enabling technology (such as a new material) enables one to do things not previously possible;

(3) Externalities (such as constraints, perceived need & urgency, societal / cultural values, changes in competing technology acceptability, etc.) shift or change in a manner that potentially improves the perceived risk/reward math for the "old technology".

Put differently, "old technologies" tend to be (or perhaps should be) revisited when their: (1) technical feasibility, (2) economic viability, or (3) environmental acceptability RELATIVE TO COMPETING TECHNOLOGIES change.

Just as the biosphere is a preserve or "library" of "solutions to problems" (perhaps to problems or challenges we don't even know we face), our knowledge base of "old technologies" is a library of potential solutions to problems (current and future).  But what happens when the "library" is lost?  (After all, who knows what was lost when the Library of Alexandria burned?)

I can't help but recall a situation at ORNL some twenty years ago when I inherited the last remaining "gold files" (three file cabinets) of Art (Arthur P.) Fraas an internationally known energy technology engineer who retired from Oak Ridge in 1976 and passed away in 2011 at the ripe old age of 95.  Art was an engineer's engineer – a remarkably gifted and versatile individual.  Among other things, he was known in the 1950s-1970s as one of the most innovative engineers at work in the development of both advanced terrestrial and space power reactor concepts.  When Art retired in 1976, he transferred what he considered to be his most important personal files, notes, and log books to another engineer, who, in turn, left them in the safe keeping of "management" when he retired. Some time afterwards I was made aware of the files and was asked if I wished to preserve them.  Having been told these were "Art's files", I rushed down to the basement of the old Y-12 calutron building where they were being stored (one of the buildings where the uranium for the "Little Boy" atomic bomb of World War II was enriched).  With great anticipation I approached the first file cabinet and opened the drawer.  It was empty.  I open a second drawer.  Nothing but dust.  A third drawer creaked as I pulled it open and surprised some cockroaches.  And so on with the other two cabinets.  It turns out that, with the exception of two binders of old photographs, all of Arts files had been tossed out about a week earlier in an effort to clear the area of "debris and refuse".   I can't tell you how many times over the past twenty years I wondered what was lost.  I could relate other similar stories.   I guess someday someone with "discover" what we tossed out - or not.

We live in a "throw away" society.  And the good news?  History teaches us that, given enough time, mankind tends to "rediscover" that which has been lost – or at least fragments of what has been lost.  The internet is making it possible to preserve more and more of our society's knowledge legacy. But rather than simply stumbling upon a rediscovery, wouldn't it be wonderful if our "search" capabilities enabled us to stitch together knowledge bases, filtered through the Three Criteria I cited above, to provide society a deliberate and structured approach to re-examining or "mining" historical knowledge and technology bases?  Now that would be a "search engine" for the ages!

Just Thinking,

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Post # 80: A SmAHTR Approach To Nuclear Energy?

A couple of years before I left ORNL (in Sept. 2011), I had the privilege of assembling a small team of very bright engineers to tackle an idea I had for a small, high- to very-high temperature nuclear reactor system that would lend itself to distributed generation of process heat and electricity.  The reactor was to be usable both in single-unit applications and in clusters (much like NuScale and mPower small modular light water reactors) to meet higher energy demands.  The concept was to integrate the best features, technologies, and system architecture elements from ORNL's historic Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) and Molten Salt Breeder Reactor (MSBR) concept, gas-cooled reactor graphite fuel technology, ORNL's (then) recent Advanced High Temperature Reactor (AHTR) fluoride salt-cooled reactor concept, and system topology features from integral fast-spectrum liquid-metal cooled reactors. 

Working with a multidisciplinary team of engineers, and with very limited (internal laboratory) funding, our team created a new concept we called SmAHTR (for Small modular Advanced High Temperature Reactors).  SmAHTR can be described as an Integral Salt-Cooled Reactor (iSCR).  Though we did not know it when we first began work on the SmAHTR concept, we subsequently learned our Russian colleagues at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow had developed and published in 2002 a concept for a very small, < 20 MWt, integral, liquid salt-cooled concept they called MARS.  SmAHTR and MARS share some design similarities but have some significant design differences as well. 

The basic design requirements for SmAHTR were: 125 MWt power, ~700 ºC core outlet temperature, and an integral system topology (no coolant loops).  Additionally, the reactor had to be transportable over public roads with common heavy-transport multi-axle semi-tractor-trailors. The system also had to be extremely safe and easily refueled and maintained.  The inherent safety attributes of the system are a result of its very low (~ atmospheric) operating pressure, forgiving nuclear dynamics, large thermal margins, and the use of a coolant that doesn't chemically react with air or water in highly energetic modes.

 The Small modular Advanced High Temperature Reactor (SmAHTR)

The driving force for SmAHTR was our belief that high-temperature salt-cooled reactors would offer superior economics to gas-cooled reactors; would open new doors to nuclear process heat applications; and could be more quickly developed, demonstrated, and licensed that fluid-fueled molten salt reactors (MSRs).  SmAHTR's operating temperature would be limited by current structural material considerations to 700 ºC (probably a little lower in initial implementations), but the basic concept could evolve to much higher temperatures when and if superior compatible structural materials are developed (a long-term proposition).  Fluoride salt-cooled reactors share many materials and component technologies with molten salt reactors.  Thus, in addition to providing a potentially-game changing nuclear energy system, successful development of SmAHTR would resolve many of the technological challenges faced by MSRs as well.  (Those of you who are interested can access the SmAHTR pre-conceptual design report, ORNL/TM-2010/199, here.)

Incidentally... building and working with high performing, innovative teams was one of the activities I enjoyed most during my years at ORNL.  My experience with the SmAHTR team was a particular joy.  Ever team member contributed to the concept.  For instance, Jess Gehin suggested the idea of adapting the old MSBR plate-type moderator assembly for use as a graphite fuel element.  Venu Varma engineered the innovative "bayonet loading" concept we adopted to provide quick access to the various components that load through the top of the reactor.  I could go on...  It's a real thrill to build a great team and be part of its workings...

The Department of Energy and ORNL have done little to move the needle on the SmAHTR concept since I left ORNL.  However, ORNL, with funding from the Department of Energy, has moved forward to integrate some of the best features of SmATHR into the large gigawatt-class AHTR concept, and to continue some critical fluoride salt-cooled reactor technology development.  Time will tell whether someone sees sufficient merit in SmAHTR to further mature the concept.

However, others are building upon the approaches we pioneered with SmAHTR.  I understand Dr. Per Peterson and his team at UC Berkeley are investigating integral versions of their pebble-bed salt cooled reactor concept (which is larger than SmAHTR and originally employed coolant loops).  And just this week, I learned my colleague Dr. David LeBlanc has gone "back to the future" with our SmAHTR concepts to create an interesting small Integral Molten Salt Reactor (iMSR) concept.  The concept (actually two concepts – a 650 MWt and a 60 MWt "ultra-small" version) are discussed in an April 12 posting on the Weinberg Foundation's website.  While retaining many of the general system architectural and component features we specified in SmAHTR, David has discarded SmAHTR's solid graphite fuel and reverted to a liquid fluoride salt fuel.  Since I haven't seen any design details at this point, I'm withholding judgement regarding the engineering viability of the concept.  But from the overall philosophical perspective, David's concept appears to be the most innovative and fresh MSR approach I've seen since the heyday of MSR development in the 1960's and early 1970's.

Both MSRs and salt-cooled reactors (integral or otherwise) face many, many challenges in moving from a pre-conceptual design to an actual prototype system.  But some very bright and passionate folks are expending considerable energy in that direction.

Sometimes it's enjoyable to consider "the road not taken" in nuclear energy.  Alvin Weinberg would be smiling...

Note to cynics:  Everyone in the nuclear energy business is familiar with Admiral Rickover's famous comment about "paper reactors".  Though obviously founded in truth, in my view, far too many have too often used his comments as the "nuclear option" to stymie any serious discussion of real innovation in the nuclear energy field.  So please spare me the comments about paper reactors... Believe me, I know the prospects of developing a new reactor concept in today's environment are remote.  And the prospects of developing a high-temperature fluoride salt-fueled or -cooled system are further impeded BOTH by overly pessimistic AND overly optimistic urban myths and legends from the MSRE days.  I don't own or wear "rose-colored glasses".  The first iSCR or iMSR won't come easily, quickly, or cheaply.  But the payoff could be significant if the challenges can be successfully overcome.

Just Thinking...