Investing in Thorium
Thorium is identified in the periodic table as element number 90 and uses the symbol Th. This is a naturally occurring metal that is three to four times as common as uranium. It isn't as radioactive as uranium, and in molten-salt reactors demonstrates the ability to breed from thorium to uranium.
According to Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia, a ton of thorium has the ability o produce the same amount of energy as 200 tons of uranium. Combine the fact that this metal is far more common that uranium, and burns more efficiently, this is a metal to keep an eye on.
Thorium in History
Thorium was first identified in a black mineral deposit in Norway in 1828. While it had been identified as a unique element, no one had any use for it until the invention of the glass mantle in 1881.
It wasn't until 1890 that Carl Auer von Welsbach discovered that if he soaked cotton mesh in a solution of 99% thorium oxide and 1% cerium dioxide the mantle would burn with a pure white light once the cotton was burned out of the mantle. The light generated by the mantle was very pleasing to consumers. The mantle was also stronger than his previous formula that used magnesium oxide.
He introduced the mantle in 1892, and gas lighting using the Welsbach mantle became the norm for lighting until electricity began to usurp it's place in the 1900s. Welsbach's gas mantle was a major contributor to the fires that devastated San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The city had gas lighting in all the upscale homes.
It wasn't until 1898, that Thorium's radioactivity was observed. Study of this element played a key role in developing the disintegration theory of radioactivity.
In 1925, Anton Eduard van Arkel and Jan Hendrik de Boer discovered a process where metallic thorium, along with other metals such as zirconium and titanium could be purified into the pure metal form. The process is known as the crystal bar process or iodide process.
Thorium was a component in the vacuum tubes seen in old radios and televisions. Thoriated tungsten electrodes were at the heart of many a vacuum tube.
Thorium dioxide became known for its ability to increase the speed at which light can travel through glass. It also reduces the prism effect (the splitting of visible light into a rainbow). This made thorium glass popular for high-quality camera lenses, top of the line binoculars and scientific instruments where superior light transmission was important. The only problem was the radioactivity. Over time, the glass would turn yellow from the thorium radioactive decay.
It was discovered that magnesium-thorium alloys created lightweight, strong metals. This lead to its used in the aerospace industry. Between 1973 and 1983, 4000 to 5000 kg of thorium oxide was used to create allows for the aerospace industry. By 1991, use had dropped to only 500 kg per year and by 1993 to 100 kg per year. Concerns about handling the metal because of its radioactive content and disposal seem to be behind the fall out of favor.
Current Sources of Thorium
Thorium is present in most rocks and soil, though usually in only trace amounts. It is found in the greatest amounts in the mineral monazite (23%). For years, thorium has been a byproduct of processing monazite for the other metals present - titanium and zirconium.
Thorium can also be found in thorite (ThSiO4). A large vein of this mineral is known to exist in between Idaho and Montana.
There are significant deposits of thorium in Australia (19%), the United States (15%), Turkey (13%), India 12%), Venezuela (12%), Brazil (12%), and Norway (5%).
How Thorium is Being Used Today
Thorium is included in certain magnesium alloys because it imparts high strength and creep resistance when temperatures rise. This is an especially useful property in aircraft engines. It has also been used to build missiles, such as the CIM-10 Bomarc.
Thorium is also used in gas tungsten arc welding as the alloying agent. Thorium's higher melting point improves the stability of the arc created when using tungsten electrodes. EWTH-1 contains only 1% thorium, while the EWTH-2 contains 2% thorium.
Thorium is also used as a coating on tungsten wire to improve the electron emission of heated cathodes. You see this effect in incandescent light bulbs.
Thorium dioxide is known for its ability to increase the speed at which light can travel through glass. It also reduces the prism effect (the splitting of visible light into a rainbow). This makes thorium glass popular for high-quality camera lenses, top of the line binoculars and scientific instruments where superior light transmission is important.
India has been at the leading edge of major research projects on using thorium as a nuclear power source. An American company, Thorium Power/Lightbridge Corporation is working with Russian scientists to bring the Radkowsky Thorium Reactor on line. China has expressed its interest in developing Thorium burning Candu reactors in Qinshan. Norway is also considering meeting its energy needs by pursuing thorium nuclear energy power production.
Economic Value of Thorium
At present, there are no official stockpiles of thorium. It has until now been considered a waste product with little value. Initial research 40 years ago, showed the promise of this radioactive mineral, but for political reasons preference for the development of uranium technologies took precedence over thorium research.
This is changing as the technology to start the nuclear reaction in thorium is becoming better understood. The primary advantage of thorium is the fact that almost the entire metal has the potential to be spent in a nuclear reaction, versus the 0.7% potential of natural uranium in today's thermal reactors. This means that the possibility exists for far less nuclear waste to dispose of.
There are a number of attractive features to developing thorium-based nuclear fuels. 1) It is an abundant resource available in many countries. 2) It produces power without as many long-lived transuranic elements as part of the waste. 3) It generally reduces the amount of radioactive wastes produced from generating power.
There are some problems which still need to be overcome.
- Fabricating the fuel will involve higher costs initially as Uranium-233 must be separated from the thorium fuel.
- Recycling the thorium which is left will be costly (as is the recycling of all nuclear wastes), as it is highly radioactive.
- Concerns for weapons proliferation if U-233 can be extracted must be addressed (the Radkowsky Thorium Reactor addresses this issue).
- Concern about reprocessing solid fuels is another issue with some reactor designs (the molten salt reactor addresses this issue).
Current values are as high as $5,000/kg. because demand for the refined metal is very low. Projections are that thorium prices will drop to as low as $10/kg. once thorium reactors move into production. Then prices will rise as demand grows.
How to Invest in Thorium
The easiest way to invest in thorium is to invest in nuclear energy, but most specifically in those companies that are building Candu reactors or Radkowsky Thorium Reactors or actively working on the development of thorium fuel cycles. As you do this, keep two factors in mind.
- Consider an investment in thorium a higher risk investment, as the technology behind thorium reactors is still developing. At the same time, to not diversify some of your investments into this area is to overlook a potential source of serious profits. Take what is called a small position, allocating the portion of your portfolio you can afford to risk loss on.
- Consider an investment in thorium a long-term investment.
Future demand for Thorium
There are a number of attractive features to developing thorium-based nuclear fuels.
- It is an abundant resource available in many countries.
- It produces power without as many long-lived transuranic elements as part of the waste.
- It generally reduces the amount of radioactive wastes produced from generating power.
While current demand for thorium is low, the anticipated shortage of uranium, and its problems are expected to drive demand for thorium in the future. The ability to thorium to combine with spent fuel and extract more energy from it is going to drive the value of this nuclear metal up.
How to Locate Stock to Invest In Thorium
Currently thorium production has not been a priority for any mining company. It has been a waste product of other mining operations. Consider investing in mines that focus on rare earth minerals, as these operations may turn to their stockpiles of thorium by-product as a source of additional revenue as demand develops.
Lightbridge is the only nuclear power development company that is listed on the stock exchange that is actively pursuing thorium as the primary fuel for its nuclear development program.
Aurizon Mines Ltd (AMEX: AZK)
Consolidated Abaddon Resources Inc (TSXV: ABN)
Eagle Plains Resources Ltd (TSX: EPL)
Thorium Power/Lightbridge (NASDAQ:LTBR)
Thorium Quick Facts
- » The Aladdin Lamp, famous for its bright almost incandescent light, used a mantle made of thorium oxide.
- » Uranium-thorium age dating is used to date the fossils of hominids.
- » Despite the fact that it is radioactive itself, thorium is a very effective radiation shield.
- » When thorium dioxide is added to ceramics, it makes them heat resistant.
- » Scientists suggest that it is the radioactive breakdown of uranium and thorium that heats the interior of the Earth.
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