A Worthy Alternative: Extraction of Thorium from Monazite Sands; A Quicker Transition: Distributed Power Generation and the United State Electric Grid

Winter, Anna, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Foley, Rider, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Anderson, Eric, EN-Chem Engr Dept, University of Virginia

The method of combusting fossil fuels to generate electricity, thereby releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, is actively causing environmental harm at an alarming rate. Successfully transitioning energy generation away from fossil fuel combustion to methods such as nuclear, wind and solar would allow for energy demand to be met while also not furthering the effects of climate change. The technical capstone and sociotechnical thesis included in this portfolio address potential changes to United States’ energy generation that could aid in decarbonization. The technical capstone details a process for extracting and purifying thorium from monazite sands to form thorium oxide. Thorium could serve as viable alternative to uranium in nuclear reactors with the added benefit of being more abundant and posing fewer security and toxic waste concerns. The sociotechnical thesis addresses the deployment of distributed, sustainable energy generation including small nuclear reactors, solar, and wind energy generation.
Energy generation is an integral part of our society, and as such we need to consider factors beyond just the technical when making changes to the grid. While the changes we implement may be for specific reasons, such as less environmental impact, they will also influence economic, political, and social factors. For example, more complex technology may mean higher prices for consumers and producers, or stringent regulation may result in less innovation. There are several interconnected parts of a technological system such as the electric grid. Frameworks such as technological momentum allow us to analyze how the system is influenced by its stakeholders, and how stakeholders are influenced by the system.
The ability for economic, social, political, and technological factors to promote or inhibit the addition of distributed energy generation to the grid will be determined through the thematic analysis of several secondary sources and interviews with professionals in the energy generation field. Using these methods, this thesis proves that while technological and economic factors must definitely be considered when implementing change to the electric grid, the coordination between producers, governments, and the public will determine to what extent distributed generation will be adopted.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Chemical Engineering, Thorium, Distributed Energy, Technological Momentum, Sustainable Energy

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Eric Anderson
STS Advisor: Rider Foley
Technical Team Members: Benjamin Newhouse, Samuel Ong, Peter Sepulveda, Karl Westendorff

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