Tuesday 22 November 2011

Low-level radiation in Europe still a mystery-IAEA

Nov 16, 2011

Nov 16 (Reuters)-The source of low levels of radioactive iodine-131 detected in several European countries over the past few weeks is still unclear, the UN nuclear agency said on Wednesday. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) first announced on Friday that traces had been detected in Europe, after it was tipped off by authorities in the Czech Republic. The IAEA has said the traces should not pose a public health risk and that it does not think the particles are from Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant after its emergency in March.

But the origin of the particles remains a mystery. The IAEA said it was working with countries to seek out the source. "Authorities from the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Germany, Sweden, France and Poland have continued to measure very low levels of iodine-131 in their respective atmospheres in recent days", the IAEA said in a statement. "The levels of iodine-131 currently being detected are extremely low".

It said that if a person were to breathe in the levels for a whole year, they would receive an annual radiation dose of less than 0.1 microsieverts. In comparison, average annual background radiation is 2,400 microsieverts a year, it said. Iodine-131, linked to cancer if found in high doses, can contaminate products such as milk and vegetables. Experts have said the origin of the radiation, which has been spreading for nearly three weeks, could come from many possible sources ranging from medical laboratories or hospitals, to nuclear submarines.

France's agency for radioprotection and nuclear safety (IRSN) said on Thursday the levels likely originate from central or eastern Europe. Didier Champion, head of environment and intervention at IRSN, said the possible origin could be the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Russia or Ukraine. Austria, which borders several of the eastern countries, could also be a possibility, he said. Austrian authorities say they have ruled out their country as the origin and have suggested that the source is a country to its east or south east.

IRSN is carrying out calculations to track down the trajectory of air masses to identify the origin of the leak. "We should have an answer by the middle of next week", Champion said, ruling out the suggestion that the leak could be from a nuclear power plant. "If it came from a reactor we would find other elements in the air", he said, adding one hypothesis the agency was working on was the possibility the leak came from the pharmaceutical industry.

Iodine-131 is a short-lived radioisotope that has a radioactive decay half-life of about eight days. The Czech Republic's nuclear security watchdog has said it alerted the IAEA after detecting the radiation, which it thought was coming from abroad but not from a nuclear power plant. It suggested it may be from production of radiopharmaceuticals.

South Africa’s first local wind turbine manufacturer to create hundreds of green jobs

13 Nov 2011

With COP17 around the corner, the debate around green versus carbon energy is heating up. Some say that if the South African government would genuinely commit to renewable energy, it could kill two birds with one stone: curbing our nation's carbon footprint and paving the way for thousands of new, sustainable jobs. Various research reports over time have shown that the renewable energy industry has massive job creation potential, especially in developing countries.

A good example is the South African Energy Sector Jobs in 2030, published by Greenpeace Africa late last year. According to the researchers, 78,000 permanent and full-time jobs could be created in the next 20 years if renewable energy such as solar and wind becomes more mainstream. Focusing on carbon, including coal fired power plants, would see the creation of only 46.000 jobs. If green energy equipment such as wind turbines and solar panels were manufactured in SA instead of being imported from China and the EU, the number of employment opportunities would climb to 111,700.

Thomas Schaal, founder of SA's first wind turbine manufacturer, agrees with the findings above and is determined to put them into practice. While Isivunguvungu Wind Energy Converter (I-WEC) opened shop only last month and is employing just over two-dozen permanent staff, the number of workers is expected to increase by 700% in the next five years. In the process, the company expects to create hundreds of indirect jobs.

"At the moment we have 30 employees, including engineers, electricians, mechanics, and admin staff", Schaal explained. "In the meantime, we have created about 60 indirect jobs. According to our research, we could create two indirect jobs for every direct employment opportunity, for instance on our suppliers' side". "In the next five years, we aim to create between 300 and 400 full-time direct jobs, as well as 900 to 1,200 indirect employment opportunities", Schaal continued.

These predictions are based on the company's production forecast. While this year's production stands at just one 2.5 MW turbine, I-WEC is expected to manufacture five units next year. "After that, we will increase production to 50 units in 2013, 100 in 2014 and hopefully 200 in 2015", Schaal explained, stressing that 60% to 70% of the wind turbine components will be manufactured or sourced locally. "We are the first company to do so in SA, beating the big players like Siemens and Vestas who are importing their turbines", he noted.

One of the factors that could make or break I-WEC's job creation potential is the extent of the local demand for wind turbines. That is where the government should come in, Schaal said: "Apart from an environmental aspect, the South African government should push the green energy sector because it is labour intensive and has the potential to create thousands of much-needed jobs". He added that he could export the turbines to other parts of Africa: "While we initially want to focus on the South African market, our license allows us to export to other countries too".

I-WEC currently operates from a workshop in Cape Town's harbour, but plans to move to Saldanha sometime next year. "We have procured a piece of land there", Schaal explained. "The reason for moving is that we will have more space in Saldanha. Our turbines are 80 meters tall, and the blades are 50 meters long. We need space", he continued. "In addition, it makes sense to move to the west coast, it is after all this region that has been identified as a wind power hot spot".

Startup to capture lithium from geothermal plants

16 Nov 2011

As portable electronics get more popular and the market for electric vehicles takes off, demand for lithium--a critical element in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries--could soar. Yet just two countries, Chile and Australia, dominate global lithium production. California startup Simbol Materials thinks it can increase domestic production of lithium by extracting the element, along with manganese and zinc, from the brine used by geothermal plants.

In the late 1990s, the US produced 75% of the world's lithium carbonate, but now it makes only 5%. This is, in part, because US manufacturers couldn't compete with low-cost lithium chemicals from Chile. The US produces no manganese at all. "Yet we have this resource, already being harnessed for geothermal power production", says Luka Erceg, Simbol's CEO. "This is an enormous opportunity to harvest clean renewable energy and produce critical materials in a sustainable manner".

Worldwide demand for lithium chemicals was about 102,000 tons in 2010. This is expected to go up to as much as 320,000 by 2020, mostly because of increased electric-vehicle use. The world's largest lithium resources are estimated by the US Geological Survey to be in Bolivia. Most manufacturers, including the world's largest, in Chile, typically make the material by pumping brine into pools to evaporate in the sun for 18 to 24 months. This process leaves behind a concentrated lithium chloride that's converted into lithium carbonate. The only US producer, Chemetall Foote, drills for brine at Silver Peak in Nevada.

Simbol plans to piggyback on a 50 MW geothermal plant near the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley, California, that pumps hot brine from deep underground to generate steam to drive a turbine. The plant currently injects the brine, which contains 30% dissolved solids, including lithium, manganese, and zinc, back into the ground after the steam is produced. Simbol will divert the brine from the power plant, before reinjection, into its processing equipment. There, the still-warm brine will flow through a proprietary medium that filters out the salts within hours. Simbol has also acquired the assets and intellectual property from a now-defunct Canadian company for a purification process that creates the world's highest-purity lithium carbonate. Erceg expects to compete with the lowest-cost Chilean producers, which produce lithium at $1,500 a ton.

Simbol currently runs a pilot plant that filters 20 gallons a minute. The commercial plant, near Salton Sea, will begin construction in 2012 and will have the capacity to produce 16,000 tons of lithium carbonate annually. The world's third-largest producer, by comparison, makes 22,000 tons. By 2020, Simbol plans to triple production by expanding to more geothermal plants, Erceg says. But for now, it is buying low-grade lithium carbonate from other manufacturers for purification, and it expects to sell the high-purity product overseas before the end of this year.

Other lithium-mining projects are planned or underway around the world, including two more in Nevada. Keith Evans, a geologist and industrial minerals expert, says that if they all come online, global production in 2020 could be over 426,000 tons, far outstripping demand. Nevertheless, more US production could make the country self-sufficient. Plus, he says, Simbol could have an advantage over other US companies. "If their process is as good as they say it is, it could be a very-low-cost producer", Evans says. "It is potentially a very exciting project, if it works".