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Thorium – An Element with Promise

by Kathy Chambers on Mon, May 09, 2016

Thorium (232Th), the chemical element named after the Norse god of thunder, has a history that is as colorful as its namesake.  Although discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius, thorium had no known useful applications until 1885, when it was used in gas mantles to light up the streets across Europe and North America.  Then in 1898, physicist Marie Curie and chemist Gerhard Schmidt observed thorium to be radioactive, and subsequent applications for thorium declined due to safety and environmental concerns.  The scientific community would later find that the element thorium held promise for the planet to have clean, safe, cheap, and plentiful nuclear power as an alternative fuel to plutonium-based nuclear power plants. 

By the 1960s, world-renowned physicist Dr. Alvin Weinberg encouraged the examination of the thorium fuel cycle implemented in liquid fluoride reactors and invented a radically new nuclear reactor cooled by molten salt.  Weinberg and his team’s work led to the construction and operation of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Weinberg was director.  This experiment ran successfully for four years before it was abandoned in favor of plutonium nuclear energy. Several conceptual or operational demonstration reactors using thorium-based fuels to generate electricity continued to be tested over the years throughout the world.  Today, more than 50 years later, a new generation of engineers concerned about climate change and safety have renewed interest and hope in the largely forgotten element.

DOE databases developed and maintained by the Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) provide a rich collection of thorium-based research papers, many dating prior to the Weinberg era, as well as those from current research endeavors funded by DOE. Dr. William Watson’s latest white paper “In the OSTI Collections: Energy from Thorium” provides a technical overview on thorium energy research.  See OSTI’s May 2016 DOE Science Showcase on thorium research for additional resources and related links of interest. 

Other Related Topics: Dr. Alvin Weinberg, reactor, thorium
Page last updated on 2017-09-26 13:50

About the Author

Kathy Chambers's picture
Kathy Chambers
Technical Writer, Information International Associates, Inc.