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The Power of a Uranium Pellet

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Uranium pellet energy compared to fossil fuels

uranium pellet energy efficiency vs fossil fuels

The Energy Efficiency of a Uranium Pellet

Nuclear energy’s incredible efficiency and powerful nature comes from uranium’s high energy density.

It is the most energy dense and efficient fuel source we have, with just ten uranium pellets able to power the average household for an entire year.

Using research from the U.S. Department of Energy, this graphic puts in perspective the efficiency of a single uranium pellet in comparison to fossil fuels.

Uranium’s Energy Density vs. Fossil Fuels

Uranium’s energy efficiency comes from it’s highly dense atomic and material nature, which is split apart when nuclear fission occurs.

It is the second-heaviest metal in terms of relative atomic mass, and is also one of the densest at around 19 g/cm3. For context, a gallon of milk weighs around 8 lbs, while a same-sized container of uranium would weigh around 150 lbs.

In the process of nuclear fission, the U-235 isotope of uranium is hit by a moving neutron and splits in two. This splitting of the atom produces heat energy and releases more neutrons that hit other U-235 atoms, causing a chain reaction of nuclear fission.

The energy generated by the fission of a single uranium pellet is equivalent to:

  • 1 ton of coal or
  • 120 gallons of crude oil or
  • 17,000 ft3 of natural gas

With about 17 million British Thermal Units (BTU) worth of energy in a uranium pellet, it’s no wonder that many are now looking at nuclear energy as a key piece to the clean energy puzzle.

Not Just Better than Fossil Fuels

Nuclear power isn’t just an improvement over fossil fuels, it also beats out renewable energy sources in a few other key areas. Along with low lifecycle emissions, nuclear power also has a low land footprint and the highest reliability compared to other sustainable energy sources.

1. CO2 Lifecycle Emissions

As a non-fossil fuel source of energy, nuclear power has one of the lowest average life cycle CO2 emissions among energy technologies. Since 1970, nuclear power plants have reduced over 60 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions, and have lower average life cycle emissions compared to solar panels, geothermal energy, and hydropower.

2. Land Footprint

While reducing carbon emissions is great, renewable energy sources are also judged on their land footprint. Nuclear power has one of the lowest land footprints per 1,000 megawatts of electricity a year at 1.3 square miles. In comparison, for the same amount of energy solar power requires ~75x more surface area, and wind power requires ~360x more surface area.

3. Power Generation Uptime

The power generation uptime of energy sources is another important metric to measure their reliability and efficiency. Nuclear power plants have the best uptime of all energy sources, running at maximum capacity 92.5% of the year. In comparison, the two next best energy sources in terms of reliability are geothermal energy (74.3%) and natural gas (56.6%).

Nuclear Energy’s Water Usage and Waste Disposal

Although nuclear energy is incredibly efficient and much cleaner than fossil fuels, it still isn’t quite a perfect energy solution.

Nuclear power plants rely on large amounts of water especially for their cooling operations, which is why many are located near bodies of water. When compared with other energy sources, many estimates find that nuclear power plants typically consume the most water when using cooling towers.

Energy sourceGallons of water per megawatt-hour of electricity produced
Nuclear1,101 gal
Coal1,005 gal
Concentrated solar906 gal
Biomass878 gal
Natural gas 255 gal
Geothermal15 gal

Source: Median figures of Macknick et al/Environmental Research Letters

Along with their water consumption, nuclear power plants also produce nuclear waste which must safely removed and stored in a permanent disposal site.

While countries like France, Germany, and Japan recycle the majority of their spent fuel, the U.S. currently treats it as waste. This results in the spent uranium fuel needing to be cooled for 2-5 years, with the most common cooling method requiring even more water consumption.

Uranium’s Future as the World’s Energy Fuel

While uranium offers an incredible amount of energy in a tiny package, nuclear power is still working to shake off the shadows of past incidents like Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. Despite this, nuclear still is an incredibly safe energy source compared to fossil fuels, and safety improvements continue to be invested in and researched today.

Nuclear energy is also receiving a fiscal boost in the United States, with the recent infrastructure bill passed by the senate providing funding for two commercial-scale demonstration projects. Just as important, the bill also mentions that when determining whether to certify a reactor, priority will be given to reactors that use uranium that is produced and enriched domestically.

As the world continues working to reduce carbon emissions, people are starting to recognize that uranium’s energy efficiency could be vital in weaning the world off of fossil fuel dependence.

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Energy Shift

Rare Earth Elements: Where in the World Are They?

Rare earth elements are the critical ingredients for a greener economy, making their reserves increasingly valuable to global supply chains.

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Rare Earth Elements Reserves

Rare Earths Elements: Where in the World Are They?

Rare earth elements are a group of metals that are critical ingredients for a greener economy, and the location of the reserves for mining are increasingly important and valuable.

This infographic features data from the United States Geological Society (USGS) which reveals the countries with the largest known reserves of rare earth elements (REEs).

What are Rare Earth Metals?

REEs, also called rare earth metals or rare earth oxides, or lanthanides, are a set of 17 silvery-white soft heavy metals.

The 17 rare earth elements are: lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), neodymium (Nd), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), lutetium (Lu), scandium (Sc), and yttrium (Y).

Scandium and yttrium are not part of the lanthanide family, but end users include them because they occur in the same mineral deposits as the lanthanides and have similar chemical properties.

The term “rare earth” is a misnomer as rare earth metals are actually abundant in the Earth’s crust. However, they are rarely found in large, concentrated deposits on their own, but rather among other elements instead.

Rare Earth Elements, How Do They Work?

Most rare earth elements find their uses as catalysts and magnets in traditional and low-carbon technologies. Other important uses of rare earth elements are in the production of special metal alloys, glass, and high-performance electronics.

Alloys of neodymium (Nd) and samarium (Sm) can be used to create strong magnets that withstand high temperatures, making them ideal for a wide variety of mission critical electronics and defense applications.

End-use% of 2019 Rare Earth Demand
Permanent Magnets38%
Catalysts23%
Glass Polishing Powder and Additives13%
Metallurgy and Alloys8%
Battery Alloys9%
Ceramics, Pigments and Glazes5%
Phosphors3%
Other4%
Source

The strongest known magnet is an alloy of neodymium with iron and boron. Adding other REEs such as dysprosium and praseodymium can change the performance and properties of magnets.

Hybrid and electric vehicle engines, generators in wind turbines, hard disks, portable electronics and cell phones require these magnets and elements. This role in technology makes their mining and refinement a point of concern for many nations.

For example, one megawatt of wind energy capacity requires 171 kg of rare earths, a single U.S. F-35 fighter jet requires about 427 kg of rare earths, and a Virginia-class nuclear submarine uses nearly 4.2 tonnes.

Global Reserves of Rare Earth Minerals

China tops the list for mine production and reserves of rare earth elements, with 44 million tons in reserves and 140,000 tons of annual mine production.

While Vietnam and Brazil have the second and third most reserves of rare earth metals with 22 million tons in reserves and 21 million tons, respectively, their mine production is among the lowest of all the countries at only 1,000 tons per year each.

CountryMine Production 2020Reserves% of Total Reserves
China140,00044,000,00038.0%
Vietnam1,00022,000,00019.0%
Brazil1,00021,000,00018.1%
Russia2,70012,000,00010.4%
India3,0006,900,0006.0%
Australia17,0004,100,0003.5%
United States38,0001,500,0001.3%
Greenland-1,500,0001.3%
Tanzania-890,0000.8%
Canada-830,0000.7%
South Africa-790,0000.7%
Other Countries100310,0000.3%
Burma30,000N/AN/A
Madagascar8,000N/AN/A
Thailand2,000N/AN/A
Burundi500N/AN/A
World Total243,300115,820,000100%

While the United States has 1.5 million tons in reserves, it is largely dependent on imports from China for refined rare earths.

Ensuring a Global Supply

In the rare earth industry, China’s dominance has been no accident. Years of research and industrial policy helped the nation develop a superior position in the market, and now the country has the ability to control production and the global availability of these valuable metals.

This tight control of the supply of these important metals has the world searching for their own supplies. With the start of mining operations in other countries, China’s share of global production has fallen from 92% in 2010 to 58%< in 2020. However, China has a strong foothold in the supply chain and produced 85% of the world’s refined rare earths in 2020.

China awards production quotas to only six state-run companies:

  • China Minmetals Rare Earth Co
  • Chinalco Rare Earth & Metals Co
  • Guangdong Rising Nonferrous
  • China Northern Rare Earth Group
  • China Southern Rare Earth Group
  • Xiamen Tungsten

As the demand for REEs increases, the world will need tap these reserves. This graphic could provide clues as to the next source of rare earth elements.

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Mapped: Solar Power by Country in 2021

In 2020, solar power saw its largest-ever annual capacity expansion at 127 gigawatts. Here’s a snapshot of solar power capacity by country.

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Solar Power by Country

Mapped: Solar Power by Country in 2021

The world is adopting renewable energy at an unprecedented pace, and solar power is leading the way.

Despite a 4.5% fall in global energy demand in 2020, renewable energy technologies showed promising progress. While the growth in renewables was strong across the board, solar power led from the front with 127 gigawatts installed in 2020, its largest-ever annual capacity expansion.

The above infographic uses data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to map solar power capacity by country in 2021. This includes both solar photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power capacity.

The Solar Power Leaderboard

From the Americas to Oceania, countries in virtually every continent (except Antarctica) added more solar to their mix last year. Here’s a snapshot of solar power capacity by country at the beginning of 2021:

CountryInstalled capacity, megawattsWatts* per capita% of world total
China 🇨🇳 254,35514735.6%
U.S. 🇺🇸 75,57223110.6%
Japan 🇯🇵 67,0004989.4%
Germany 🇩🇪 53,7835937.5%
India 🇮🇳 39,211325.5%
Italy 🇮🇹 21,6003453.0%
Australia 🇦🇺 17,6276372.5%
Vietnam 🇻🇳 16,504602.3%
South Korea 🇰🇷 14,5752172.0%
Spain 🇪🇸 14,0891862.0%
United Kingdom 🇬🇧 13,5632001.9%
France 🇫🇷 11,7331481.6%
Netherlands 🇳🇱 10,2133961.4%
Brazil 🇧🇷 7,881221.1%
Turkey 🇹🇷 6,668730.9%
South Africa 🇿🇦 5,990440.8%
Taiwan 🇹🇼 5,8171720.8%
Belgium 🇧🇪 5,6463940.8%
Mexico 🇲🇽 5,644350.8%
Ukraine 🇺🇦 5,3601140.8%
Poland 🇵🇱 3,936340.6%
Canada 🇨🇦 3,325880.5%
Greece 🇬🇷 3,2472580.5%
Chile 🇨🇱 3,2051420.4%
Switzerland 🇨🇭 3,1182950.4%
Thailand 🇹🇭 2,988430.4%
United Arab Emirates 🇦🇪 2,5391850.4%
Austria 🇦🇹 2,2201780.3%
Czech Republic 🇨🇿 2,0731940.3%
Hungary 🇭🇺 1,9531310.3%
Egypt 🇪🇬 1,694170.2%
Malaysia 🇲🇾 1,493280.2%
Israel 🇮🇱 1,4391340.2%
Russia 🇷🇺 1,42870.2%
Sweden 🇸🇪 1,417630.2%
Romania 🇷🇴 1,387710.2%
Jordan 🇯🇴 1,3591000.2%
Denmark 🇩🇰 1,3001860.2%
Bulgaria 🇧🇬 1,0731520.2%
Philippines 🇵🇭 1,04890.1%
Portugal 🇵🇹 1,025810.1%
Argentina 🇦🇷 764170.1%
Pakistan 🇵🇰 73760.1%
Morocco 🇲🇦 73460.1%
Slovakia 🇸🇰 593870.1%
Honduras 🇭🇳 514530.1%
Algeria 🇩🇿 448100.1%
El Salvador 🇸🇻 429660.1%
Iran 🇮🇷 41450.1%
Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 409120.1%
Finland 🇫🇮 391390.1%
Dominican Republic 🇩🇴 370340.1%
Peru 🇵🇪 331100.05%
Singapore 🇸🇬 329450.05%
Bangladesh 🇧🇩 30120.04%
Slovenia 🇸🇮 2671280.04%
Uruguay 🇺🇾 256740.04%
Yemen 🇾🇪 25380.04%
Iraq 🇮🇶 21650.03%
Cambodia 🇰🇭 208120.03%
Cyprus 🇨🇾 2001470.03%
Panama 🇵🇦 198460.03%
Luxembourg 🇱🇺 1952440.03%
Malta 🇲🇹 1843120.03%
Indonesia 🇮🇩 17210.02%
Cuba 🇨🇺 163140.02%
Belarus 🇧🇾 159170.02%
Senegal 🇸🇳 15580.02%
Norway 🇳🇴 152170.02%
Lithuania 🇱🇹 148370.02%
Namibia 🇳🇦 145550.02%
New Zealand 🇳🇿 142290.02%
Estonia 🇪🇪 130980.02%
Bolivia 🇧🇴 120100.02%
Oman 🇴🇲 109210.02%
Colombia 🇨🇴 10720.01%
Kenya 🇰🇪 10620.01%
Guatemala 🇬🇹10160.01%
Croatia 🇭🇷 85170.01%
World total 🌎 713,97083100.0%

*1 megawatt = 1,000,000 watts.

China is the undisputed leader in solar installations, with over 35% of global capacity. What’s more, the country is showing no signs of slowing down. It has the world’s largest wind and solar project in the pipeline, which could add another 400,000MW to its clean energy capacity.

Following China from afar is the U.S., which recently surpassed 100,000MW of solar power capacity after installing another 50,000MW in the first three months of 2021. Annual solar growth in the U.S. has averaged an impressive 42% over the last decade. Policies like the solar investment tax credit, which offers a 26% tax credit on residential and commercial solar systems, have helped propel the industry forward.

Although Australia hosts a fraction of China’s solar capacity, it tops the per capita rankings due to its relatively low population of 26 million people. The Australian continent receives the highest amount of solar radiation of any continent, and over 30% of Australian households now have rooftop solar PV systems.

China: The Solar Champion

In 2020, President Xi Jinping stated that China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060, and the country is taking steps to get there.

China is a leader in the solar industry, and it seems to have cracked the code for the entire solar supply chain. In 2019, Chinese firms produced 66% of the world’s polysilicon, the initial building block of silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) panels. Furthermore, more than three-quarters of solar cells came from China, along with 72% of the world’s PV panels.

With that said, it’s no surprise that 5 of the world’s 10 largest solar parks are in China, and it will likely continue to build more as it transitions to carbon neutrality.

What’s Driving the Rush for Solar Power?

The energy transition is a major factor in the rise of renewables, but solar’s growth is partly due to how cheap it has become over time. Solar energy costs have fallen exponentially over the last decade, and it’s now the cheapest source of new energy generation.

Since 2010, the cost of solar power has seen a 85% decrease, down from $0.28 to $0.04 per kWh. According to MIT researchers, economies of scale have been the single-largest factor in continuing the cost decline for the last decade. In other words, as the world installed and made more solar panels, production became cheaper and more efficient.

This year, solar costs are rising due to supply chain issues, but the rise is likely to be temporary as bottlenecks resolve.

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