Thorium, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collaboration

If you get a group energy engineers together long enough (which is, in itself, a struggle to say the least) they will inevitably start talking about thorium.  The thorium-based nuclear reactor is an innovation that offers an answer to all of humanity’s largest problems.  Its potential is perhaps best promoted by Reno’s own Davidson Academy alumni Taylor Wilson, who rose to fame when his TED talk about how kids can change the world garnered 3 million views.  Thorium is exciting because if the technology pans out, it could offer carbon free energy so cheaply that it could provide the following benefits:

  • Provide emissions free, 24-hour power anywhere on the globe
  • Drive water desalination and atmospheric water generators to eliminate drought
  • Power fertilization manufacturing, significantly reducing the cost of food
  • Reduce the cost of electricity, enabling broad adoption of electric cars
  • Reduce costs of all energy intensive manufacturing and mining
  • Provide modular and deployable energy sources to disaster stricken areas

In addition, unlike existing nuclear plants, properly designed thorium reactors do not produce materials that can be used in nuclear weapons, offer significantly higher safety protections (including little to no risk of meltdown), and use relatively abundant fuel available throughout most of the world.  For these reasons, most engineers I interact with are thrilled that we may soon embark on the thorium revolution.

However, despite the potential benefits of the technology I remain skeptical that thorium energy will be widely adopted (at least in the U.S.) for one simple reason.

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The moment the term “nuclear” is uttered, one immediately loses at least half their audience.  The other half, minus the physicists and nuclear engineers, will watch their eyes glaze over as the benefits of thorium are described using such thrilling terms as “liquid fluoride molten salts.”  Wilson’s second TED talk, which offered far more concrete Technology and Design (The “T” and “D” of TED) than his first talk, described a practical thorium reactor that could be developed today. Yet, even despite his popularity from his first video, this talk only garnered 1.5 million views. To put it another way:

Twice as many people were interested in listening to “kids can change the world,” than “here is a kid’s technology that actually WILL change the world.”

This fact has tremendous implications for innovators that cannot by understated.  A new technology, no matter how many benefits it offers, will go nowhere without public support.  This is often the hardest lesson for engineers (myself included) and innovators.  Public support is needed for investors, initial sales, and permitting.  It is also essential for developing a team to get the product off the ground.  So far, this blog has focused on the nuts and bolts of innovation including identifying the Innovator’s Dilemma and establishing Discipline Systems, but often the most important missing piece for most brilliant innovators is collaboration, or the skills to communicate, persuade, and lead people.

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In future blogs, these skills will be discussed in greater detail, but in the meantime if you have any stories of brilliant products that failed from lack of collaboration please share below!

3 thoughts on “Thorium, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collaboration

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