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A State of Flux

Headlines related to a few emerging technologies caught my attention over the past week.

The first is a new spin on nuclear energy. A couple weeks ago I wrote about the possibility of switching from uranium to thorium to power nuclear reactors. Not only is such a transition possible, but it’s also a promising opportunity on a number of fronts.

After I wrote that piece, the Obama Administration announced that it was focusing its efforts on energy resources that had low carbon footprints and didn’t depend on foreign suppliers. Both nuclear energy and natural gas fit the bill.

And a renaissance in nuclear energy will bring new opportunities in fuel and waste disposal. One of the most compelling ideas cropped up recently from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

They've come up with a hybrid fusion-fission nuclear reactor, the Super X Divertor. This machine could eliminate almost all the transuranic waste produced by traditional reactors.

Most people do not want nuclear power facilities in their area because they worry about a potential meltdown or nuclear waste disposal. With the Super X, the latter--in theory--becomes a non-issue.

At present, roughly 100 nuclear reactors operate in the US. When the fuel rods are spent the waste is packaged up and carted off for disposal. Aside from France and Japan, most countries don't reprocess their waste; it needs to be stored somewhere safe--for the next 10,000 years. To put that kind of time into perspective, the land bridge to Asia that was caused by the last Ice Age was melting 10,000 years ago.

But the new Super X Divertor promises to eliminate this problem.

About 75 percent of original reactor waste is destroyed in standard, relatively inexpensive reactors. This step produces energy, but it doesn't destroy highly radiotoxic, long-lived waste scientists refer to as "sludge."

In the second step, the sludge would be destroyed in the Super X, which can burn the hazardous sludge that currently goes into storage. And the Super X has a compact footprint and is relatively safe because much of the energy is generated from a fusion reaction. Nuclear fusion is the Holy Grail of nuclear energy--the sun is a good example of a fusion reactor. The only problem with fusion reactors is you have to find a vessel to contain the energy, which heats up to around 10 million degrees Centigrade.

But when a fusion reaction becomes unstable and collapses, it doesn’t release radioactive material. It just fizzles out.

Tthis potential disposal methodology would be a boon for politicians states in Nevada and other states where huge nuclear waste depositories remain a source of controversy. No one wants nuclear waste and that means politicians will stick plenty of money into this project to develop it--money that likely would gone to studies on why nuclear waste sites were bad choices. And once the Super X is ready for prime time, the builders and contractors stand to make some big money.

Another interesting development in the nuclear industry is the growing list of companies building modular reactors.

Instead of building one huge reactor and shipping power to a wide area, companies are building small reactors that can be combined to meet power needs. Say you need 5 megawatts of power in a remote location today. Drop in one module and you’re covered. If your energy demand increases, it’s easy to bring another small reactor online.

Two US companies--neither of which is publicly traded--are already working on these designs, and it's only a matter of time before they will get approval to start building plants.

Nanotube Fun

Don’t adjust your eyes. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered a new way to make electricity.

That’s right. Scientists have a discovered a new way to generate electricity using carbon nantubes and an accelerant. Here's an excerpt from the whole article:

Each of the nanotubes was coated with a layer of a reactive fuel that can produce heat by decomposing. This fuel was then ignited at one end of the nanotube...and the result was a fast-moving thermal wave traveling along the length of…the nanotube like a flame speeding along the length of a lit fuse. Heat from the fuel goes into the nanotube, where it travels thousands of times faster than in the fuel itself. As the heat feeds back to the fuel coating, a thermal wave is created that is guided along the nanotube. With a temperature of 3,000 Kelvin, this ring of heat speeds along the tube 10,000 times faster than the normal spread of this chemical reaction. The heating produced by that combustion, it turns out, also pushes electrons along the tube, creating a substantial electrical current.

Needless to say, the implications of this discover are vast, though it will take a while for practical applications to emerge.

A Step in the Right Direction

The Dept of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has existed decades. It's a public-private partnership where the military imagines its futuristic needs and asks the private sector to help turn those ideas into realities.

Now we have the civilian energy version, ARPA-E. And the organization held its first conference last week.

Although most of the energy research community is encouraged by the government's support of the program, the $400 million earmarked to revitalize and renew the US energy markets may be far too little to get US firms to jump into the CleanTech game.

But American ingenuity and innovation offer hope--for example, Dan Nocera’s start-up. Sun Catalytix. This is amazing stuff.

GS Early is co-editor of 2020 Investing and associate editor of Portfolio 2020.

Gregg Early is Executive Editor of Personal Finance.

Disclosure: "No Positions"