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THORIUM

  • Thorium
  • Mines Producing Thorium

Pure thorium is a silvery white metal that has the ability to retain its lustre for many months after being exposed to the elements. This is because of its slow rate of decay (it has a half life of three time the Earth's age). However, it does slowly tarnish when exposed to air, first by changing to a grey colour and eventually ending up black. It's growing importance is that it is slightly radioactive and is three times more abundant than uranium. Thorium oxide has one of the highest melting points of all oxides, at 3300 degrees Celsius.


Thorium was discovered in 1882 by a Swedish chemist, Berzelius, who named it 'Thorium' after the Norse god of thunder, 'Thor.' Thorium metal turnings easily ignite and exhibit a brilliant white light while burning. For this reason thorium has enjoyed wide usage as light bulb elements, arc light lamps and lantern mantles. It is also used in heat resistant ceramics and welding electrodes. When thorium oxide is added to glass it gives the glass a dispersion and high refractive index that enhances its value in quality lenses for scientific instruments and camera lenses.


It is hoped in many circles that thorium will ultimately be able to replace uranium for large scale energy production purposes, particularly in the area of nuclear power generation. When compared to uranium, thorium has a safer fuel cycle because of the absence of non-fertile isotopes. Some of the benefits thorium has over uranium as a nuclear fuel are as follows:


- Thorium can't sustain a nuclear chain reaction if it is not primed, therefore fission ceases by default when used in an accelerator driven reactor
- Thorium produces from 10 to 10,000 times fewer long life radioactive waste
- It is much harder to safely, or clandestinely, retrieve weapons grade fissionable material from a thorium reactor


Countries such as; China, United States, United Kingdom, India, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands have undergone experiments using thorium as a nuclear fuel in nuclear reactors. This is reflecting a growing interest world wide of substituting thorium for uranium because of its greater safety benefits, the lack of non-fertile isotopes and its higher occurrence and availability. The first commercial power station in the world to use thorium as a fuel was built in Germany. India built its first such generator in 2011 and the United States is constructing a power station that will use ceramic-coated thorium beads at Odessa, Texas, that is due to come on line in 2015.


Although Australia has one of the world's largest reserves of thorium it doesn't yet have a thorium industry. At the present time, where thorium is located in a mine, it treats it with having little more value than it does waste material. It is part of the mineral sands and rare earth mining industry that has the potential to produce thorium commercially should the demand rise. Thorium is not separated by sand miners at the present time but returned to the mine. This could change in the future as it would be relatively easy for them to extract thorium concentrate if, or when, the need arose.


Rare earth mined at the Nolan's Bore Mine in the Northern Territory contains about 0.2 percent thorium and although this is a modest amount it isn't separated or sold to the market. Iluka is an Australian sand miner that is the world's largest producer of zircon and it is widely accepted that many of its tenements hold more thorium in reserve than any other Australian company.
 

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