EDITOR: | August 13th, 2013

Pebble-bed nuclear reactors and super-bugs — what they mean for graphite and silver (respectively!)

| August 13, 2013 | No Comments
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Up to 1,000 tonnes a year of graphite per 1,000 megawatts of nuclear reactor capacity  — and China could be a major consumer. But, when it comes to silver, is China missing the message?

Two intriguing issues, and ones that could have a significant effect on both materials. First, to graphite.

China is already operating a prototype pebble-bed nuclear reactor and now state-owned Huaneng Electric is building two such reactors, each of 2,000MW. Interestingly, a new presentation from Northern Graphite (TSX.V:NGC) makes the point that these reactors are fuelled by uranium embedded in graphite balls. According to the presentation, each 1,000MW of capacity will require between 600 tonnes and 1,000 tonnes of graphite a year. More importantly, 30 such reactors are to be built by 2020.

Earlier this year, Business Week reported on China’s pebble-bed plans, adding they were “a dream of nuclear scientists since German engineers tried to build one in the 1960s“. The magazine added: “This kind of reactor should run at extremely high temperatures—900C (1,650F) or more; other reactors operate at around 400C—and [the pebble-bed ones] use helium as a coolant and graphite instead of water as a moderator, which slows down neutrons in a reactor’s core to increase the chances of inducing nuclear fission“.

The prototype reactor was designed at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Business Week reported that China’s engineers had already adapted the Westinghouse technology into a larger design, called the CAP1400, which increases the power the reactor can produce from 1,000MW to 1,400MW.

Another page of Northern’s presentation spells out the market size for graphite in the context of other materials. The markets (in tonnes per year) are:

Nickel – 1,770,000
Graphite – 1,019,000
Molybdenum – 250,000
Rare earth oxides – 124,000
Cobalt – 98,000
Tungsten – 72,000
Vanadium – 60,000
Uranium – 50,000
Lithium – 34,000

SILVER: The Chinese might be missing a trick when it comes to the white metal. Three weeks from now in the southern city of Kunming, Yunnan province, there’ll starting the 12th Annual China International Silver Conference.

Attendees will hear presentations ranging over China’s silver reserves, the world silver mining industry, silver industrial demand, new powder applications, the China silver futures market and market forecasts.

Surprisingly, there’s no mention in the speaker line-up of the metal’s medical applications.

The Australian website, Science Alert (run by respected science writer Julian Cribb), is reporting that international health officials are warning of a “catastrophic threat” to human health: one of the last remaining antibiotics capable of defeating super-bugs – carbapenem antibiotics – is succumbing to the deadly bacteria. To complicate matters, these resistant suberbugs are also able to share these genes between other bacteria, resulting in the spread of antibiotic resistance.

And U.S. News & World Report has found a new study which shows a common drug-resistant super-bug spreads among hospitals through a domino effect. Researchers found that a moderate increase in vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) at one hospital in Orange County, Calif., led to an average 2.8 percent increase in VRE in other hospitals in the county.

In fact, possibly the greatest potential for future silver demand could be in medicine. As the Washington-based Silver Institute points out, silver is a critical element in bandages used to treat wounds and reduce the threat of infections in difficult environments.  It has also been a key component of treatment in hospitals to reduce the spread of surgical infections in the operating room and in patient care areas. The medical use of silver has helped reduce the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant germs spreading through a hospital population.  “Today, advances in coatings technology has enabled medical equipment  producers to introduce silver-coated instruments  and hospital equipment for use in treating  patients — eliminating,  on contact, almost every bacterial or fungal exposure,” said Michael DiRienzo, Executive Director of the Silver Institute.

These are other key points made by the institute:

* The ability to coat materials such as polyurethane, silicone and textile fibres with either metallic silver or ionic silver compounds now provides clinicians with efficient means of overcoming difficult wound care and device-related infections, which have long proved costly and difficult to manage in terms of hospital care.

* Prior to World War II the most powerful  antibacterial and antifungal substance known to medicine was a colloidal silver – small particles of silver suspended in a fluid.  Colloidal silver was effective against more than 650 different illness-causing bacteria, viruses or fungi organisms. Silver breaks down cells walls and the bacteria therefore have great difficulty in developing immunity to the metal.

* Many water purification systems, including those for spas and pools, rely on silver to keep water fresh.  Samsung, for example, is using nanosilver technology in some of its home washing machines.  Motorola uses silver embedded in plastic housings for many of its mobile phones.  Other manufacturers are using silver in keys, and in cases of calculators and other hand held instruments.

Silver is also in the news this week as its price starts to get some life back into it. In fact, Tuesday’s session in New York saw an interesting divergence with the yellow metal: gold fell $14/oz (to $1320) while silver rose 3c to $21.46/oz. Before the session opened, The Financial Times had reported after Monday’s trading that “silver capped its strongest four-day move in two years as it led a continued rally across metals markets on a reappraisal of the outlook for Chinese growth”.


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