Fighting darkness and steel with carbide, and carbon with nuclear energy: Canada’s revolutionary past, present, and future

Warsaw Caves, Ontario, 1972—the scene of my first foray into the underworld and my first use of a carbide lamp. Carbide lamps run on acetylene gas, and one way to make acetylene is to put water in contact with calcium carbide. I was the only one at the place who had one of these contraptions. My dad and brother used battery-powered flashlights. Everyone thought I was nuts. But climbing and crawling through the Warsaw Caves, which consist of cold, wet, utterly dark underground passageways through a giant pile of glacial rubble, I was glad for the lamp’s bright light and warmth. I was 12 years old at the time. Unbeknownst to me, 120 kilometers southwest of the Warsaw Caves, on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario just east of Toronto, a huge industrial project had recently been launched. That project was the Pickering A nuclear generating station.

Carbide lamp, attached to Tex-o-Lex Safety Helmet. I bought both at Thomas Black & Sons in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1972 (probably with money I got from my parents; I was twelve). I did not know at the time that, a few blocks away, was the site of a calcium carbide manufacturing plant built in the early 1900s by Thomas “Carbide” Willson, the man who invented the process for making the stuff. Willson was from Princeton Ontario.

Carbide lamp, attached to Tex-o-Lex Safety Helmet. I bought both at Thomas Black & Sons in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1972 (probably with money I got from my parents; I was twelve). I did not know at the time that a few blocks away was the site of a calcium carbide manufacturing plant built in the early 1900s by Thomas “Carbide” Willson, the man who invented the process for making the stuff. Willson was from Princeton Ontario.

Now, what does calcium carbide have to do with nuclear energy? I bought my carbide lamp at a now-defunct camping supply place called Thomas Black & Sons. Black’s, as we used to call it, published a catalog that was, to budding environmental adventurers like me, just the coolest thing imaginable. Another ultra-cool publication was the Whole Earth Catalog.

The Thomas Black & Sons camping and climbing supply catalog. Black’s is, apparently, still going strong in Scotland, where it was founded. Back in the day, the very sight of the catalog would stimulate huge excitement.

The Thomas Black & Sons camping and climbing supply catalog. Black’s is, apparently, still going strong in Scotland, where it was founded. Back in the day, the very sight of the catalog would stimulate huge excitement and anticipation of upcoming trips into the Ontario wilderness. My parents made tents out of fabric and yarn from Black’s.

The store used to be at Bank and Strathcona in Ottawa, Ontario. Again, unbeknownst to me at the time, a half-hour walk away from the Black’s Ottawa store location, on Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, is a Recognized Federal Heritage Building called the Willson Carbide Mill. The Willson Carbide Mill used to make calcium carbide, the same stuff that I would put in the carbide lamp I bought from Black’s and used at the Warsaw Caves. Like Black’s, the Willson mill is now defunct. But it was a going concern 110 years ago. It was built by a man named Thomas Willson. Willson was an Ontario boy (from Princeton, west of Brantford). I was very surprised to learn that Willson had invented the process for making calcium carbide. Those who have hiked the trail behind Meech Lake in the Gatineau hills may recall a marker for a trail called “Carbide Willson.” It’s named after the same Thomas Willson.

I had no idea until quite recently that my city of residence was, a hundred years ago, the site of a chemical manufacturing plant that made calcium carbide, or that the guy who invented the process was Canadian, let alone from Ontario. This is apropos to me personally: I have for the past few years been running a project to develop a new chemical manufacturing process. Our first demonstration prototype may be in Ottawa.

In my ignorance of Thomas Willson and his connection to Ottawa, I am probably not much unlike the vast majority of my fellow Canadians, and Ontarians, who are unaware that their fellow Canadians and Ontarians had invented a peaceful way of harnessing the power of the atom. That invention is called the CANDU nuclear reactor. But unlike the Willson Carbide plant on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, or the Black’s camping supply store on Bank Street in Ottawa, the CANDU is not defunct. A fleet of 18 CANDUs is right this minute making most of the electricity powering Ontario. And in case you didn’t know, Ontario is a modern advanced industrial society, consisting of 13 million people whose GDP in 2013 was $692 billion. That makes Ontario one of the most affluent jurisdictions in the world.

CANDUs, like all nuclear power reactors, make huge amounts of electricity with no carbon emissions. Look at Table A1 in the upper left. All the output from the Nuclear category comes from CANDU reactors—invented, designed, and built right here in Ontario Canada.

The CANDU is also a tangible answer to those among my fellow Canadians who complain that we are, through short-sighted industrial policy, a resource economy. The CANDU represents stunning value-added to uranium. Uranium is a natural resource found in abundance in Saskatchewan. We don’t just mine the stuff then ship it somewhere else for someone else to do something valuable with. We mine it, refine it, turn it into generator fuel, and make electricity with it, in machines we invented and built right here—all within our borders. No other industrial policy in Canada’s history has been as successful.

Thomas Willson’s carbide process also represents an example of Canada’s step away from the hewers-of-wood-and-drawers-of-water mold.

Calcium carbide as I mentioned makes acetylene gas when it is reacted with water. Acetylene was in its early days used as a light source, as in my carbide lamp. But its real significance as an industrial gas was in its use in welding. Acetylene torches are used to cut through steel. The Second Industrial Revolution was based in part on steel.

It was also based on electricity.

Today we still of course use electricity; in fact we use it more than ever. Because of the worldwide phenomenon of climate change caused by man-made carbon dioxide, it is imperative that we humans get our electricity from energy sources that do not involve adding carbon to our atmosphere.

Nuclear energy is the most effective way to make huge amounts of electricity without carbon, and Canada and Ontario have invented an elegant way to make nuclear reactors. I have mentioned in these pages that the Third Wave of Electrification will be based on nuclear (see article). How exciting then that Ontario Canada—my home and the birthplace of Thomas Willson who invented a way to make calcium carbide—could play a pivotal role in another industrial revolution.

Afterword: One of the above links to the life and work of Thomas “Carbide” Willson is courtesy of the University of Waterloo. That institution educated people who went on to invent the Blackberry, a remarkable device that started the smart phone revolution. The president of the United States is an avid Blackberry user. So am I. We Canadians have had an influence on the world that we seem to not like to tout. We seem more comfortable thinking of ourselves as hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Afterword 2: Those who remember the Black’s catalog will surely remember the works of Calvin Rutstrum, a Minnesotan who canoed widely in northern Ontario and wrote some classic books on the subject, including North American Canoe Country and The New Way of the Wilderness. Rutstrum died in 1982 (here’s his obituary in the New York Times). His work and life preceded and overlapped somewhat that of Bill Mason, another iconic outdoorsman and naturalist who is better known to Canadians. Both men were opinionated but enormously influential, in their time and still today.

8 comments for “Fighting darkness and steel with carbide, and carbon with nuclear energy: Canada’s revolutionary past, present, and future

  1. Maury Markowitz
    August 26, 2014 at 08:03

    “The CANDU is also a tangible answer”

    The CANDU is dead. You understand that, right?

    The design team is gone. There will be no new CANDUs.

    “Canada and Ontario have invented an elegant way to make nuclear reactors”

    Sure, by spending billions upon billions of dollars of western taxpayer’s money. It’s one thing to support CANDU when you live in Ontario are the recipient of the industrial benefits. It’s another when you live in Calgary, and aren’t. Just ask the Avro teams. What, Avro and CANDU both got the axe when a western prime minister was in office? Imagine that!

    “it is imperative that we humans get our electricity from energy sources that do not involve adding carbon to our atmosphere”

    Good thing then…

    http://cleantechnica.com/2014/01/03/nrel-23-global-electricity-generation-supplied-renewable-sources/

    • August 26, 2014 at 10:53

      cleantechnica.ca? Now that’s some credibility right there. I notice a wikipedia link in another one of your comments. Combined, there’s come great research.

      Table A2, up on the left, shows current output of the dead technology. More than 11,000 megawatts of power right now, including output from Darlington, which went over budget. Double original budget, and it still undercuts the cheapest wind (when wind is producing, which is so infrequent as to require… high prices).

      Thanks, but I’ll pass on cleantechnica.ca and just stick with real world facts.

      • August 26, 2014 at 14:44

        Ah, “Clean”technica, where 33.8% Danish wind power shuts them up about 48% coal, and they get so frightened when someone uses the phrase “in my crosshairs” that they wield the banhammer after a single comment.

        It’s just another echo chamber.

      • Maury Markowitz
        September 2, 2014 at 07:34

        Ignore the point about CANDU being dead, ignore the fact that renewables are growing faster than nuclear at its heyday, ignore the fact that the link is simply quoting a NREL report, and attack the messenger. Another fine example of the ostrich effect that abounds.

        Whatever, go ahead and attack this source:

        http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec1_3.pdf

        Look at the bottom, at the totals. Compare nuclear with renewable. Now look up the columns, compare growth rates.

        Let me know when someone figures out how to get the CAPEX down from ~$8/Wp to $4 and we can have a conversation. In the meantime, recent news will be typical:

        http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/01/finland-nuclear-olkiluoto-idUKL5N0R20CV20140901

        • September 2, 2014 at 07:46

          No, I’ll look at where the puck is going instead of gobbling after Amory Lovins and his acolytes. Germany, where the renewables idiocy has seen its fullest expression. Power prices are among the highest in Europe, power is as dirty as ever. Twice as expensive as (nuclear) France, and literally five times as dirty.

          As for Olkiluoto — hey, I heard the Boeing Dreamliner was years over schedule and billions over budget. Guess that proves air travel is not economically viable. You do know that Olkiluoto is an LWR, don’t you? You do know that the last six CANDUs to come on line were under schedule and under budget, don’t you? Of course you do! That’s why you cite Olkiluoto!

  2. Maury Markowitz
    September 5, 2014 at 06:14

    > No, I’ll look at where the puck is going

    That is always a good idea! So, as taken from the source I posted above:

    year coal + NG nuclear renewables
    2004 85.819 8.223 6.081
    2005 85.794 8.161 6.242
    2006 84.702 8.215 6.649
    2007 86.211 8.459 6.541
    2008 83.551 8.426 7.202
    2009 78.487 8.355 7.638
    2010 81.412 8.434 8.081
    2011 79.991 8.269 9.074
    2012 77.994 8.062 8.786
    2013 79.796 8.268 9.291
    2014 so far 34.413 3.326 4.062
    -7.0% 0.5% 52.8%

    The last line is the percentage growth/(-ve)decline in that source since 2003. Fossil fuel use in the US is slowly declining. Nuclear is flat. Renewables have increased 52% and now provide more quads than nuclear. It is the fastest growing source of power in the US, and these numbers are actually lower than the worldwide rates.

    That’s where the puck is going.

    • September 5, 2014 at 09:19

      I don’t care which celebrity-du-jour the gawkers like Germany are gawking at today. Germany joined the Renewables fan club and became its president. Its electrical energy — read this carefully, because it has been my point all along — is (1) dirtier today than it was before the renewables craze, and (2) twice as expensive as nuclear France’s.

      I don’t care what ALCT (Amory Lovins claptrap) other gawkers are uttering. They are where the puck is. Inferior players chase the puck. Gretzky asked “where is the puck going?” .. and went there.

      • Maury Markowitz
        October 7, 2014 at 14:22

        > I don’t care which celebrity-du-jour the gawkers like Germany

        Those numbers are for the US.

        Did you even bother to click the link?

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