It ain't Mr. Fusion, but a nuke-powered car might just be on the horizon

One of the items of technology that’s been keeping my attention is the concept using thorium for a nuclear energy source. Click that link and take a look at my previous articles on the matter; it’s exciting stuff. Well, now comes this news, courtesy of Anthony Watts of WattsUpWithThat?

Much like “flying cars”, atomic powered cars were a campy futuristic meme of the 50′s, for example, there was the Ford Nucleon concept:

Now it looks like we might actually see a real one, using Thorium rather than Uranium, which not only is safer to manage, you don’t have to worry about some terrorist car-jacking your ride for fissile materials.

Here’s the new concept. Thorium could be used in conjunction with a laser and mini turbines to easily produce enough electricity to power a vehicle. When thorium is heated, it generates further heat surges, allowing it to be coupled with mini turbines to produce steam that can then be used to generate electricity. It is said that 1 gram of thorium produces the equivalent energy of 7,500 gallons of gasoline.

The company he’s referring to is Laser Power Systems, LLC and the story he heard this from is over at Ward’s Auto. Laser Power Systems’ design is purported to weigh in at about 500-600 pounds which is easily within the norm for internal combustion engine sources. So it is possible? It sure seems that way, at least from the power-generation perspective. And the math offers some pretty exciting possibilities, too.

The article mentions that 1 gram of thorium produces the equivalent energy of 7,500 gallons of gas, as it says. Industry analysts tel us the average person travels about 40 miles per day in terms of commuting and whatnot. (Yes, I know, lots of us go a lot further than that, but plenty go less, hence the “average.”) If you’ve got a car that averages 25 mpg, those 40 miles use up 1.6 gallons of gas. At a rate of 1.6 gallons per day, you’d take 4687.5 days to reach 7,500 gallons, or roughly 12 years, 10 months. That’s a long time between fill ups. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, 7,500 gallons of gas at 25 mpg would give you a projected range of just over 187,000 miles. Use that as your benchmark and compare that to how many miles you’re putting on your car in a year.

My big concern for something like this is that it’s not just a matter of putting a new power source into a car and throwing it into “drive.” Power generation systems in moving vehicles have to contend with environmental issues that power generation stations do not. Vibration, g-forces with turns left and right, hot and cold extremes, and – oh, yeah – crashes. When a pile up on the Capitol Beltway involves 6-7 reactor breaches, that’s a bit more serious than what we deal with today. Now, it can be done to shield the reactor and put a containment system in there that would survive any reasonably projected impact forces. But you’re not going to do it for 500-600 pounds and it would definitely alter the design allowances for the car.

But what about this: if we can make something that generates 250MW into a package that’s being seriously considered a “roadable” system, why not put that package in my basement, instead, and let me generate my own power? Then you can give me that all-electric vehicle everyone’s trying to push and I can make enough juice to charge it quickly. as well as provide for my other power needs. Allow me to connect to the grid and my generator can feed power back to the grid for the use of people or facilities that don’t have their own.

This is an exciting technology and I’m happy to see people are still working away at making it viable. I’ve said before, if the US government wants to put public funds into a project that will produce a tangible public good, then this is where to put it.