By Colin Bird on August 15, 2011
Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, people have looked for the most efficient way to power machines big and small. If Connecticut-based Laser Power Systems’ research is correct, a new alternative could be on the horizon: The company believes it has found the panacea fuel for the 21st century, a heavy metal called thorium.
Without getting too deep into the jargon, let’s just say that thorium is a radioactive element currently used to breed nuclear fuel. It’s widely abundant and would make for a safe fuel source for vehicles, power stations and other devices, says Ward’s Automotive.
Thorium could be used as a heat source to boil water, which in turn could power a steam turbine that would make electricity — similar to the way we use coal, natural gas or uranium as a source for electricity today.
To get thorium hot enough, a laser would need to be directed at small block of the element. That would heat up the metal significantly, but not enough to cause a nuclear reaction.
Laser Power Systems believes it’s possible to miniaturize the laser, turbine engine and thorium pack so that it can fit into an automobile. Furthermore, since it takes only a small amount of thorium to power a car, you would theoretically never have to refuel. About 8 grams of thorium, encased in a three-inch-thick stainless-steel box, would be enough to power a car for a million miles and prevent passengers from the harm of radioactivity, the researchers say.
Unlike a uranium fission-powered car — which was actually proposed by Ford with the Nucleon concept car — the thorium setup wouldn’t cause a nuclear reaction and would give off only negligible amounts of radiation.
If we could scale something like this, it could eliminate the world’s dependency on oil, the researchers noted.
So why aren’t we using thorium now? There are a couple of reasons. Although thorium is abundant, we haven’t made much effort in figuring out where large, easily extractable reserves are. Miniaturizing the laser and turbine system is still a ways off, too. Also, drivers’ habits would have to acclimate to the deficiencies of steam power. Steam takes time to build up, and it would take at least 30 seconds for the mechanism to generate electricity.
Plus, thorium is radioactive. Even though scientists say thorium isn’t particularly dangerous, politicians, citizens and companies might not want even an iota of risk with something that could, in theory, be transformed into a nuclear weapon. (You have to super-heat thorium to make weapons-grade nuclear material, something very hard to do.)
Laser Power Systems plans to put a thorium-powered car on the road within the next two years to demonstrate its theory. We can't wait to see it.
U.S. Researcher Preparing Prototype Cars Powered by Heavy-Metal Thorium (Wards Auto, via The Truth About Cars)