We are already seeing many innovative technologies been applied to power cars with alternative energy sources. Cars running on hybrid fuels, electricity and solar power are helping to shift the focus from gasoline-powered engines to cars running on renewable or greener sources. Laser Power Systems, U.S, based company, has claimed to come with an engine that runs on thorium. The commercial application seems years away but Charles Stevens, CEO of Laser Power Systems has already envisaged a prototype that only needs some minor modifications to become as a promising alternative source of energy for a car engine.
Cadillac World Thorium Fuel concept car designed by Loren Kulesus (Via: cars-show.org)
Thorium is already used in nuclear power plants to act as heat generating medium by the means of nuclear fission. When thorium disintegrates into different elements, it also gives out a large amount of heat. This heat is used to run the nuclear plant. India is in the forefront when it comes to usage of thorium as a raw material for nuclear power plants. Charles Stevens plans to design a customized application that is built for a purpose. The prototype will be generating electricity as the end product. Thorium will be used as the heat generating medium to convert water into steam. The plan is to fire up thorium with the help of an external source. The unit could generate electricity within 30 seconds of its firing.
Thorium is known to give out heat surges. These heat surges are more popularly called as thorium based laser. Charles Stevens plans to use these lasers to vaporize the water inside mini turbines. These mini turbines in effect would power up the car. According to him, a 227 kg unit will be capable of producing around 250 MW of energy. The amount of energy is huge considering the fact that the unit will be small enough to be fitted in a car. As thorium’s density is almost same as uranium, the potential energy stored in it is huge. When thorium molecules become denser, they give spurts of heat. This heat will be put to good use. A car running with the initial fueling of 8 gm of thorium would not need refueling for thousands and thousands of miles.
Named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder, thorium has highest melting point (3,182° F) of all oxides. Thorium is more abundant than uranium and it is estimated that the world’s richest thorium reserves could lie in India. This fact is consolidated by India’s attempts to build nuclear plants that are powered more by thorium and less by uranium. But the problem is that thorium cannot be directly used as in nuclear plants as uranium. In addition, as the demand of thorium is less, the exploration techniques adopted for are failing to see the cutting edge technological benefits in its domain. It needs many steps of processing to make it as a passable source of energy for the nuclear reactors. Hence, even though India has world’s largest deposits of thorium, its use in nuclear plants is limited.
Other interesting fact why most of the nuclear plants all around the world use uranium instead of thorium is that when uranium is used as a raw material, it gives out plutonium as a byproduct after fission. Plutonium could be used to build weapons. This ideology was developed and pursued by industrialists after the WW II. Hence, the present industrial technology psyche is still with uranium based nuclear plants and not with thorium. It is almost impossible to get any useful material to build weapons from thorium. Hence, the craze for plutonium! But countries like India, Russia, Germany, France, the Netherlands have realized the importance of thorium and have undertaken research work related with it.
As of now, the development of portable and usable mini turbine and generator is more difficult than designing the thorium laser unit. But Charles Stevens is upbeat and think that a commercial prototype on road will be a reality in less than two years. As far as the problem of radioactivity of thorium is concerned, it can be solved with a simple technique. Thorium has very less radioactivity and its isotopes can be blocked with an aluminum foil. Thus, thorium based power unit can be simply fitted within a 3 inch stainless steel box without the fear of its radioactivity.
People are skeptical about the idea of thorium-powered cars. Submarines and oil tankers already run on nuclear powered engines but reducing the size of these engine units to be compatible with that of car’s size will be a daunting task. In addition, there are serious concerns regarding the byproducts resulting from thorium’s disintegration. There are fears that these by products could be put to deadly use. Nevertheless, Charles Stevens is firm that developing these by products into dangerous weapons requires a great deal of research and expertise in the field. He says that he is building a “subcritical” system. It means that the thorium inside the unit would not undergo any nuclear reaction. It will remain as it is and would not change into Uranium-233. Uranium-233 is formed only when thorium is superheated and generates a fission reaction. The engine unit been developed by Stevens works at very less temperatures than this temperature limits.
Use of thorium has its other advantages such as negligible production of nuclear waste products. Uranium is notorious for producing a large number of nuclear waste products who have to be dealt with separate special disposal techniques. Working with 40 workers, operating from an in-house research workshop, Charles Stevens has caught the attention by his declaration to build thorium-powered car. If it becomes a reality, the dependence on gasoline for cars is sure to go down by a large percentage.