If your car was powered by thorium, you would never need to refuel it. The vehicle would burn out long before the chemical did. The thorium would last so long, in fact, it would probably outlive you.
That’s why a company called Laser Power Systems has created a concept for a thorium-powered car engine. The element is radioactive, and the team uses bits of it to build a laserbeam that heats water, produces steam, and powers an energy-producing turbine.
Thorium is one of the most dense materials on the planet. A small sample of it packs 20 million times more energy than a similarly-sized sample of coal, making it an ideal energy source.
The thing is, Dr. Charles Stevens, the CEO of Laser Power Systems, told Mashable that thorium engines won’t be in cars anytime soon. Cars are not our primary interest,” Stevens said. “The automakers don’t want to buy them.”
He said too much of the automobile industry is focused on making money off of gas engines, and it will take at least a couple decades for thorium technology to be used enough in other industries that vehicle manufacturers will begin to consider revamping the way they think about engines.
“We’re building this to power the rest of the world,” Stevens said. He believes a thorium turbine about the size of an air conditioning unit could more provide cheap power for whole restaurants, hotels, office buildings, even small towns in areas of the world without electricity. At some point, thorium could power individual homes.
Stevens understands that people may be wary of Thorium because it is radioactive — but any such worry would be unfounded.
“The radiation that we develop off of one of these things can be shielded by a single sheet off of aluminum foil,” Stevens said. “You will get more radiation from one of those dental X-rays than this.”
Wider Implications of Thorium
According to Robert Hargraves, “low or non-CO2 emitting energy sources must be cheaper than coal or will ultimately fail to displace fossil fuels.” The United States uses 20% of the world’s energy today and, according to Hargraves, if it cut its CO2 emissions to zero, 80% produced by other countries would still be a problem. With CO2 emissions climbing seemingly beyond all bounds, pessimism is rampant and bold ideas are needed.
Thorium may also be the answer to the world’s nuclear energy conundrum and Wikipedia provides some of its advantages:
- Weapons-grade fissionable material (233U) is harder to retrieve safely and clandestinely from a thorium reactor; this means, for example, Iran could be asked to develop only a thorium based reactor, virtually eliminating the issue of nuclear weapon development.
- Thorium produces 10 to 10,000 times less long-lived radioactive waste;
- Thorium mining produces a single pure isotope, whereas the mixture of natural uranium isotopes must be enriched to function in most common reactor designs. The same cycle could also use the fissionable U-238 component of the natural uranium, and also contained in the depleted reactor fuel;
- Thorium cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction without priming, so fission stops by default in an accelerator driven reactor.
Hargraves sees factories and other industrial concerns using thorium as well. Stay tuned as we track this idea and its development.