By Tim Beissmann | August 16th, 2011
A US company says it will have a nuclear-powered prototype vehicle on the road within two years.
Laser Power Systems from Connecticut is developing a method of propulsion that uses thorium to produce electricity to power a car engine.
Thorium is an element similar to uranium and because it is such a dense material it has the potential to produce massive amounts of heat.
According to Laser Power Systems CEO, Charles Stevens, just one gram of thorium produces more energy than 28,000 litres of petrol. Mr Stevens says just eight grams of thorium would be enough to power a vehicle for its entire life.
In an interview with Ward’s Auto, he explained small pieces of thorium were used to generate heat and were positioned to create a thorium laser. The lasers heat water to produce steam and power a series of mini-turbines.
Mr Stevens said an engine weighing approximately 227kg would be light enough and compact enough to fit under the bonnet of a conventional car.
If it were that simple though, petrol would already be a thing of the past.
Mr Steven said developing turbines and generators that were usable and portable was much more difficult than making the thorium lasers.
“How do you take the laser and put these things together efficiently?” This is the question Mr Stevens and the 40 workers at Laser Power Systems are currently trying to answer.
If they can get the technology to work, however, Mr Stevens says thorium-powered cars could “run for a million miles”.
“The car will wear out before the engine. There is no oil, no emissions – nothing.”
If thorium does become a major power source of the future, Australia would be well placed to become a global energy giant.
According to the US Geological Survey, Australia has the second highest level of thorium in the world with 333,690 tonnes – accounting for somewhere between one quarter and one sixth of the world’s thorium reserves.
The concept of the thorium-powered car is not brand new. In 2009, Loren Kulesus presented the Cadillac World Thorium Fuel Concept (or the WTF as it became affectionately known).
Kulesus said apart from adjusting the Cadillac WTF’s 24 tyres every five years, not one element of the vehicle would need to be added or subtracted in 100 years.