Nov 01

The Old “NEW” Nuclear Fuel: Thorium

An old overlooked technology using an alternative to Uranium fueled nuclear reactors may now be the answer to the energy problems of the planet.   It is called Thorium 232 and is a radioactive fissile material that appears to be superior for energy production to Uranium and Plutonium.  If new reactors can be designed and developed to utilize this material the potential and promise is far, far too great to ignore. [Note: American scientists designed and built a Thorium reactor and ran it for nearly five years in the late 1960’s.  I.E. we invented the thing.  The science was not pursued due to the fact that Thorium could not be used to produce weapons grade Uranium or Plutonium, only energy.] The reactor designs would be much simpler and cheaper than the generation III water cooled reactors on the drawing board and now being licensed at this moment.  If Thorium reactors were to be developed as a crash program using the best and brightest minds available, including some borrowed from Europe and Asia, we might have them up and running within 5 years or less. (Please click on the links near the bottom of the page.)  Such reactors would be far safer than anything now in use and would shut themselves down automatically if they overheated without fear of radiation leakage.  The Thorium fuel would last generations and consume itself leaving little or no waste to be disposed of.  Indeed, the very short half-life of any residual material would result in loss of radioactivity leaving valuable materials such as Rhodium, etc, available for industrial use.  The process could literally “burn” our nuclear waste into harmless, even useful materials.  This type of reactor would be tamper proof and immune from nefarious use.  It cannot melt down the same way a water cooled reactor can and needs no cooling system to operate.  Even if there should be rupture of the system the liquid Thorium/Fluoride reactor medium would simply dribble out and cool down becoming a solid inactive mass posing little or no danger to the environment.

The abundant power produced and available for industry and wealth production would sustain world economies, including ours, for possibly a thousand years since Thorium is four (4) times more abundant on the planet than Uranium, is much cheaper, and is consumed completely during its much longer useful lifespan as opposed to Uranium which leaves ever increasing waste materials with very long half lives to be stored or disposed of.

By the way, if this seems too far out, think about this.  You are sitting on a Thorium fueled reactor as you read this.  The heat from the Earths core is produced by a giant mass of Thorium and Uranium.  Otherwise this planet would have cooled off millions of years ago and would now be a lifeless rock.  It gives one pause to reflect on just how perfect a phenomena is our existence.

Example of Potential Application:

The Electric Highway:

The production of such reactors all along an elevated 21st Century highway system would make interstate and local transportation desirable and efficient by using induction drive systems in electric automobiles which would be charged en-route and propelled in transit drawing power from the induction system. (Note: Induction is already used in modern cook top electric ranges and to charge cell phone batteries, etc.  the South Koreans are already testing a mass transit prototype using induction coils imbedded in their streets.  The new Volvo C30 sedan is designed to be recharged by parking over an induction coil and Europeans are already talking about continuous systems.) Such highways and byways would invite fully automated vehicles moving over them at very high speeds (why fly?) without the driver touching the controls.  The highways, using residual power when needed, and using imbedded microwave emitters would automatically keep the highway system clear of snow and ice thus reducing maintenance problems in the infrastructure caused by the use of salt and other chemicals.  Other maintenance problems could be pre-empted by using 21st Century materials such as water proof cement (originally developed by the Romans in the 1st Century A.D. and is still in evidence in their structures to this day) and removable ceramic panels for pavement.  This would eliminate spalling due to the freeze-thaw cycle.  If microwave emitters beneath the ceramic pavement panels were used to prevent snow and ice accumulation harmful chemicals would no longer be needed.  Since the system is elevated less damage would occur due to wide temperature swings.  (ceramics: think bricks, which are still in use in many side streets after 100 years.) Also, migratory animals would no longer be inhibited or endangered by the system, nor would travelers using the highway.  (contact with a dear or such at 120 to 150 mph creates an intimidating mess.) Power lines used to distribute energy produced by hundreds, even thousands, of such reactors could be suspended in sleeved conduits under the elevated system and carry abundant power all along the highway system and distribute it to points of use along the way losing much less efficiency due to the shorter distances between reactors.  Extensive maintenance of such a system would be greatly reduced.  Systems innovated by the ancient Romans have lasted 2000 years using the technology of the time.  Could we not improve on those technologies today?

Such abundant and cheap energy would solve many, many problems facing the United States and populations all over the planet and may even reduce conflict, improving the economics, environment and living standards of all.  Sea water could be made drinkable and abundant for irrigation even in remote and arid areas of the world.  Carbon emissions and air pollution could become distant memories.  The seas  could be made clean again.  Only the demands of the people can launch us down this path.

The major difficulties faced in implementing this technology won’t be overcoming the science and design challenges, but rather the obstacles and obfuscation generated by major corporations and politicians  with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo.

Remember, freedom requires the responsible exercise of our own individual authority.  Acting together we can demand an honest effort to explore and pursue this amazing option and the potential benefits it promises.

Please do you own research.  Visit the links below for further information and ideas.  Make yourself heard!

All the best,

Advanced Manufacturing

Advanced Inputs, Outputs and Workforce


Thorium lasers: The thoroughly plausible idea for nuclear cars

  • August 29th, 2011
  • By Steven Ashley

Some proposed technological innovations seem so far out that they are easy to reject out of hand. But sometimes, a new idea has a kernel of plausibility. Such is the case with a new project to develop a thorium laser power generation system that its creator says could provide electricity for the grid, stand-alone power applications and even cars.

Charles Stevens, an inventor and entrepreneur, recently revealed that his Massachusetts-based R&D firm, Laser Power Systems (LPS), is working on a turbine/electric generator system that is powered by “an accelerator-driven thorium-based laser.” The thorium laser does not produce a beam of coherent light like conventional lasers, but instead merely heats up and gives off energy.

Thorium, a silvery-white metal, is a mildly radioactive element (with an atomic weight of 90) that is as abundant as lead. It is present in large quantities in India and is a much-touted stand in for uranium in nuclear reactors because its fission is not self-sustaining, a type of reaction called “sub-critical.”

The idea has energized the small but active thorium community, which holds that it is the answer to our clean energy needs because it could, effectively, power a car forever. The new technology “would be totally emissions-free,” Stevens said, “with no need for recharging.”

Laser Heating

The LPS power plant, for all its whiz-bang properties, isn’t a complete departure from traditional power generation: the thorium is lased and the resulting heat flashes a fluid and creates pressurized steam inside a closed-loop system. The steam then drives a turbine that turns an electric generator.

A 250-kilowatt unit (equivalent to about 335 horsepower) weighing about 500 pounds would be small and light enough to put under the hood of a car, Stevens claims. And because a gram of thorium has the equivalent potential energy content of 7,500 gallons of gasoline, LPS calculates that using just 8 grams of thorium in the unit could power an average car for 5,000 hours, or about 300,000 miles of normal driving.

Stevens isn’t the only one who believes thorium could power cars. In 2009 Cadillac introduced a thorium-powered concept car at the Chicago Auto Show. Designed by Lorus Kulesus, the sleek World Thorium Fuel Concept did not contain a working thorium-fueled nuclear-fission reactor that could generate the electricity to power it. But somebody at General Motors thought the idea to be sufficiently interesting to build a vehicle to show it off.

Thorium as a Power Source

Researchers in Russia, India and more recently, in China and North America, have studied using thorium as fuel for nuclear reactors, partly because it is more difficult to use in atomic weapons than uranium or plutonium.  In addition, only a thin layer of aluminum foil is needed to shield people from the weakly emitting metal.

Although prototype thorium-fueled nuclear reactors have been developed, the technology has never been adopted for commercial use because the nuclear powers opted after the Second World War to focus on uranium-based atomic energy. (Incidentally, the major powers chose to focus on Uranium reactors precisely because it could be weaponized, Stevens has said).

Thorium-Based Laser

Stevens’ innovation is to use thorium to make a laser, not a nuclear power reactor.

Indeed, the use of radioactive materials in lasers is not unheard of either. After all, when Bell Labs researchers demonstrated the second laser ever in 1960, they used a flashlamp (a very bright light) to excite a crystal of uranium-doped calcium fluoride to lase in the infrared light spectrum. Because of the need for a cryogenic (ultralow-temperature) system to cool the hot laser-gain medium during operation, however, uranium lasers never found much practical use.

The key twist to Stevens’ thorium-laser power concept is that it would use a radioactive element-based laser to produce heat, not a beam of coherent light.

Remaining Technical Hurdles

Stevens says that developing a compact turbine and generator set is proving to be more difficult than making the thorium laser itself. “We can build the laser, but the biggest problem has turned out to be integrating it efficiently with the turbine and generator,” he notes. LPS’ thorium laser itself is simply an adaptation of the MaxFeLaser, a design Stevens built in1985.

Stevens said his company has fabricated a modified Tesla turbine (no relation to the car company) to convert steam pressure into rotary motion. Unlike more familiar turbine types, a Tesla turbine is a bladeless centripetal-flow unit with a set of smooth disks that are placed in motion by directing moving gas, via nozzles, at the edges of the disks. The viscous (boundary-layer) drag on the disk surfaces that is produced by the gas flow causes them to rotate.

Further, after having found no off-the-shelf high-speed generators that fit his special application, his team has had to design a custom unit to efficiently produce electricity for his one-of-a-kind power plant.

Whether authorities will allow thorium-powered cars to roam the streets is another question. Stevens has not set a date for a prototype version (Ed. a prior version of this story incorrectly stated he had).

Top image: Cadillac’s World Thorium Fuel Concept. Courtesy Cadillac

Steven Ashley is a contributing editor at Scientific American magazine, where he writes and edits articles on general science and technology topics. Ashley’s work has been published in Popular Science, MIT’s Technology Review and Physics Today, among others.


- theBushwhacker

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.