This week’s Txchnologist, the online magazine sponsored by GE, examines a far-out technological innovation that might just contain a kernel of plausibility: 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.”
The LPS power plant, for 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.
Head to Txchnologist to read more about thorium as a power source and tech details about Stevens’ laser.