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Transportation Power Hardware

8 Grams of Thorium Could Replace Gasoline In Cars 937

Posted by Soulskill
from the it's-cheap-on-the-auction-house-too dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Thorium, an abundant and radioactive rare earth mineral, could be used in conjunction with a laser and mini turbines to easily produce enough electricity to power a vehicle. When thorium is heated, it generates further heat surges, allowing it to be coupled with mini turbines to produce steam that can then be used to generate electricity. Combining a laser, radioactive material, and mini-turbines might sound like a complicated alternative solution to filling your gas tank, but there's one feature that sells it as a great alternative solution: 1 gram of thorium produces the equivalent energy of 7,500 gallons of gasoline."
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8 Grams of Thorium Could Replace Gasoline In Cars

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  • Hmmm (Score:5, Funny)

    by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:38PM (#37070600)
    So when I go to the gas station and ask them for a couple of grams, I might get Thorium some day? ;)
    • Re:Hmmm (Score:5, Funny)

      by elrous0 (869638) * on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:46PM (#37070762)

      Depends on the neighborhood.

    • Re:Hmmm (Score:4, Interesting)

      by rwa2 (4391) * on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:52PM (#37070884) Homepage Journal

      "abundant" "rare earth mineral"

      Sounds like like it's only relatively abundant.

      Also sounds like 1g of Thorium probably only translates to 7500 gal of gasoline under optimal conditions, which I take to mean unrealistic efficiencies and economies of scale beyond what's achievable for a turbine that would fit in a small car. Just one of the silly things about steam turbines, they're only really efficient enough to be practical when they're really really big (like, 777 or better yet factory-sized).

      • Re:Hmmm (Score:5, Informative)

        by wagnerrp (1305589) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:03PM (#37071092)
        The term "rare earth" is a bit of a misnomer. The materials themselves are not that rare. The issue is that they are not commonly found in a rich deposit. Rather, they are dispersed throughout an area, requiring expensive mining and refining techniques.
      • Re:Hmmm (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Hadlock (143607) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:05PM (#37071142) Homepage Journal

        Assuming 50% real world efficiency, and that your car averages 20mpg, 1 gram of thorium would still get you through your first 75,000 miles. I'm ok with that! They can design a helium fuel tank to not rupture in an explosive manner at highway speeds in a car, surely they can put 1g of thorium in a container that won't disperse the material in an aerosol form on impact. I'm not sure what the cost of Thorium is, but I'm willing to bet 1g of refined Thorium is under $200. I spend that much on gas in a month.

        • Re:Hmmm (Score:4, Insightful)

          by rlanctot (310750) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:36PM (#37071766)

          I think the challenge here is not to design a container that won't explode, but to design a container to keep environmentalists' brains from exploding when they hear the words 'car' and 'radioactiver' used together.

      • Re:Hmmm (Score:5, Informative)

        by f()rK()_Bomb (612162) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:13PM (#37071290)

        Rare earth elements arent actually rare, its just a confusing name. Thorium is actually pretty plentiful, 3 or 4 times more common than uranium and its very easy to extract. We get it was a by product when we purify the rare earths we need anyways. Thorium would have been used for the original nuclear reactors, its vastly safer and you cant use it to manufacture weapons. And therein lies the problem of course, they wanted to be able to make nukes from reactors back when we built them.

        I believe you are right about them really making the numbers sound much better than they should be. That sounds like the kind of efficiency youd get from using thorium in a full-scale nuclear plant.

      • Abundant? USGS survey estimated (from TFA):

        U.S. leading with 440,900 tons (440,000 t),
        followed by Australia with 333,690 tons (300,000 t)
        India's estimates ranging from 319,667 to 716,490 tons (290,000-1650,000 t).
      • Re:Hmmm (Score:5, Insightful)

        by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:29PM (#37071638)
        I just read the article - this is a scam. A hoax. They say one gram = 7500 gallons of gasoline but at the end claim no nuclear reactions are taking place. They say you have to "superheat" the thorium for that to happen.

        Without nuclear reactions, there is no way to have one gram of thorium release the same energy as 7500 gallons of gasoline. It's simply impossible.

        And there is no way to have a laser cause a nuclear reaction unless you are using it to implode targets.

        Thorium is being looked at as reactor fuel but it's not the kind of reactor that would fit under an automobile hood.

        I hope nobody invests any money in this. It isn't real.
        • by mmontour (2208)

          I just read the article - this is a scam. A hoax.

          No mod points today so I'll just repeat what you said.

          Move along folks, nothing to see here, just a sinkhole for your investment dollars.

        • It is pretty obvious that it is a hoax. If they could pull this off at the car level then they could certainly pull it off at larger scales, such as power generating plants. And much safer too, since power generating plants crash into each other much less often than cars do. Since the technology isn't being used to replace uranium based nuclear reactors, and more uranium based reactors are being planned in spite of the many problems (waste products, and the slightly annoying problem of destroying large area
        • by Smauler (915644)

          It's symptomatic of the way people expect a magic solution. I'm quite depressed I've scrolled this far down through all the comments before someone said "bullshit".

          I love new technology, and am not necessarily skeptical. However, when someone claims magic fuel, when easily transportable fuel is _the_ problem with fuel that has not been solved in the history of humanity (we're not orders of magnitude away from carrying food for your horse)... I am a little skeptical.

          I'm not saying it can't work, just that

        • Have to agree here. It's got to be a scam. I didn't make it past the fourth paragraph of the article before we delved into the world of pseudoscience. Heating thorium makes it "more" dense ad that's why it give off more heat? There must be a Nobel prize in there somewhere. A material that compresses when you heat it, rather than expanding. While it might, or might not, be true at a certain temperature and pressure, like the triple point or some other boundary condition, it certainly wouldn't be true in a ge

  • NIMBY (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ddxexex (1664191) on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:39PM (#37070630)
    Unfortunately, this technology probably won't get to far after people read the word 'radioactive', even though I'd hazard to guess that 8g of Thorium probably has less environmental and health impact than 7,500 gallons of gasoline. Otherwise it sounds awesome. Is there another word for 'radioactive' we can use to get rid of the negative connotation?
    • by sammy baby (14909)

      Unfortunately, this technology probably won't get to far after people read the word 'radioactive', even though I'd hazard to guess that 8g of Thorium probably has less environmental and health impact than 7,500 gallons of gasoline. Otherwise it sounds awesome. Is there another word for 'radioactive' we can use to get rid of the negative connotation?

      "Have you tried our new Frosted Thorium Cereal?"

      "Hey, wait. I thought that Thorium is radioactive."

      "Aha - you're referring to our special CoolDecay technology! It's Alpha-parti-tastic!! (tm)"

    • Re:NIMBY (Score:4, Insightful)

      by ZombieBraintrust (1685608) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:04PM (#37071120)
      Hom many gallons of gasoline does it take to mine 8g of Thorium? Oil comes out of the ground pretty easily. Is it similer to mining coal? Or are we talking displacing and sifting through a ton of dirt and rock?
    • Cars crash. It's a fact of life. I would much rather use that thorium in a reactor somewhere, then transfer the power from the reactor to the car. You know, on account of the fact that stationary reactors are much less likely to crash and spew parts everywhere.

      • from the wikipedia article on alpha particles.

        Because of their charge and large mass, alpha particles are easily absorbed by materials, and they can travel only a few centimetres in air. They can be absorbed by tissue paper...

        also

        Because of the short range of absorption, alphas are not, in general, dangerous to life unless the source is ingested or inhaled

      • by syousef (465911)

        Cars crash. It's a fact of life. I would much rather use that thorium in a reactor somewhere, then transfer the power from the reactor to the car. You know, on account of the fact that stationary reactors are much less likely to crash and spew parts everywhere.

        Well they can design black boxes to withstand aircraft impacts at 10x the speed a normal passenger car travels on any restricted speed highway on the planet. It wouldn't be that hard. The hard parts are 1) Is this real or just a scam? (I'd bank on scam) and 2) If it is real try to get this past the petrol giants.

  • "Thorium, an abundant and radioactive rare earth mineral,"... Is it abundant, or is it rare?
    • Re:So which is it? (Score:5, Informative)

      by kimvette (919543) on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:46PM (#37070758) Homepage Journal

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_earth_element [wikipedia.org]

      Despite their name, rare earth elements (with the exception of the radioactive promethium) are relatively plentiful in the Earth's crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper). However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms known as rare earth minerals.[3] It was the very scarcity of these minerals (previously called "earths") that led to the term "rare earth". The first such mineral discovered was gadolinite, a compound of cerium, yttrium, iron, silicon and other elements. This mineral was extracted from a mine in the village of Ytterby in Sweden; many of the rare earth elements bear names derived from this location.

    • by feepness (543479)
      "Thorium, an abundant and radioactive rare earth mineral,"... Is it abundant, or is it rare?

      "Rare earth" is a bit of a misnomer. It's rarer than silicon, aluminum, or iron, but there's still a lot of it to be found rather easily.

      Wikipedia says thorium is about as common as lead.
    • by erice (13380)

      "Thorium, an abundant and radioactive rare earth mineral,"...

      Is it abundant, or is it rare?

      "rare earth" doesn't mean rare. "Rare earth's" are a class of elements that are fairly common in the Earth's crust but not often concentrated enough for profitable mining. The concentrated deposits that do exist tend to have many kinds of rare earth's which makes the extraction that much more difficult because they are chemically similar.

  • especially the amazing (and potentially deadly) nuclear explosion caused when you breach the containment on a 200-year-old nuclear engine in a derelict car.

    I have no idea how late-21st-century society in the Fallout reality could have gotten by with car accidents with nuclear detonations instead of gasoline fires.

    I learned very early on no to take cover near a car with an engine during a firefight. I swear some of the NPCs choose to shoot up the car to kill you with the explosion.

    OTOH, starting a chain reac

  • Yeah, right. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Animats (122034) on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:42PM (#37070684) Homepage

    From the article:

    A 250 MW unit weighing about 500 lbs. (227 kg) would be small and light enough to drop under the hood of a car, he says.

    250 megawatts? Somebody is just making up numbers. Takeoff power for a 747 is about 100MW.

  • by mysidia (191772) * on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:43PM (#37070688)

    allowing it to be coupled with mini turbines to produce steam that can then be used to generate electricity.

    Forget cars... every house could use one of these Thorium generators to produce its own power.

    We'd no longer need a massive, failure-prone, expensive, inefficient electrical grid to get electricity.

    if 1 gram = 7500gal, then a kilogram will power my house for a hundred years or more.

    • by a_nonamiss (743253) on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:57PM (#37070978)
      What's more, you could charge a battery powered electric vehicle at your house, and save the need for you to lug around a small nuclear reactor in your car. The article talks about the difficulties of miniaturizing it for use in cars. Simple solution: don't. We already have batteries that fit nicely into a car and have a range nearing 300 miles, in 10 years that range will probably be 10 times what it is today. Plus, if it meant efficient energy, I wouldn't really mind something the size of a box truck in my backyard, or my basement. Hell, you could probably bury most of the reactor underground.
      • by wagnerrp (1305589)
        What's more, you could lug around a small nuclear reactor, and save the need to use giant batteries filled with caustic chemicals manufactured by toxic processes. They're talking about something small and light enough you personally could pick it up and put it in your trunk.
  • Where? (Score:5, Funny)

    by wsxyz (543068) on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:43PM (#37070696)
    Where does the shark go? There's got to be a shark involved somewhere.
  • by Pigeon451 (958201) on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:44PM (#37070708)

    According to the article, the thorium takes 30 seconds of heating before it can be used. Where does the power to run the 250 MW laser come from during this time? Or even after?

    This is just some guy trying to drum up support for his startup. A combination of mining issues, radioactivity (what happens in a car crash -- call out the hazmat team!) and unproven efficiency beg this to fail.

    • by elrous0 (869638) *

      The same place your car's starter gets the energy to crank the engine, from a battery.

    • by gstoddart (321705)

      According to the article, the thorium takes 30 seconds of heating before it can be used. Where does the power to run the 250 MW laser come from during this time? Or even after?

      You jump-start it with another 250MW thorium laser.

      It's thorium all the way down [wikipedia.org].

    • This concern would be easily addressed if instead we tried putting these things in our back yards, and not in cars. Then, it would just be running all the time, possibly with enough power in batteries or capacitors to cover the power needs for a few start-ups. We already have small batteries that fit into cars, which could be charged at home. I can't fathom why we'd insist on carrying around a small nuclear reactor with us in our car.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:45PM (#37070728)

    There's something seriously lacking in the explanation. "When thorium is heated, it generates further heat surges." Where do these come from?

    Nuclear fission? Perhaps possible, but why does it need to be heated for it?
    Alpha and beta decay? Again, possible and even happens, but in that case 1 gram isn't going to be nearly enough.
    Or perhaps thorium is being used as a store of energy, but there are better materials for it and a gram is again tiny.

    My bullshit detector is beeping silently in the background...

    • The article doesn't even make sense physically.

    • by TexVex (669445)

      My bullshit detector is beeping silently in the background...

      As is mine. Looking at both articles, and googling a bit, I keep running across a statement to the effect that when the Thorium is heated, its molecules become so dense that it produces heat surges. Then they go on to talk about the amount of energy that could be extracted from Thorium in a fission reaction.

      These articles also mention that it is believed that the internal heat of the Earth is due largely in part to the presence of uranium and

    • by cartman (18204)

      I'm not able to make any sense out of it either. The article says:

      Stevens agrees, emphasizing his system is “subcritical.” This means no nuclear reaction occurs within the thorium. It remains in the same state...

      ...in which case it's not clear where the energy is coming from. It's apparently not coming from fissioning or from breeding some fissile element. It can't be coming from decay heat which would be extremely trivial in this case.

      Is he claiming that heating an element will cause it to dec

    • First we have to deal with "abundant rare earth" elements, and now we have to listen to "silent beeping"? The future... it is so confusing.

    • by tsotha (720379)

      My bullshit detector is beeping silently in the background...

      My bullshit detector is flashing darkly at your bullshit detector.

  • Every home with an atomic pile! Atomic cars! It's the 50's atomic utopia!

    So, what's the thorium turn into once it's been used? That's one big question. How much radioactivity does it generate and what kinds when it is being used? And will we ever get over the fright of people having 'nuclear cars'? Will it be much worse for someone to be in possession of 8 grams of thorium than a truckload of fertilizer and some diesel fuel?

  • will that give us flying cars by 2015? Marty will be surprised if we dont make them on time, and history depends on that.
  • by babywhiz (781786) on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:48PM (#37070816) Journal
    In my alts guild bank. Now everyone is gonna be in Un'goro with their bots....wait.....
  • Doesn't solve the problem of steam inefficiency. There were plenty of steam cars and even the more efficient ones that reclaimed some of the steam were never particularly great on water consumption. You'd likely need to stop more often for water than you currently do for gas, and water is of course quite bulky and heavy just like gas. It's a cool idea either way, but I'd prefer a mechanical drive setup like traditional steam cars and steam engines.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Are they being followed in this article? What I do not understand is how slight radioactivity can produce more heat than is required to start the process, and how 1 gram is 7,500 gallons of gas. What in the thorium model is being consumed, and how is it being consumed without radioactive decay? Makes no sense...

  • Sounds good, but I will only buy one if they design the thorium receptacle to look like a "Mr Fusion" machine.
  • Fraud (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Scareduck (177470)

    Majikal lasers hitting thorium, and whoosh, electricity? What is the physical mechanism for harvesting this electricity?

    This smells like naked fraud.

  • Or a complete lie. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by queazocotal (915608) on Friday August 12, 2011 @12:57PM (#37070982)

    Radioactive decay can't be stimulated by lasers.
    The original article links eventually to what is basically a crackpot attempting to steal investors money.
    The whole basis of the article is a complete fabrication, or at best delusion.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactivity [wikipedia.org] "Radioactive decay is a stochastic (i.e., random) process at the level of single atoms, in that, according to quantum theory, it is impossible to predict when a given atom will decay."

    Disprove this - by making it nonrandom - and you as a starting point have just got a nice shiny Nobel prize.

    • Radioactive decay can't be stimulated by lasers.

      This is not, strictly speaking, true. If you had a gamma ray laser you might be able to affect how a nucleus decayed. The real issue is that none of the lasers we have have a high enough frequency to affect an atomic nucleus.

      And pouring on more light won't help. It needs to be quantized so each little packet that could potentially absorbed has an energy level that allows it to interact with the thing doing the absorbing.

      So, in all practicality you are correct, but in theory you are not.

  • by verbatim (18390) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:07PM (#37071182) Homepage

    So, yesterday I read that MIT cured the common cold, Penn cured Leukemia, a cancer, and today a private researcher claims to have solved both the fuel and emissions problems that are currently only getting worse. Okay, yeah, all of these are preliminary and experimental, but holy shit... Got Hope? Obama fucking delivered!

    (LOL)

  • Several thoughts (Score:4, Interesting)

    by WindBourne (631190) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:18PM (#37071392) Journal
    Far too many nut jobs in America (on both sides of the equation) will carp about this as being dangerous on the highways. However, there would be multiple places why this should be developed quickly:
    1) Tractors, construction equipment, etc. all make heavy use of fuel. By putting this in these, it would drop energy usage across the nation by 5% or more (yup, this equipment makes HEAVY use of fuel). In addition, it has the advantage that there is LITTLE chance of accidents compared to highway miles.
    2) Trains. This could be used on trains easily. Relatively few accidents compared to cars. In addition, there could be one car up front for the engineer and major motor, with this on another car 1-2 back. With that approach, less chance of damage (again keeping the nut jobs happy).
    2) Space. We need the ability to send nuke power to the moon and mars. Nut jobs get upset about Pb going up. Thorium is SAFE by itself AND even less is needed. It is ideal to send up something like this to the moon, remote missions, etc. Heck, combine this with the new Stirling power generator and we can send new voyagers out that have a VASIMR engine that will work for the next 40 years.
  • by erice (13380) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:20PM (#37071456) Homepage

    Thorium, by itself, does not fission. You need a neutron source to breed Uranium from Thorium which you can then fission. Just shooting a lazer at Thorium isn't going to do anything. Thorium is radioactive but you will need much more than a few grams to power you car that way.

  • by liquidweaver (1988660) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:23PM (#37071520)
    This is the Charles Stevens http://help-cure-disease-now.blogspot.com/ [blogspot.com] http://www.linkedin.com/in/laserturbinepower [linkedin.com] A whois on his website shows creation in Dec 2010, and he lists. 1985 at the bottom of his website. This whole thing is ridiculous. How does this stuff make front page Slashdot? Did Slashdot merge with Enquirer or the Onion recently?
  • by Animats (122034) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:27PM (#37071592) Homepage

    Actual web site of promoter. [laserturbinepower.com] Even worse car-related web site of promoter. [laserturbinepower.com] He's been plugging this since 2009 or so.

    Laser-induced fission [aip.org] is quite feasible, and requires far less energy input than laser-induced fusion. Laser fission of thorium [nucleonica.net] has been done on a small scale as a lab experiment. Thorium reactors have been built, with modest success.

    A pure thorium reactor won't achieve criticality, because thorium has no isotopes that fission on their own. The fuel has to have uranium or plutonium mixed in to start the nuclear reaction. The laser concept seems to be to use a laser to get things going.

    There's been some interest in accelerator-pumped thorium fission. [world-nuclear.org] It's been tried in Japan [kyoto-u.ac.jp], but that group hasn't reached breakeven. It's a plausible concept, but so far nobody has been able to figure out a way to make it work.

    Incidentally, this is not a "clean" process. It generates radioactive by-products where the accelerator beam hits the thorium, in addition to the usual nuclear reactor fission products. A car-sized version is a fantasy.

  • by rabtech (223758) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:31PM (#37071682) Homepage

    First of all the claim that no nuclear reactions are going on must be false for this to work at all, otherwise this is just another perpetual motion machine.

    Second, what do they mean by "heat pulses"? The only way I can see this working is if the laser manages to knock some particles loose, generate a few antiparticles, or momentarily compresses a small area of the thorium causing a non-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. If you could cause a small reaction you could certainly get some heat out of it but it would definitely be a nuclear reaction converting mass into energy.

    This smells like a scam and I will assume it to be one until proof is offered.

  • by Cyberax (705495) on Friday August 12, 2011 @01:47PM (#37071960)

    The whole article is GARBAGE, pure and simple. And people discuss how the price of Thorium affects the viability of this scheme.

    "When thorium is heated it becomes extremely hot and causes heat surges allowing it to be coupled with mini turbines producing steam that can then be used to generate electricity. It also helps that it has a very large liquid range between melting and boiling point."

    Newsflash: when iron is heated it becomes extremely hot! Let's power our cars by bars of steel heated by lasers!

    You are not going to get additional energy out of thorium unless you start a nuclear chain reaction (discounting its minuscule decay heat). And to start it you need to make it critical. Critical mass of a Thorium sphere is about 20kg. And while you might lower it a bit by compressing it, I somehow doubt that you're going to have Jupiter-core-level pressure to make 8g of Th dense enough to support the chain reaction.

    And even if you do, you'll get a non-trivial amount of energy in form of such nice things as gamma rays and neutrons. And remember, it takes about 1000 Joules of gamma ray energy to kill you. That's about 0.05 seconds of output of 20kW engine.

  • by Sans_A_Cause (446229) on Friday August 12, 2011 @02:19PM (#37072444)

    I was enjoying that story immensely right up until the point where I remembered the first law of thermodynamics.

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