Jesse Berst of the Center for Smart Energy points out that if Thomas Edison came back from the grave he'd find our electric grid pretty much just as he left it. I'd add that Henry Ford (Edison's bosom buddy) would find our cars recognizable, too: Four wheels, internal combustion engine, exhaust pipe, etc.
But suppose we reinvented the car and replaced that engine with something Edison would never have imagined — a nuclear reactor? The idea of nuke cars is actually not new: Circa 1957, Ford built a 3/8th-sized scale model of an exotic looking vehicle (huge fins) called the Nucleon (above) that was supposed to go 5,000 miles on a radioactive "charge." Uranium fission heated a steam generator, and the steam drove turbines.
The reactor was in the trunk, so storage space wasn't too great. According to Ford, "The model featured a power capsule suspended between twin booms at the rear. The capsule, which would contain a radioactive core for motive power, would be easily interchangeable at the driver's option, according to performance needs and the distance to be traveled."
The major no-go issue was safety: If two nuclear cars collided, the accident scene would need to be quarantined for 10,000 years. It's not surprising that the Nucleon never made it to a full-sized prototype, but such was the nuclear optimism of the "too cheap to meter" 1950s.
We may see some modern "nuclear cars," though the trunk-based nuke is out. Charles Stevens of the Massachusetts-based R&D company Laser Power Systems has come up with a system whose active ingredient is thorium, which is radioactive but not on the same scale as uranium (though it can sub for it in reactors). In the proposed car, "an accelerator-driven thorium-based laser" is used not to send a beam of energy but to generate concentrated heat.
Stevens says his thorium car would be "emissions free" and never need recharging. A gram of thorium has the same energy content as 7,500 gallons of gas, and eight grams could power a car for 300,000 miles.
Cadillac also liked the idea, and created a concept car (with styling right out of Star Trek) called the World Thorium Fuel Concept. It doesn't have any actual onboard thorium, but it theoretically could. Stevens doesn't have a working model, either, because he's reportedly having some difficulties integrating the laser with the turbine and generator. And I can't believe it would be easy to get the car licensed.
It would be great if you could create a nuclear car safely, but there are a million reasons it will never work. The Russians put an 8.8-megawatt reactor on wheels, but I'd be calmer driving a nitroglycerin truck through a minefield.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, ABC reports, "have created a long-sought molecule known as uranium nitride" that is designed to remove hydrogen atoms from carbon atoms and "extract more energy from fossil fuels, making cars more fuel-efficient, and could also lead to cheaper drugs." And the DOE's Idaho National Laboratory said last week that they'd put together a suitcase-sized 40-kilowatt nuke that "could power up to eight normal-sized homes."
But aren't suitcase nukes a huge terrorist threat? Just asking.