Laser beams on a car windshield, photo courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsEnlarge Photo
The first is developing a fully functioning powertrain using a laser thorium system. The laser and thorium generator itself could be made small enough, but there also needs to be enough space for a portable and usable turbine and generator, and room for a closed-loop water system where water can be turned into steam and then condensed again.
Reza Hashemi-Nezhad, director of the Institute of Nuclear Science at the University of Syney, Australia, worries that terrorists could process thorium to turn it into uranium 233, commonly used in nuclear weaponry, but Stevens disagrees.
Laser Power Systems' device would not heat thorium to a point that nuclear reaction begins, meaning the system is "subcritical" and the thorium remains in a stable state. It would take incredible heat and energy to produce uranium from thorium.
The laser heating process brings up another issue - cold starting. It could take 30 seconds for the system to generate enough heat to produce steam for the generators, so it's not suitable for a quick getaway. On the plus side, driving an electric powertrain it would be as silent as any current electric car, only with a range of millions of miles.
The only other main problem of thorium is that we simply haven't figured out a suitable way of extracting it from the reserves we have, since it's never been in demand before. A new extraction and production cycle would have to rise to meet the world's demands for the element.
Thorium - the future?
Unfortunately, it's still too early to tell whether we'll be driving around in thorium-powered cars in the future. The carbuying public would have to be educated as to the benefits and safety of such a system to overcome any doubts they might have about a radioactive fuel beneath the hood, and disasters like Fukushima certainly don't ease the nerves.
Laser Power systems plans to create a prototype thorium car within the next few years to demonstrate its theory though, and if it works as well as they suggest it could, the discussion about battery technology could soon become irrelevant and range anxiety a thing of the past...