For the past 70 years or so, the idea of using thorium as an energy source for cars has come around time and again. Beginning with the concept for the 1957 Ford Nucleon that, if adopted, would have featured a nuclear reactor in the trunk, the discussion continues right into the 21st century.
On paper, the idea makes perfect sense. In practice, however, the concept is fraught with concerns. Thorium is related to its more familiar element, Uranium. Inasmuch, it’s a radioactive material that is naturally found on Earth. We know how uranium works. Thorium isn’t much different. Though, it does have different and unique characteristics that make it a candidate for a variety of useful functions, even if it doesn’t become part of the electric car future.
Number 90 on the Periodic Table of the Elements, it’s found in rocks, soil, plants and other materials existing in nature. Its discovery dates back to 1829, yet its usable applications are limited nearly 200 years later. Commonly, it’s combined with magnesium to create an alloy used in airplane engines. It’s also been used in electrical components such as those found in televisions and incorporated into jewelry-making. Thorium is also present in scientific lenses, some ceramics, cameras and electric lamps. Perhaps most intriguing is the idea of using thorium as a source of nuclear power.
As for the environment
When the conversation starts, the first question is about the potential damage to the environment from mining the materials. While it does have to be extracted from its naturally-occurring state, it’s widely distributed around the planet and is mostly extracted from Australia, Canada, the United States, Russia and India.
Thorium is estimated to be at least three times more prevalent than uranium, making it about as common as lead. In addition to being more readily available, thorium is highly energy-efficient compared to uranium, too, producing more energy during reactions. The waste is less radioactive than uranium, and the chemical reaction can be stopped in process, offering a safety feature not present in its widely-used uranium cousin. One other significant difference between the reactions of the two elements is that thorium doesn’t produce plutonium, which of course is the government’s key ingredient in the recipe for nuclear warheads.
As an energy source, thorium is superior in other ways, too. As it’s mined from the earth, thorium is basically ready to power a nuclear reactor. Uranium, on the other hand, requires serious hand-holding to convert the 3-5% that’s reactor ready into a higher amount. It’s an incredibly energy-consumptive process. Plus, thorium doesn’t spontaneously begin to produce energy. It needs additional neutrons to make that happen. This is a safety feature that allows scientists to control the reaction easily. Stop feeding it neutrons and stop the reaction.
At the end of the process, we’re still left with radioactive waste, however, it’s thousands of times less than that produced from uranium. It also has a shorter radioactive life. Where uranium needs to be buried or otherwise secured away for 10,000 years, and protected against theft from nefarious criminals who want to use the material to make nuclear bombs, thorium material waste will break down in around 500 years. Obviously, it’s still not ideal for the environment, but if we’re going for progress and not perfection, it’s a candidate worth consideration.
Although, fears about the safety of thorium are not unjustified. While we are all exposed to small amounts on a regular basis, prolonged exposure to thorium is believed to be a contributing factor or cause of lung disease, lung and pancreatic cancer, genetic alterations, liver disease, bone cancer and metal poisoning.
As an alternative
Produced safely, however, thorium is still the leading candidate for the future of clean energy. Countries like India, where an estimated one-fourth of the world’s thorium reserves reside, plan to produce nearly one-third of their energy requirement through thorium-fed nuclear plants by 2050.
It’s not new technology by any means. At least seven different types of nuclear power plants have been powered by thorium in the past. As we dig deeper into clean energy options for the future, it’s once again rising to the surface as a viable option. But there’s a kicker, and as usual, it is economically based. Thorium power is more expensive to produce than that from uranium and plutonium. So while several countries are dabbling in thorium, the main bankroll is still aimed at uranium for the time being.
Revisiting the fact that thorium nuclear reactions don’t provide plutonium to worry about in the arms race, thorium is a viable alternative for countries who want nuclear power but incur restrictions from other countries out of fear they will use plutonium to increase nuclear capabilities. Using thorium would put those concerns to rest.
As a radioactive material, the primarily researched uses for thorium revolve around energy and fuel, both of which offer rich optimism. With time and investment, those applications and others may become mainstream. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is yet to be seen. We’ll have to follow the science to find out.
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