Those of us who grew up in the 1980’s will remember seeing the film ‘back to the future’. Many of us wonderstruck by the Delorean car that ran on plutonium. But could electric cars really be powered by nuclear fuel one day?
Here I will look at the different types of nuclear power that exist, what stage of development they are in, how safe they are and, most importantly, could they work in a car?
Nuclear Fission – A Dark History of Nuclear Power
When talking about nuclear power, the first thing that many will think of is Chernobyl. This was undoubtedly the biggest peacetime nuclear disaster the world has seen and it still affects the planet some 36 years after it occured.
Again, more recently, there have been two nuclear meltdowns at power plants in Japan. Tokaimura in 1999 and Fukushima in 2011. The news was so widespread that you know a nuclear meltdown is not a minor occurrence.
All of these plants produced energy using nuclear fission. Fission is where you split the atom to create an immense amount of energy. It is also the most dangerous type of nuclear energy and the only one that produces radioactive waste that needs to be stored for many years.
The reason nuclear fission is used is because it generates far more energy than burning fossil fuels and it is cheaper to run. Unfortunately, even if scientists could make it small enough, I wouldn’t want to be sitting in a Tesla being powered by nuclear fission. I think we can rule out fission for electric cars.
Nuclear Fusion – A Better Choice for Electric Cars?
Nuclear fusion works in a different way to fission in that it seeks to combine the atoms rather than split them. This method is much safer than fusion and won’t lead to the type of disaster we have seen in the past.
Briefly, and in very over-simplified terms, fusion works by combining the nuclei of atoms to create a huge amount of energy. Unfortunately, like magnets with the same polarity, these nuclei repel each other with great force. In order to remove this repulsion it is necessary to heat the nuclei to extreme temperatures. And by ‘extreme’ I mean around 100 million degrees.
Using nuclear fusion to create energy has not yet been achieved on Earth (it happens naturally in hot stars, such as the sun). However, there is a huge global collaboration of scientists working on various technological advances in the field of nuclear fusion and they believe we may not be too far off achieving that ultimate goal. If fusion can be achieved, it will provide almost unlimited cheap and clean energy. There are no carbon or greenhouse gas emissions from fusion. Nor is there any harmful waste material to dispose of. This is why there is so much interest in it.
Of course, there are even more barriers to seeing nuclear fusion in powering electric cars. Firstly, recreating the amount of heat needed to enable fusion will be a massive challenge. Secondly, the size of the current fusion machines are really big. You would need to be able to scale it down to a size that could fit into electric cars. Not even a Maxus eDeliver 9 electric van would be big enough at the moment!
These challenges may be a step too far for electric cars. However, never say never. If fusion can be achieved, then making fusion reactors suitable for other uses may be the next step.
Cold Fusion – The Best Bet For Electric Cars… Maybe
Cold fusion is something NASA have been working on for some time, and it does seem to be the best bet of the lot for electric cars of the future.
Despite the name, cold fusion is nothing like either fusion or fission. Whereas fusion and fission work on using strong nuclear force to create energy, cold fusion works by harnessing the power from weak nuclear force. Capturing this energy is difficult though.
Cold fusion, or LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reaction) as it is also known, works by sucking hydrogen atoms into a nickel lattice and then oscillating them at high frequency. This forces the electrons into the protons and creates slow-moving neutrons. The nickel absorbs the neutrons, making them unstable. Then the nickel strips the neutrons of its electrons so that it becomes a proton. This reaction turns the nickel into copper and creates a lot of energy in the process.
Experts believe that this process could be achieved by replacing nickel with carbon. Not only would could fusion not have a carbon footprint, it could be used to repurpose carbon already around us, making the process carbon negative
Get lost during that explanation? Don’t worry, even my eyes seemed to cross while explaining it.
The important bit is that you have energy created at the end of this process. There is also no carbon footprint and no waste material. The process is also very safe and can be done on a much smaller scale than with fusion or fission. This is what makes it the most suitable for using in homes or electric cars.
However, and there is a big one, NASA have still not cracked cold fusion but are said to be close. It turns out that creating cold fusion is hard (anyone surprised?). If it can be solved though, then NASA could be on the brink of changing the world as we know it. Electric cars could run off unlimited energy and never need to be charged again. This is the ultimate utopian dream. Hopefully it will become a reality in years to come.
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* All information correct as of 23/08/2022.