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Ford Nucleon - a nuclear-powered concept car from 1958 (wikipedia.org)
51 points by gnosis on Nov 5, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 47 comments

On a related note, I'm somewhat surprised that molten salt reactors don't get much interest or press.


It seems like they have many advantages over conventional water-based reactors and are much, much safer to boot. Also the waste products decay quickly so storing the waste for long periods of time is less of an issue. But I guess anything nuclear is pretty much out of fashion today.

A complete wild-ass guess -- those concerns are most important in small-scale reactors, and the primary driving force behind small reactors is Navy submarine use. At sea you are surrounded by water, so there is no reason not to use it as your fluid. Adding salt would add another complication to the supply chain.

I guess you could theoretically pull salt out of the water, but there is no telling what impurities may be left. Reverse-osmotic water filtering makes water so pure that it supposedly extracts minerals back out of your bones and teeth, so impurities are no concern when it used as an exchange fluid.

The MSRs use molten salts in the sense of ionic compounds, not in the sense of NaCl. They're talking about uranium flouride or liquid flouride thorium.

...which is one of the challenges of MSRs. Long-term high-temperature exposure to corrosive flourine salts is a not-completely-solved materials problem.

I highly doubt the availability of water ever was of any concern when designing the submarine reactor. It is a closed system.

I am a very infrequent commenter on HN. I have one page, total, of comments since I signed up. Two of those comments give a reasonable run-down on MSR technology, if you're interested.

The "die hard" MSR guy in the US is Kirk Sorensen of Flibe (Flih bee) energy: flibe-energy.com He's easy to find from a Google search, and is incredibly dedicated to MSR. He's the evangelist, for sure.

Bram Cohen of BitTorrent fame is on Flibe's advisory board.

I'll check it out! Thanks.

"I'm sure that in 1985, plutonium is available in every corner drugstore, but in 1955, it's a little hard to come by."

I suppose Ford realized that having fissile material in every garage can prove to be a bit of a hazard.

Thankfully there's the Mr Fusion Upgrade: http://www.oreillyauto.com/site/c/detail/EB00/121GMF.oap?key...

In the 50's, people were actually dreaming of the future! Today, everything seems so depressed instead.

They weren't always good dreams! Make sure you're ready to Duck and Cover...

And as far as cars go, I'd rather have a self-driving car than a nuclear car.

Don't forget Elon Musk!

As a former Ford test driver, I can tell you they are no longer going in this direction.

Research in this direction could provide us cleaner air in the cities and more health.

Just one small change like this, nuclear instead of gasoline in the cars could make a tremendous impact on our lives.

I think adding a new variable to the existing capitalist system along with existing one and only, profit, something that takes into account health or the ecosystem could change our lives dramatically.

Entrepeuners competing not only on cost and profit but also on health and ecosystem impact could make a big difference to us and our planet.

It will be great that we finally realize how important stuff like this is and focus more on research instead of using 100 year old polluting technologies because there is no obvious pressure to move forward.

Hardly. First, there's a lot of research into cleaner cars. A modern car produces very little emissions that count towards unclean air. Of course, there's carbon, but that doesn't cause unclean or unhealthy air.

Second, the new variable you're thinking of is called "externalities" and isn't all that new. A common way to offset it is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigovian_tax - a such is leveraged on gasoline in most countries, including the US, although to a much steeper degree in Europe. Expensive gas is a major driver towards more fuel efficient cars, hybrids and electric cars. All brought to you (mostly) by a profit driven capitalist system.

The reason gasoline hasn't disappeared in favour of more environmentally friendly alternatives is that it's an insanely effective way of storing and transporting vast quantities of energy. Even with the steep taxes in Europe, no-one has been able to come up with a better alternative -- yet. I am certain this will change soon.

Running cars on nuclear energy instead of oil is a great idea, but putting reactors in the cars is neither necessary nor desirable. Keep the reactors in big central power stations where they can be properly shielded and use grid power to charge electric cars.

It's easy to forget that for a cleaner air in a city you can choose between rendering half a city inhabitable because two cars collided (if they are nuclear cars) or rendering a far away country inhabitable because of the byproducts the clean car's components produced (lithium extraction, neodymium magnets production, aluminium extraction and so on).

...you mean "uninhabitable" ...twice!

Yes! Sorry and thank you!

> Just one small change like this

I hardly think that this would qualify as a small change.

What a crazy wheelbase. I can't even imagine what it would be like to drive a car where the front wheels are behind the driver.

I'm guessin it was done purely to make it look more futuristic, since the reactor itself wouldn't really affect the design very much.

Actually, the rear wheels were placed directly beneath the reactor to accommodate its expected-to-be-significant weight. And the front wheels couldn't be too far from the rear wheels, in order to support an appropriate turning radius (without all-wheel steering). There was actually a modest amount of real engineering done in support of this thing, and the wheelbase was one of the results of that.

Assuming the it was stable, I don't think it would be noticeable while driving. I suspect moving the rear wheel placement would be far more noticeable especially when backing up.

Ignoring the hazardous nature of something like this - how economically viable would this be today? Let's say over a 10-year span driving 10,000 miles/year.. how much would I spend on gasoline at 30 mi/gal vs. plutonium?

This thread suggests that a small power plant at 1.5 GW takes about 1500 kg of uranium a year[1]. That's 13,140 GWh, or 0.114 kg uranium pr. GWh.

A regular car motor produces up to 90kW[2].

10000 miles at 40 mph average is 250 hours, or 2,500 hours over the 10 year. It's low speed, so let's assume the engine runs at half the rated output on average, 45kW, for a total of 112 GWh or 12.8 kg uranium.

The classroom stuff is $90/kg[3], or $1,152 total fuel costs for ten years.

1: http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=360052

2: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nissan_SR_engine

3: http://www.chemicool.com/elements/uranium.html

Edit: more importantly, though: nuclear reactors are very poor at variable power output, so they are a bad fit for cars. Perhaps long haul trucks.

Appreciate the effort, but there's some huge errors there. The reactor you mention will fission 1,500 kg of one isotope, U-235 -- out of some ~50,000 kg of nuclear fuel (3-5% U-235, rest being useless U-238), and 300,000 kg of mined uranium (mostly U-238, most of which is thrown away in enriching from 0.7% to 3-5% U-235 fuel). OTOH, your classroom uranium cost is for natural uranium, 0.7% U-235. So you're underestimating cost by 2 orders of magnitude at least.

Here's real numbers from the industry [1]. You use $90/kg. They say on the the order of $3,000 per kg of reactor-grade UO2, which is $60,000-$90,000 per kg of the U-235 isotope.

On the flip side, you're greatly overestimating fuel usage (your assumptions are equivalent to about 6 mpg mileage), and you have a unit error where you accidentally multiplied by one thousand (45 kW * 2,500 hours = 112 MWh, not GWh!). So the figure is about 1/3,000x yours: about 5 grams U-235, or 100 grams reactor-grade fuel, or 1 kg of natural uranium. Costing on the order of $300.

This doesn't apply to (imaginary) nuclear cars. With reactor-grade fuel, you need hundreds of tons of uranium, and hundreds of tons of moderator, to get a critical reaction. This won't fit into a car. The only way to approach a reactor this small is to use highly enriched fuel -- "weapons-grade", which is not sold at petrol stations. This is how they miniaturize reactors to fit in submarines and space satellites (like [2], not an RTG).

If you did try to build a car like this, it be pathologically wasteful. The amount of HEU would need to be several kg or more, to have a critical reaction at all. But because a car uses so little power, you would burn less than 1% of it (several grams) over hundreds of thousands of miles. Extrapolating (using [3]) enrichment costs ($150/SWU from [1]), the fuel cost would be on the order of $300,000. And almost entirely wasted.

[1] http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf02.html

[2] http://www.etec.energy.gov/Operations/Major_Operations/SNAP_...

[3] http://www.wise-uranium.org/nfcue.html

Of course, uranium prices would probably go up as the resource gets increasingly rare and would go down as resource production ramps up as a reaction to increasing demand. If I were to hazard a wild guess, the former would be dominant, ie. prices would go up.

What bothers me most about that car is what way round it is. It says the engine is at the back but if that end were actually the front, it'd look pretty stylish, like an SLR McLaren Stirling Moss.

Seems like a horrible idea to have a nuclear reactor in your primary crumple zone -- most high-speed collisions would be front-end collisions.

On the other hand, would a massively heavy nuclear reactor sitting behind the passengers be good in a front-end collision? It would probably take a lot of work to prevent it from continuing to go forward.

I don't think they believed in crumple zones back then...

It's clearly just a horrible idea to have a nuclear reactor in your car. I'm not sure worrying about where it's placed is even necessary at that point.

I guess being at the back you could have an airbag style system that propels the reactor into the sky like an ejector seat if there's a crash. Just don't drive in any tunnels or under bridges..

I'm picturing all those times they ejected the warp core of in Star Trek.

Haha, I think I've just proved I'm an aesthete first, engineer second (or third..)

What I don't understand is why nobody has tried to put together a nuclear reactor + stirling engine in cars yet.

An engineering buddy and I tried doing the math for getting cars up on the same configuration, but quickly realized that albeit each vehicle would contain miniscule amounts of uranium, someone could buy up a bunch of them and aggregate a large amount of uranium (bad).

For trains or large hauling vehicles it would be perfect, but most of the new trains/rail receive their electricity via some track delivery mechanism anyways.

Freight trains in America have no way of getting electric power from the rails in a safe manner. If you could actually build a train-sized power plant, it would work wonderfully.

Interesting fact: For engineering reasons, the engines in the trains do not directly connect to the wheels. Instead, they operate generators that power electric motors attached to the wheels. Installing a nuclear power plant would be as simple as adding another car to the train and changing around some wires.

If this car (and a budget) was available I would buy one just to support the technology, like many electric vehicle owners do today.

Could you imagine the impact it would have on traffic if every car accident had to involve radiation containment? Why would you support this? It could take hours, or perhaps millennia, to clear the road.

ah, the second i read that title fallout 3 came to mind..

always wondered about its feasibility; interesting to see it was based on a real-world concept (though a very unrealistic one at that).

though i wonder how life would be different if nuclear really had gained traction and supplanted fossil-fuels as our primary energy source.. today a concept like this seems laughable (to me anyway), but i'm thinking given the atmosphere back then and considering all the promise nuclear held, it wouldn't have been that ridiculous to imagine a time when mini-reactors could be powering passenger vehicles. i know the science behind it is far more complex, but just like computing devices have evolved and gotten increasingly smaller/safer/more-reliable over time, so too could nuclear reactors i imagine..

Interesting how the designer tried to keep the reactor away from the driver. I 'm sure it's a safe distance. OTOH, the lack of doors is baffling.

On a slightly related note - Russia tested and flew a nuclear-powered plane. It had hardly any shielding and all pilots that flew it have already died from cancer. US also flew a plane with a working reactor on board,but it wasn't powering the plane.

The design was finally abandoned not because it was impossible to do - quite the contrary. Both US and Russia had working nuclear-powered engines. But it was deemed too dangerous to actually use. In case of a crash a large area would be contaminated.

So the only possible application for a nuclear engine is on a intercontinental missile carrying nukes, because you don't care about the fallout and it would have unlimited range.

Even there, I guess the risk is deemed too high. ICBM silos typically are not built on the border of your country, and even if they were, those rockets could still crash in your country or in a friendly or neutral country they pass over en route to their target. That unlimited range isn't worth much, either, as conventional rockets already have sufficient range (as long as we are targeting things on earth) Finally, I suspect it is cheaper and easier to build and maintain a conventionally powered ICBM than to build a nuclear powered one.

This is a perfect troll.

Post something mildly interesting or controversial from wikipedia. Mind you does not have to be new or newsworthy.

People click on it and fall into the wikipedia loop, reading about related topics clicking around wikipedia semi-aimlessly.

Wastes a ton of time and kills a man-month or so of productivity (or more at HN scale). No good comes of it except people feel entertained.

Jesus, it's a short, nerdy wiki article. I wonder what you must think of Hollywood?

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