Some proposed technological innovations seem so far out that they are easy to reject out of hand. But sometimes, a new idea has a kernel of plausibility. Such is the case with a new project to develop a thorium laser power generation system that its creator says could provide electricity for the grid, stand-alone power applications and even cars.
Charles Stevens, an inventor and entrepreneur, recently revealed that his Massachusetts-based R&D firm, Laser Power Systems (LPS), is working on a turbine/electric generator system that is powered by “an accelerator-driven thorium-based laser.” The thorium laser does not produce a beam of coherent light like conventional lasers, but instead merely heats up and gives off energy.
Thorium, a silvery-white metal, is a mildly radioactive element (with an atomic weight of 90) that is as abundant as lead. It is present in large quantities in India and is a much-touted stand in for uranium in nuclear reactors because its fission is not self-sustaining, a type of reaction called “sub-critical.”
The idea has energized the small but active thorium community, which holds that it is the answer to our clean energy needs because it could, effectively, power a car forever. The new technology “would be totally emissions-free,” Stevens said, “with no need for recharging.”
The LPS power plant, for all its whiz-bang properties, isn’t a complete departure from traditional power generation: the thorium is lased and the resulting heat flashes a fluid and creates pressurized steam inside a closed-loop system. The steam then drives a turbine that turns an electric generator.