Skip to main content

The Ford Nucleon, Electric Cars and the Swiss Thought Experiment

Here’s something I did not know existed, even as far as it did exist:

In the 1950s, perhaps the height of the so-called Atomic Age, Ford developed a concept car called the Ford Nucleon. This nuclear-powered automobile was designed, according to Ford, based on the assumption that future nuclear reactors would be smaller, safer, lighter and more portable. The design called for a power capsule located in the rear of the car, charging stations replacing gas stations and 5,000 miles of driving before recharging or replacing the fuel. As is the case with many concept cars, Ford never built the Nucleon-only a model car half the size of a normal car.

Obviously, the most famous nuclear car is the DeLorean DMC-12 from the Back to the Future movies. The nucleon could not be powered because the technology to do it wasn’t plausible at that time – still, pretty neat, even if we are waiting for a flux capacitor.

In the meantime, where nuclear energy and cars can find common cause is with electric cars. These do not have the science fiction twang of nuclear cars, even if they have not yet found much traction with potential customers and remain for many a futuristic notion.

In an interesting thought experiment – in the form of a college thesis – fellow named Cihan Cavdarli looked at electricity demand if all cars (in his native Switzerland) went electric. I suppose some countries might consider mandating this over time, though none have to date. What Cavdarli found is that electricity use would rise 19 to 24 percent. How to power all these cars?

Anticipating the country's phasing out of nuclear power, Cihan looked at two scenarios. One assumes a high carbon footprint, with nuclear energy replaced by gas. The other boasts a low carbon footprint, with renewable energies stepping into the nuclear breach. "This latter scenario is the best fit for electric cars," added Cihan.

Cavdarli’s being realistic here, but what he is saying is clear enough. If Switzerland kept its nuclear plants open – it has five reactors in four facilities – then the country could power the cars without damaging the environment. But Switzerland, which is closing its plants as they reach 60 years old, will need to replace the plants – which will likely be with a mix of natural gas and renewable energy sources.

With the nuclear reactors, Switzerland is almost completely emission free (from power plants, anyway), as nuclear covers 36 percent and hydro 58 percent. And it is all base load energy. That’s very attractive for covering the needs of electric cars, something wind and solar cannot match. This seems a tough circle to square practically – and it’s distressing that it does not need to be squared. Switzerland is in a good spot already, if only they do it.

Anyway, that is, if electric cars become widespread, if Switzerland really closes its nuclear plants and if climate change begins melting the Alps. Lots of ifs – as we said, a thought experiment – with a lot to think about.

Comments

Webb Rowan said…
I would love to be the first to work car financing for a nuclear time-travelling automobile. Hell I would love to own one! Haha! But we need to continue to have hope that changes are still possible!

Popular posts from this blog

A Billion Miles Under Nuclear Energy (Updated)

And the winner is…Cassini-Huygens, in triple overtime.

The spaceship conceived in 1982 and launched fifteen years later, will crash into Saturn on September 15, after a mission of 19 years and 355 days, powered by the audacity and technical prowess of scientists and engineers from 17 different countries, and 72 pounds of plutonium.

The mission was so successful that it was extended three times; it was intended to last only until 2008.

Since April, the ship has been continuing to orbit Saturn, swinging through the 1,500-mile gap between the planet and its rings, an area not previously explored. This is a good maneuver for a spaceship nearing the end of its mission, since colliding with a rock could end things early.

Cassini will dive a little deeper and plunge toward Saturn’s surface, where it will transmit data until it burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. The radio signal will arrive here early Friday morning, Eastern time. A NASA video explains.

In the years since Cassini has launc…

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.

Huh?

The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.


What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…