The Nuclear Powered Car From Ford

We think of electric cars as a new invention, but even Thomas Edison had one. It isn’t so much that the idea is new, but the practical realization for normal consumer vehicles is pretty recent. Even in 1958, Ford wanted an electric car. But not just a regular electric car. The Ford Nucleon would carry a small nuclear reactor and get 5,000 miles without a fillup.

Of course, the car was never actually built. Making a reactor small and safe enough to power a passenger car is something we can’t do even today. The real problem, according to experts, is not building a reactor small enough but in dealing with all the heat produced.

In a conventional engine, it is easy to dump the majority of the excess heat out of the tailpipe and handle a small amount via heat exchange in the radiator. However, with a nuclear reactor, you need a way to exchange heat since none of the radioactive gas can escape.

Not that Ford engineers were clueless — they just thought the technology would advance rapidly. The 3/8 scale model makes it clear they knew there would be weight at the reactor-end of the vehicle and that it would require massive radiators.

As for small reactors, NASA’s KRUSTY is a good example. It weighs about 300 pounds and produces about 1kW. A V8 engine weighs more than that, although it also puts out quite a bit more power.

We doubt anyone would want to drive around on top of a nuclear reactor. But it will probably be possible eventually. Reactors are getting smaller. But we don’t know how you’d make room for this.

42 thoughts on “The Nuclear Powered Car From Ford

      1. Actually that is correct considering 1 HP equals 745.7 watts or close to that so multiplying 707 X 746 gets very close to 527KW, but it never truly works out to that. There are always loses to be calculated. Then there is the duty rating.

        1. Yes it would work out to exactly that.

          When converting from HP to Watts, you never add any fudge factors or loss calculations because you’re only translating from one unit to the other. What those quantities mean and what they actually measure is then a different problem.

          It would be like saying “an inch is 25.4 millimeters, but it never truly works out to that.” No, it would work exactly to that by definition. If at some point of operation the engine produces 1 HP then at the same point it produces 745.7 Watts, by definition.

          1. I’m very confused and slightly scared when I read “an inch is 25.4 millimeters, but it never truly works out to that.” ? Can you clarify this with an example?

          2. Quote: [JAN] “I’m very confused and slightly scared when I read “an inch is 25.4 millimeters, but it never truly works out to that.” ? Can you clarify this with an example?”

            Draw two dots 25.4mm apart on paper. Now check that there exactly 1.0000000000000000 inch apart.

          3. Unless the dots 1 inch apart were drawn before 1935, then it might be 25.4000508mm.

            1 inch is never that also when it’s above 20degC

    1. Truth is it produces three times that: 1.58 Gigawatts.

      That V8 only sends about 1/3 of it’s power out to the crankshaft. The other 2/3 go out through the tailpipe and cooling system.

  1. Just use Nickel-63 nuclear batteries.

    It would be nuclear, without the problematic reaction.

    Of course I’m exaggerating lol, but yes they already exist, and they already produce about 10x more energy than chemical batteries.

    But pour of course with cost, and weight.

    Article: High power density nuclear battery prototype based on diamond Schottky diodes
    Authors: V. S. Bormashov, S. Yu. Troschiev, S.A. Tarelkin, A.P. Volkov, D.V. Teteruk, A.V. Golovanov, M.S. Kuznetsov, N.V. Kornilov, S.A. Terentiev, Vladimir D. Blank
    Magazine: Diamond and Related Materials
    Vol.: 84, Pages 41-47
    DOI: 10.1016/j.diamond.2018.03.006

        1. I assume the diamond PN junctions will degrade faster than the radioisotope decays. Diamond is a lot more resilient than most semiconductors but no material will stay intact long-term in a high flux of radiation.

    1. Somewhere I’ve a couple of Ni-63 sources. Somewhere…

      They’re sealed spark gaps and pretty low dose, so not much to worry about. Nevertheless, it would be better if the location was a little more precise than somewhere!

  2. You should really change “cant” to something else. No technology barrier exists. We make nuclear powered space craft about the size of a modern SUV. Ignorance and a media campaign financed by those with the most to lose is all that is blocking us from free unlimited electricity.

    1. Even in the late sixties, Project Moonray wanted to out a ham radio repeater on the moon. Someone noticed empty space under the seat of the rover. I was never sure how complete the planning was, the main guy died, besides the Apollo program was cut short.

      Relevant to this, it would include a 50W thermonuclear supply.

  3. Never gonna happen

    Even if engineers got around all the technical challenges that would only be the easy part.

    Now you have to make sure the car can’t be misused for terrorism. Sure, the fuels involved probably can’t be used to make a nuclear bomb but if the car was blown up with a conventional chemical bomb it would still spread it’s radioactive substances. Or, maybe someone would skip the explosion and just drain the contents into the local reservoir or something. How do you 100% prevent that sort of thing?

    Finally, after all those hurdles you have to convince the public and the politicians they vote for that it is safe. Good luck with that!

  4. You step back and look at this and it really gives perspective on the overall inefficiency of energy storage within the moving vehicle, regardless of if its petroleum or electric batteries.

    Individual transport systems using overhead cables would be exponentially more efficient than the problems we’re trying to solve with rechargeable batteries and ICE’s. The electricity in these cables could be sourced from hydro, solar, nuclear, etc. A capacitor in the vehicle can cover the short hops between cables. There would be incredible energy savings with not using the energy to move the energy (battery), not to mention the extreme cost-savings in producing each vehicle. Political resistance to such a system could be massaged by just giving the cars away and paid for over time with monthly subscriptions for the electricity used by each driver.

    Some of the challenge of self-driving cars would be simplified because they’d largely be line-following the overhead cables, too.

    1. At that point you might as well eliminate the hassle of every person having to own a car and just have a light rail / tram network… even more cost and resource efficient ;-)

    2. From my understanding, that argument does not hold up when a vehicle uses regenerative braking.
      The energy you expend accelerating the mass of the battery is recovered when it regeneratively charges. Yes, some is lost, but the efficiencies are still over 90%, and it means the vehicle can go anywhere.
      Having a cable system to supply energy would not only be extraordinarily costly, but exceedingly limited.

      Different matter with ICE: you don’t ever recover the energy used for accelerating said fuel.

  5. That KRUSTY reactor is a thing of wonder. Designed for 10+kW in operation, tested at 5.5kW with the demo model. Run continually for 10+ years.

    Clearly one of those or similar as a charger, bit more shielding and a battery pack is the way forward. Much easier than trying to deal with a bigger reactor when you only need peak power intermittently.

    Now if we can just find a way to stop people putting 20+ kg of HEU to nefarious uses we’d be golden. Plus the fact that it most likely costs millions of pounds.

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