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.

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Nuclear Reactors Get Small

Steve Martin was ahead of his time when he told us “Let’s get small!” While you usually think of a nuclear reactor as a big affair, there’s a new trend towards making small microreactors to produce power where needed instead of large centralized generation facilities. The U.S. Department of Energy has a video about the topic, you can watch below.

You probably learned in science class how a basic nuclear fission reactor works. Nuclear fuel produces heat from fission while a moderator like water prevents it from melting down both by cooling the reactor and slowing down neutrons. Control rods further slow down the reaction or — if you pull them out — speed it up. Heat creates steam (either directly or indirectly) and the steam turns a conventional electric generator that is no more high tech than it ever has been.

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The Oldest Nuclear Reactor? Nature’s 2 Billion Year Old Experiment

When was the first nuclear reactor created? You probably think it was Enrico Fermi’s CP-1 pile built under the bleachers at the University of Chicago in 1942. However, you’d be off by — oh — about 2 billion years.

The first reactors formed naturally about 2 billion years ago in what is now Gabon in West Africa. This required several things coming together: natural uranium deposits, just the right geology in the area, and a certain time in the life of the uranium. This happened 17 different times, and the average output of these natural reactors is estimated at about 100 kilowatts — a far cry from a modern human-created reactor that can reach hundreds or thousands of megawatts.

The reactors operated for about a million years before they spent their fuel. Nuclear waste? Yep, but it is safely contained underground and has been for 2 billion years.

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Kilopower: NASA’s Offworld Nuclear Reactor

Here on Earth, the ability to generate electricity is something we take for granted. We can count on the sun to illuminate solar panels, and the movement of air and water to spin turbines. Fossil fuels, for all their downsides, have provided cheap and reliable power for centuries. No matter where you may find yourself on this planet, there’s a way to convert its many natural resources into electrical power.

But what happens when humans first land on Mars, a world that doesn’t offer these incredible gifts? Solar panels will work for a time, but the sunlight that reaches the surface is only a fraction of what the Earth receives, and the constant accumulation of dust makes them a liability. In the wispy atmosphere, the only time the wind could potentially be harnessed would be during one of the planet’s intense storms. Put simply, Mars can’t provide the energy required for a human settlement of any appreciable size.

The situation on the Moon isn’t much better. Sunlight during the lunar day is just as plentiful as it is on Earth, but night on the Moon stretches for two dark and cold weeks. An outpost at the Moon’s South Pole would receive more light than if it were built in the equatorial areas explored during the Apollo missions, but some periods of darkness are unavoidable. With the lunar surface temperature plummeting to -173 °C (-280 °F) when the Sun goes down, a constant supply of energy is an absolute necessity for long-duration human missions to the Moon.

Since 2015, NASA and the United States Department of Energy have been working on the Kilopower project, which aims to develop a small, lightweight, and extremely reliable nuclear reactor that they believe will fulfill this critical role in future off-world exploration. Following a series of highly successful test runs on the prototype hardware in 2017 and 2018, the team believes the miniaturized power plant could be ready for a test flight as early as 2022. Once fully operational, this nearly complete re-imagining of the classic thermal reactor could usher in a whole new era of space exploration.

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Atomic Power Gets Small

There was a time when nuclear power plants were going to save the world. Barring accidents, the plants are clean and generate a lot of power. However, a few high-profile accidents and increased public awareness of some key issues have made nuclear power a hard sell, at least in the United States. The fastest growing nuclear power-related business in the US — according to sources — is companies decommissioning nuclear power plants. However, there’s a move afoot to make nuclear power a viable solution again. The company behind it says their plants will be cheaper to build, cheaper to operate, and are much safer than conventional plants. Are those claims reasonable?

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Lise Meitner: A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity

It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth, and few wars have demonstrated that more than World War II. One scientist, whose insights would make the atomic age possible, would learn a harsh lesson at the outset of the war about how scientific truth can easily be trumped by politics and bigotry.

Lise Meitner was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna in 1878. Her father, a lawyer and chess master, took the unusual step of encouraging his daughter’s education. In a time when women were not allowed to attend institutions of higher learning, Lise was able to pursue her interest in physics with a private education funded by her father. His continued support, both emotional and financial, would prove important throughout Lise’s early career. Continue reading “Lise Meitner: A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity”

FiSSION 3D Game Engine For Wii Homebrew

[PunMaster] wrote in to tell us that he has just released the first public demo of FiSSION Project. It’s a homebrew 3D game engine for the Wii. He’s hoping it will make development easier for other people that want to get into the Wii hacking scene. The project was originally spun out of similar work he was doing targeted at XNA for the 360. This is just a demo to generate interest in the project and hopefully get some feedback as to what’s needed to make a full release possible.