Engineering Question #3218

Sam Thomas, a 59 year old male from Kallaroo WA , Australia asks on February 6, 2006,

If splitting the atom can create a huge amount of energy, then why isn't it used to power engines instead of petrol?

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The answer

Jeremy Whitlock answered on February 10, 2006

The simple answer is yes - nuclear power is used today in the propulsion of some vehicles like aircraft carriers and submarines, but I assume you're thinking more of automobiles. In this case nuclear power simply isn't practical (unless used indirectly, such as in the creation of electricity used to charge batteries of an electric car, or to separate hydrogen used in hydrogen-powered engines).

While nuclear reactions do release millions of times the energy of chemical reactions, practical applications of nuclear energy tend not to be as easily scaled down to individual-use (e.g. automobile) dimensions. In addition, the weight of shielding required would be a disadvantage in the transportation sector.

For these reasons, nuclear energy has typically been pursued where it is either most economical (e.g. electric power plants), or where its high-density and oxygen-free energy production presents a specific advantage (e.g. submarines and spacecraft).

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