There is an old story that goes something like this. An inventor once came up with a revolutionary carburetor so effective that it enabled a typical American car to travel 100 miles on a single gallon of gasoline. The carburetor never made it to the market because “Big Oil Companies” purchased the patent on the device and then hid it on a back shelf.
Even though many of us are skeptical about conspiracy theories, several different versions of this story appear in cocktail party conversation whenever there is a spike in the price of a gallon of gas or whenever the local energy supply situation gets bad enough for someone to label it a crisis. When the carburetor story is introduced, even very well informed people seem to have a sneaking feeling that there must be at least some element of truth to the tale. The title of the story itself illustrates something about the longevity of the yarn; the last car I owned that actually used a carburetor instead of a far more efficient fuel injection system was the 1971 VW Bug that I drove when I was in college.
I want to tell you a little about a technology that I call the 760 MMMPG Carburetor. No, my fingers did not linger too long on the M key, MMMPG means “thousand thousand miles per gallon.” The numerically inclined among you probably wonder why I chose to say thousand thousand instead of simply a million or why I used two capital Ms instead of a single M for mega, but I will leave that as a mystery until the end of my story.
Let me say this a bit more clearly. There is a technology that has been around for a little more than 6 decades that is the functional equivalent of a carburetor that enables a comfortably sized automobile to travel 760 million miles per gallon. After I finish my story, the second mystery that I want you to think about is who is responsible for obscuring the potential of this technology.
Have you ever seen a “shooter” marble? Those are the larger marbles that you use to knock smaller marbles out of the circle in a game of marbles. Three shooter marbles can be used to illustrate the physical size of a pound of uranium, a small amount of a rather dense metal that currently sells for about $8 to licensed customers. As you can imagine, it is pretty easy to hold three shooters in your hand. Shooters made of uranium would also be easy to hold in your hand, but they would weigh a good deal more than the glass used in shooters. The radioactivity of the material would be so minimal that you could hold those uranium shooters essentially forever without risk of anything other than a tired hand.
Those uranium shooters, however, would contain approximately as much energy as 30 tanker trucks full of oil. For a more accurate representation of the energy value of uranium, you would also have to imagine that line of tanker trucks being accompanied by a fleet of hundreds of blimps containing the oxygen necessary to obtain energy from oil, but we do not usually think much about supplying the combustion oxygen. Most of the time, we simply take what we need from the global common atmosphere. Bottom line, a mass of uranium contains 2 million times as much potential energy as a similar mass of a hydrocarbon fuel even if you ignore the oxygen requirement.
Since uranium is about 19 times as dense as gasoline and since a gallon is a unit of volume, not weight, a gallon bucket of uranium would contain the same energy potential as 38 million gallons of gasoline. Therefore, if you could somehow substitute uranium for gasoline in a car getting a rather modest 20 miles per gallon, you would be able to achieve the 760 million mile per gallon automobile. Even at 200,000 miles per car, it would take 3800 generations of cars to use up the first gallon of fuel.
For a variety of technical reasons beyond the scope of this thought piece, it is rather far fetched to actually consider uranium as a potential fuel for directly powering an automobile, but there are lots of ways that it is already being used for equivalent tasks.
For example, I served a three year tour as the Engineer Officer on the USS Von Steuben, one of the “41 For Freedom” ballistic missile submarines produced during the 1960s. Although still fondly referred to as a boat, Von S was a 9000 ton displacement warship with a top speed in excess of 20 knots and a crew of 155. In 1981, she loaded her third and final reactor core. The mass of uranium in that core was a bit more than my body mass. In 1994, after making an average of about 3 and a half patrols each year with each patrol lasting about 70 days, Von S was decommissioned. When she retired, the core still contained more than 40% of the uranium initially loaded in 1981.
Back to the two mysteries with which I began this story. I chose to use MM for thousand thousand to illustrate one hurdle that must be overcome in order understand the energy business. There are some really weird units used in the trade, including MMBTU to represent one million British Thermal Units. That is the standard trading unit for natural gas; it is roughly equal to the energy content of one thousand cubic feet at standard temperature and pressure. Using a capital M for one thousand instead of mega or one million is a traditional notation that comes from the Roman numeral system.
The second mystery I will leave to you. How motivated do you think the fossil fuel industry is to obscure knowledge of the incredible energy potential contained in uranium? Do you think that someone who suggests a relationship between the current state of uranium technology and the interests of the oil, coal and gas industry is a conspiracy nut?