Date of Award

Spring 2008

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

James Ryan


The goal of this dissertation is to examine some of the most promising non-fossil means for producing electricity and storing energy for transportation, to provide a thorough and (hopefully) unbiased assessment of which hold the most promise, and therefore warrant further research focus. Additionally, recommendations are made for potential means for improving proposed or existing technologies, in particular the technology of a new subcritical reactor design using an electronuclear driver and thermal transmutation of transuranic actinides.

The high energy density of liquid hydrocarbon fuels is ideal for transportation applications, but our ability to sustainably produce such fuels (i.e. biofuels) is limited by the low photosynthetic efficiency achieved by plants. While some proposals are made herein to make the most of the potential of biofuels, their limitations ultimately will require the storage of electrical energy (in batteries, hydrogen, or mechanical energy storage) if we are to eliminate our dependence on petroleum for transportation. The outcome of this analysis is that lithium-ion batteries are best suited for such an application. This is based on a significantly better net efficiency with only moderately lower energy density compared to the best means of storing hydrogen, and no additional infrastructure requirements. The analysis also indicates the direction research should take to further improve lithium-ion batteries.

Since the sustainability of electric vehicles depends on the means of producing electricity, a focus of this dissertation is assessing the potential to produce electricity with advanced nuclear fission and fusion reactors. While magnetic and inertial confinement fusion are interesting from the standpoint of the plasma and nuclear physics involved, the analysis presented here illustrates that the potential for commercial electricity production with either is slim, with several potential "deal breakers." Further, muon catalyzed fusion is shown to offer no practical means of producing net energy.

Furthermore, fusion fuels other than Deuterium-Tritium (DT) have triple product requirements roughly two orders of magnitude greater for net energy production. The analysis of a "catalyzed deuterium" plasma presented herein shows it to be less promising than previous analyses have indicated. The flux of 14.1 MeV neutrons from a DT plasma presents a significant challenge that is likely to limit or prevent commercialization of DT fusion power. The primary alternative approach that may become viable is a so-called helium catalyzed DD cycle. However, there are two significant challenges (the need for active tritium removal and the large onsite tritium inventory) that must be addressed for this option to have significant potential. Greater focus therefore should be placed on advanced fission reactors, in particular thermal thorium reactors and driven subcritical reactors, such as of the general design proposed in this dissertation.