Thursday, April 12, 2012

Nuclear start-ups have stretch goals

The desire is for independence and to innovate with great results

Conceptual drawing of a molten salt reactor
(Image: Idaho National Lab)
Two recent nuclear energy start-ups have the potential to create new business opportunities with unconventional reactor technologies.  Two of them are pursuing new designs using molten salts as compared to the conventional light water design.

In Massachusetts, Transatomic Power, run by two Ph.D. candidates at MIT, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, the effort is focused on using uranium-based spent nuclear fuel to provide the energy to run the reactor. Their business model is to license a design to a major reactor vendor or a state-owned reactor development agency.

In Alabama, Flibe Energy, named after an acronym for a a specific type of salt, is run by Kirk Sorensen who after earning a masters degree in nuclear engineering, jumped out of the corporate world to develop a start-up effort aimed at producing a thorium-fueled reactor for military applications.

Transatomic Power

Dewan and Massie talked with this blog on April 12 about their start-up.  Asked why they chose this specific technology, they point to three specific factors - safety, waste, and economics.  Massie says the team chose the molten salt design concept because they feel it will provide more bang for the buck, and it will be faster and cheaper for someone licensing their technology to bring it to market.

The most significant reason is that when compared to a new design for a fast reactor, there is no need for fuel design, qualification, and fabrication, a process that could add years to the development timeline.

Financial backing for the firm is coming from private investors as seed funding.  Dewan says the hunt is on for early stage funding to establish a stronger financial base.

The real challenge in the next two years is to build a team to complete the design.  The firm has gone back to some of the experts who worked on the molten salt reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but what it really needs is a new generation of engineers to work on the design.

"There is a misconception that there is not a lot of room for innovation [in the nuclear industry]. What we offer to a new PhD. or engineering graduate is the excitement and opportunity to develop new aspects of nuclear energy," Dewan said.

The team feels it got bit by the entrepreneurial bug because of a desire to be more innovative and to "do something really big."

"The only way to accomplish that is not to work for someone else," Dewan said.

While China might have interest in their work, the team is worried about untested issues associated with intellectual property protection.  On one hand licensing for a start-up technology is likely to be less difficult there, the prospect of being nationalized is not an appealing outcome.  Still, Dewan is keeping her options open and has begun to study the Mandarin language.

She qualifies the commitment to that path by noting she would like to see the work done in the U.S.

"This is an American reactor," Dewan said.

The Transatomic Power reactor is being targeted as a small modular reactor with an preliminary electrical output of 200 MW and an outlet temperature of about 650C hooked up to conventional steam system.  The team sees the best location being next to existing reactors with an inventory of spent fuel in dry casks that could be used to power their design.  Massie added that a utility that doesn't have an existing reactor could power the design with conventional uranium fuel.

The team declined to identify a time frame for completing their design though they did say a lot of the work on the core is done.

Flibe Energy
LFTR concept drawing
Source: Energy from Thorium

On his website Kirk Sorensen writes that Flibe Energy is a new company that will develop small modular reactors based on liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) technology. Liquid-fluoride reactors operate at high temperature but not at high pressure because they use a chemically stable medium as the fuel and the coolant, making them much safer to operate than conventional reactors.

He says that "Thorium is the only abundant nuclear fuel that can be efficiently utilized in a thermal-spectrum reactor and is uniquely chemically suited for use in a fluoride reactor."

The market for the design is based on an assessment that there are many remote sites where electrical power is generated by diesel fuel that is transported over great distances and over challenging or hostile terrain. A small modular power source has the potential to reduce the costs, hazards and vulnerability of power supply-lines, saving money and even lives in term of providing power to military bases.

This blog caught up with Kirk Sorensen as he was getting ready for an international trip.  He responded to questions via email.  Here's what he said.

Q: Why did you choose this specific technology?  What is about it that helped you decide on it?

A:  Of the four coolant possibilities (water, liquid-metals, gas, and molten-salt) only molten salt has the desireable attributes of both high temperature operation yet low pressure operation.  Halide molten-salts are also impervious to radiation damage due to their ionic structure.

Fluoride molten-salt chemistry is a natural fit with the thorium fuel cycle, which leads to very high fuel utilization and minimizes waste generation and nearly eliminates transuranic waste generation.  Molten-salt fuels can also reject xenon in normal operation, facilitating load-following characteristics in a small, high-power density core.

The key to these plans is the use of liquid-fluoride-salt technology—and a special combination of fluoride salts which gives Flibe Energy its name. Lithium fluoride (LiF) and beryllium fluoride (BeF2) together form a solution often called “F-Li-Be”, that is the ideal medium for nuclear chemical processing and reactor operation. It is chemically stable, nearly invisible to neutrons, and impervious to radiation damage, unlike almost every other nuclear fuel. Flibe carries large amounts of heat at low pressures, leading to small, compact, and safe designs for nuclear reactors.

Q: Why would a customer want to buy it?

 Our intent is not to sell our reactors but rather to build and operate them.

Q: Who is your target market?

A: Military facilities in the continental United States.

Q: What is your time frame for developing the technology, e.g., major milestones such as; - prototype - completed design - NRC licensing - Construction at customer site

A:  Assuming the desired funding, we would be aiming for a prototype within five years of project initiation and five years of "shakedown" operation beyond that.  Beyond that we would build units in a factory and deploy them to various military bases across the US.  The US military has independent regulatory authority and we would not be pursuing NRC licensing.

Q: What kind of backing do you have such as govt grant, investor financing, self-financed, etc.

 Our plan requires initial financing but is mostly financed by the sales of products developed in the early stages of the plan.

Q: What are your immediate plans in the next one-to-two years?

A: We intend to raise the funding necessary to begin the first stages of our plan as well as to develop the framework within the US military, particularly the US Army, to supervise the operation of these reactors.

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