Archive for July, 2013

Bill Gates TED Jurvetson Flickr

Opening the nuclear Gates. TerraPower, Bill Gates’ nuclear company, is now open to reactor types other than its traveling wave design. The traveling wave remains the company’s focus, although Terra has morphed it into more of a “standing wave.”

TerraPower, the Bill Gates-chaired nuclear company that is developing a fast reactor, is now  investigating alternative reactor technologies, including thorium fuel and molten salt reactors.

While the company’s “big bet” continues to be on a fast reactor that TerraPower calls a traveling wave reactor (TWR), it is exploring other designs that could offer improvements in safety, waste and economics, CEO John Gilleland told me in a phone interview.

“We are an innovation house, so we like to look at other approaches,” Gilleland said. “Our big bet is on the traveling wave reactor because it fulfills so many of the goals that we would like to see nuclear achieve. But we’re always looking for innovations that lead to better safety or minimization of waste and so forth and so we have several things going there. Although those activities are small, that’s the way large activities get started.”

TerraPower’s interest in alternatives such as molten salt reactors (MSRs) came to light last month when the company’s director of innovation, Jeff Latkowski, surfaced in the audience at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in Chicago. The two-day gathering included presentations on thorium fuel and on reactors including molten salt reactors, high temperature solid fuel reactors, accelerator driven reactors, and others.

Latkowski quietly joined the five-year-old Bellevue, Wash., company a year ago to look after alternative approaches to nuclear. “My job at TerraPower is everything outside the Traveling Wave Reactor,” Latkowski told me in an email exchange after the Chicago event.

MSR WITH A PROPRIETARY TWIST

That includes MSRs, the design known by its enthusiasts to efficiently and safely produce high temperature heat for electricity generation and for industrial processes. MSRs use liquid fuel that cannot melt down and that harmlessly drains into a holding tank in the event of an emergency. They operate at atmospheric pressure rather than at potentially dangerous high pressures associated with conventional reactors. MSRs augur improvements in waste and a reduction in weapons proliferation threats, especially if they run thorium fuel. Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory built an experimental version in the 1960s, under the direction of Alvin Weinberg.

Another benefit for MSRs, as Gilleland noted, is that “your fuel is not as susceptible to the sort of neutron damage that other approaches are.” In other words, MSRs have a much higher “burn up” – they make greater use of fuel – than do conventional solid fuel reactors.

“We’re thinking about it and trying to work on it and we have a few proprietary ideas that we’re cooking up,” Gilleland said in relation to MSRs. He did provide details of the “proprietary” ideas, noting that, “We like to work on an idea for a while before we run out and tell about it – so we have some ideas which we’re trying to ferret out how good they are.”

Director of innovation Latkowski declined to say whether or not TerraPower has filed any MSR patents. In addition to running innovation and related partnerships, Latkowski also “oversees the development, maintenance and protection of TerraPower’s intellectual property portfolio” according to his company bio. TerraPower is a spin out of Intellectual Ventures, an innovation and venture capital firm that makes a business out of patents and is known as a keen collector and protector of intellectual property. It is headed by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft chief strategist and technology officer who serves as TerraPower’s vice chairman.

Nathan Myhrvold TerraPowerVideoYoutube

Patently speaking. TerraPower vice chairman Nathan Myhrvold is CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a company whose business is intellectual property. TerraPower is an Intellectual Ventures spin out. Above, Myhrovld describes the environmental merits of nuclear in 2011.

I asked CEO Gilleland about the extent to which TerraPower bases its MSR ideas on the Oak Ridge design. “Oh everybody goes back to that as a good reference point, and we have considerable departures from it that we’re thinking about,” he said. “So we’re just having a lot of fun with it. That’s how you get good ideas.”

According to Gilleland, MSRs still face technological hurdles, including the avoidance of corrosion in the reactor materials. He also said that TerraPower would want to assure that an MSR could reprocess fuel without having to remove it. Any removal increases proliferation possibilities of waste falling into the wrong hands. (One of the strong suits that TerraPower claims for its TWR is that, unlike other fast reactors, the TWR does not require the expensive and potentially hazardous removal of spent fuel to reprocess into usable fuel).

“We prefer a system where you can leave fuel in the reactor for a long time,” he noted.

THORIUM TOO

TerraPower is also investigating the possibility of deploying thorium, a fuel that Gilleland said could trump uranium by virtue of thorium’s wider availability. There is about four times more thorium than uranium in the world.

But Gilleland noted that the attributes of TerraPower’s TWR fast reactor could offset any need for thorium. The TWR is the design that TerraPower has proposed for converting depleted uranium into plutonium that would burn for about 60 years before requiring refueling. It is a type of fast reactor – a reactor that does not slow down or moderate neutrons as today’s commercial “thermal reactors” do.

What about other nuclear technology alternatives, such as high temperature solid fuel reactors?

“We’re looking at all of them,” said Gilleland. “There’s no one at the top of our list right now.”

He described Latkowski’s innovation initiative as a “skunk works” that’s not a formal division but rather is a framework for encouraging lateral thinking. He likened it to innovative information technology companies that facilitate free thinking time for employees.

“It’s like Google and other places – the best ideas sometimes came from the person doing the backstroke in the swimming pool, or at home thinking,” said Gilleland. “So we want to just make sure that people have a certain fraction of their time for free thinking.”

FORGET THE FUSION

One nuclear technology that TerraPower most likely won’t be pursuing is fusion.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for fusion, having run the ITER program and things like that, but it’s something I can’t count on for my grandchildren,” said Gilleland, whose background includes having served as U.S. managing director on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), based now in Cadarache, France. Innovation director Latkowski also comes from a fusion background. Before joining TerraPower last year, he was chief scientist on the commercialization program at the National Ignition Facility, the U.S.’s massive laser fusion project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“We’re focused more on fission rather than fusion,” Gilleland said. “Fusion just takes so much more development and so much more time.” Other companies, like General Fusion, Helion Energy, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Tri-Alpha Energy and Lockheed Martin might disagree.

So how real are the company’s fission possibilities outside of the TWR?

“If we do things right , we’ll have some interesting things to talk about,” he said.

His interest in broadening nuclear development at TerraPower echoes remarks made in the past by TerraPower chairman and software billionaire Gates. In a 2010 presentation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gates pointed out that “nuclear innovation stopped in the 1970s”and encouraged the industry to move to alternative nuclear technologies.

Gilleland described reactors such as the MSR as “futuristic” compared to the traveling wave, noting the TWR will come out first. The company thinks the TWR can be ready by the mid-2020s.

STOP CHASING THE WAVE

Development work and partnerships on the TWR are progressing, and TerraPower has already made a notable design change. AlthoughTerraPower still refers to its reactor as a “traveling wave,” it has turned it into more of a “standing wave” design.

In a TWR, first proposed in the 1950s, a cylinder of depleted uranium burns slowly like a candle, breeding plutonium (in a breeding “wave”) which fissions and produces heat. But as the World Nuclear Association notes, TerraPower has, “changed the design to be a standing wave reactor, since too many neutrons would be lost behind the traveling wave of the previous design and it would not be practical to remove the heat efficiently.” (TerraPower’s design calls for removing heat with a liquid sodium coolant).

In the new standing wave design, the fission reaction starts “at the centre of the reactor core, where the breeding wave stays, and operators would move fresh fuel from the outer edge of the core progressively to the wave region to catch neutrons, while shuffling spent fuel out of the centre to the periphery,” WNA explains.

As Gilleland put it, “We decided to have the fuel move past the wave rather than have the wave move past the fuel.” (The neutron loss might help explain why Gilleland is attracted to the MSR’s tendency to avoid neutron damage).

“It’s basically the same physics of what we started out with,” he said. “It’s just the practical considerations associated with making the most use of every neutron, and the engineers’ love of keeping the cooling system in one place, and not chasing the wave. It didn’t set us back at all. It was just sort of a natural evolution and one of the variations on the theme we’d been studying all along and then we just finally decided to switch to this standing wave. It just made some things easier.”

TerraPower believes it can start up a 600-megawatt prototype reactor by 2022 and have its first fast reactor ready for deployment by the mid-2020s. To that end, it has entered development partnerships with many international and domestic research groups and companies. The partners include several outfits in Russia, a country that is emphasizing fast reactor development: state nuclear company Rosatom and its TVEL fuel group; the Scientific Research Institute of Atomic Reactors; and A.A. Bochvar High-technology Research Institute of Inorganic Materials.

In China, TerraPower has teamed with the China Institute of Atomic Energy, which is developing a fast reactor. Other partners include the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute, Japan’s Kobe Steel. Domestically, TerraPower is working with, among others, MIT, the University of California Berkeley, Oregon State University, the University of Michigan, Texas A&M University, the University of Nevada and a number of private companies. For a full list see TerraPower’s “partners” page.

It will be interesting to see if any MSR partners begin to appear on the website.

Photo of Bill Gates talking about nuclear and the environment at a 2010 TED talk is by Steve Jurvetson, via TED and Flickr. Photo of Nathan Myhrvold is a screen grab from a TerraPower video via New America Foundation and YouTube.

NOTE: This version corrects an earlier one that stated the TWR performs online reprocessing. It does not. Its fuel does not require reprocessing. Not only does it not have to remove fuel for reprocessing – an advantage over other fast reactors – it does not have to reprocess at all.. Also, Jeff Latkowski was chief scientist for NIF’s commercialization program, called Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE), not for all of NIF as originally stated. Corrected July 24 at 3:10 p.m. UK time.

DFR Lesson Weibach

Molten salt seminar. Nico Bernt of Berlin’s Institute for Solid-State Nuclear Physics gives a tutorial on the Dual Fluid Reactor, which is a molten salt reactor that he advocates as a source of industrial process heat, as well as for electricity.

A funny thing happened on the way to the final round of Germany’s prestigious GreenTec Awards. A molten salt reactor that the public had voted into the August 30th gala gathering vanished from the competition, muscled out by none other than the contest’s organizers.

It seemed like an odd turn of events, considering that GreenTec exists to honor “ecological and economic consciousness and commitment,” as it says on its website.

What could be more ecologically sound than the Dual-Fluid Reactor, an MSR entered into the contest by Berlin’s Institute for Solid-State Nuclear Physics. MSRs and other advanced nuclear designs auger a CO2-free energy future and represent clear improvements in nuclear safety, efficiency, and waste management when compared to conventional nuclear. The Dual-Fluid Reactor (DFR) is no exception (click on the video below to learn more about it, including how it can be used as a source of industrial process heat to make hydrogen and synthetic fuels).

Clearly, a significant portion of the German public understands this. The Dual-Fluid Reactor (DFR)  made it to the finals on the strength of an open, online voting round. Under the rules of the competition, GreenTec judges select two finalists in each of the contest’s eight categories, and the public selects the third.

PUBLIC APPROVAL

While the judges did not send the DFR to Berlin, some sensible common folks did, bestowing the DFR as one of the three shortlisted contenders for the vaunted Galileo category, a science-oriented award sponsored by German media company Pro-Sieben.

But this is Germany, where the energy lords extol renewables like solar and wind, and where the government decided two years ago to walk away from nuclear in the aftermath of Fukushima. GreenTec, backed by clean technology company VKPartners GmbH, counts Germany’s energy minister Peter Altmaier as its patron. Altmaier will be participating on the Berlin awards stage (where it might have been a tad uncomfortable for an anti-nuclear government to potentially salute a nuclear energy technology).

So GreenTec took swift action, and disqualified the DFR. Airbrushed it right out of the picture.

DFR Comparison Weibach

Economic case. The DFR compared to conventional reactors, or “LWRs” (light water reactors), according to developer Daniel Weibach.

The development stunned the Institute.

“On June 4, we have been disqualified and denominated by the jury, with no explanation,” it wrote on its website. “Rules have been changed afterwards to allow for a denomination of the online voting.”

Outrage ensued, as DFR supporters accused GreenTec of changing the voting rules to suit their own interests.

German blogger Rainer Klute – a regular commenter on Weinberg blogs –  noted:

“People who had campaigned for the award and for the DFR were heavily shocked. Not only they found the decision as such completely incomprehensible, but also the procedure to make it. Changing rules in the course of the game is something that is usually considered less than fair. Most of us (but obviously not all) learned this early in our childhood. No wonder the award’s makers were criticized violently in blogs and social media, especially on their own Facebook page.”

GreenTec has posted an explanation on Facebook. It’s in German which I unfortunately don’t read. I asked GreenTec to clarify its actions for me in English. A spokeswoman replied via email that, “Indeed, it is true that our jury disqualified the project Dual Fluid Reactor (DFR) in the Galileo category. However, it is not true that we in any way changed the rules of participation for this specific case!”

VIOLATION

The spokeswoman said that the Institute had violated a clause in the application process “which obliges participants to provide truthful information about their projects, ensuring an objective evaluation process.” She also noted that “The organizers are authorized to disqualify the applicant as well as take away his/her rights to the title.” They also stripped another finalist, called Care Energy.

She did not elaborate on the violation in the DFR application. I asked her to provide more details, which had not arrived at the time of publishing this blog.

Meanwhile, GreenTec is looking forward to its glitzy Aug. 30 evening, sans nuclear, when they will anoint winners in the Galileo category as well as in production, energy, mobility, aviation, recycling, communication, and building and living.

On that night, GreenTec says, stars will step out “demonstrating their enthusiasm for climate protection.”

Attention stars: You could shine brighter with MSR power.

Go to DFR class with the designers Nico Bernt and Daniel Weibach in this YouTube video:

Images are screen grabs from the Institute for Solid-State Nuclear Physic’s DFR video, via YouTube.

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