Posts Tagged startup

Transatomic Power publishes details of MSR concept

Posted by David Martin on May 20th, 2014

Transatomic Power

Back in 2012, we blogged about Transatomic Power (TAP), a Boston-based start-up aiming to design what they call a Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR). TAP have now released a technical white paper which provides greater detail about their reactor concept.

The paper reveals that their 520MWe MSR concept makes use of a zirconium hydride moderator combined with a lithium fluoride fuel salt. This innovative combination would enable the reactor to run on spent nuclear fuel, or fresh low-enriched uranium, thus providing both a high level of proliferation resistance and an efficient way of consuming existing nuclear waste. TAP also suggest that the use of hydrogen-dense zirconium hydride as moderator, instead of graphite, will reduce the size and cost of the reactor vessel.

Like all MSR concepts, TAP’s reactor offers very high fuel burn-up, up to 96%, and a range of passive safety features. TAP believe that their reactor could be constructed for just $2 billion per plant, with a 3-year build time.

This is just one of many exciting MSR concepts being developed around the world. As others have reported, start ups are now home to some of the boldest innovations in nuclear energy. For more information on other MSR projects worldwide, see our world map.

We’ll be following TAP’s progress with great interest. Check out the technical white paper here.

Transatomic co-founders Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan are MIT PhD students who can readily seek   insight from an expanding advisory board of nuclear veterans.

Transatomic Power, the youthful molten salt reactor company based in Cambridge, Mass., has added four nuclear industry veterans to its technical advisory board,  a move that could help it bring the alternative nuclear technology to market.

The appointments include retired Westinghouse Electric chief technology officer Regis Matztie, who is also the leading commercial adviser to the molten salt nuclear collaboration between China and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Also named to the board were Todd Allen, Deputy Director at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL); Ken Czerwinski, Director of the University of Las Vegas (UNLV) Radiochemistry Program; and Michael Corradini, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the current president of the American Nuclear Society.

Transatomic, as we noted in September, is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-connected startup co-founded by MIT PhD students Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, and by CEO Russell Wilcox, who is the former CEO of information technology company E-Ink.

“Atomic energy is an abundant and reliable power source and Transatomic Power has a better way to harness it,” Wilcox said in a press release. “We’re very excited to welcome these four luminaries to our advisory board, and look forward to their contributions as we work to bring this important new technology to market.”

“This is a chance to help the young people in our industry to re-imagine and re-invent the field,” INL’s Allen said in the release. “In this team I see the spirit of innovation that helped give birth to the industry at its start.”

WASTELAND

Transatomic is developing a molten salt nuclear reactor that it calls a Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR). The name reflects Transatomic’s intentions to use existing nuclear waste as fuel, a feature that could help win over nuclear opponents who object to waste legacy.

The company is designing the WAMSR to run on liquid – molten salt – fuel. Transatomic has previously claimed to be “fuel agnostic” towards either thorium or uranium (as has Ottawa-based MSR developer Terrestrial Energy, headed by David LeBlanc), although it mentions only uranium in this week’s statement announcing the board additions (among which there is a fair amount of uranium experience).

Some MSR proponents, like Kirk Sorensen, president of Huntsville, Ala.-based Flibe Energy, believe that thorium fuel best optimizes MSR’s advantages over conventional solid fuel reactors.

Like other MSR companies, Transatomic promotes the technology for being safer than conventional solid-fuel reactors, for producing less waste and for cost advantages.

MSR proponents say they are meltdown proof because in the event of a malfunction the fuel drains harmlessly into a tank, stopping the nuclear reaction and removing decay heat. In conventional nuclear, although control rods can stop fission reactions, decay heat can build into a meltdown if cooling systems fail, as happened at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. MSRs also operate at higher temperatures, thus making more efficient use of fuel. And they function at normal atmospheric pressure, rather than at the high pressure of many conventional reactors.

MSRs could also be manufactured in small “modular” sizes that would permit manufacturing economies of scale and that would allow utilities and other end users to purchase smaller amounts of nuclear generation capacity – in the tens or hundreds of megawatts – compared to today’s behemoths typically rated at well over 1,000 megawatts. Transatomic is targeting 500 megawatts.

A COOL VARIATION

In a variation on the MSR theme, the U.S. and China are collaborating on a high temperature reactor that uses a molten salt coolant (coolants absorb heat from nuclear reactions and transfer that heat to a turbine) but a solid fuel. Full MSRs use molten salts as both their coolant and fuel, mixing uranium or thorium into the molten salt fuel.

The U.S.- China partnership could also lead to joint work on an MSR (China has a separate MSR initiative), or could help inform separate MSR development. Westinghouse Electric, known for its conventional reactors, serves as the collaboration’s commercial adviser, with Matzie as the head of the commercial advisory panel.

Transatomic’s press release makes no mention of the U.S-China molten salt collaboration or of Matzie’s role in it.

Matzie and the three other new appointees join experienced nuclear experts already on Transatomic’s advisory team: Richard Lester, head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where he is also the “Japan Steel Industry Professor”; Jess Gehin, Oak Ridge National laboratory senior program manager in nuclear technology; and Benoit Forget, an MIT assistant professor.

In another MIT connection, Charles Forsberg, a research scientist in MIT’s department of nuclear science and engineering, leads a DOE-funded set of three universities that are developing a molten salt cooled high temperature reactor related to the Chinese collaboration The three are MIT, ithe University of California Berkekely, and the University of Wisconsin.

Photo is a screen grab from a TED conference YouTube video on Transatomic’s website.

Note: This post corrects an earlier version that stated fission continues after an emergency in conventional reactors. In conventional reactors, control rods stop fission, but decay heat continues to build if  the reactor is not properly cooled. Thank you to readers James Arathoon and David LeBlanc for pointing out the error. Corrected around 1:10 p.m. GMT March 2.

Albert Einstein was one of the early fiddlers with magnetic refrigeration.

When we launched our blog here at the Weinberg Foundation two months ago, we told you that our “thorium trail” would wind the world looking not only at safe, alternative nuclear power, but also at the related issues and technologies.

Today we head down the “related” path, as we take a look at a startlingly cold development in the rare earth business.

A quick refresher: The global economy would cough blood if denied rare earths. Despite their name, rare earths are not rare. Manufacturers build them into everything – missiles, radar, wind turbines, magnets, iPods, cars and light bulbs, just to name a few common items. China controls the market and restricts exports, causing price volatility. One reason we pay close attention to them at WF is that they often come from minerals like monazite, which also happen to contain thorium, the substance that promises a safe, alternative nuclear future. Policies and practices in rare earth can thus have a direct bearing on thorium availability and vice versa – as we noted in our blog earlier this week on how to safely extract thorium and rare earths.   

Review over.

We now turn our attention to a promising application that could, in a few years, yield a revolutionary product (I never use the word revolutionary when it comes to technology, so that’s how impressed I am in this case)  – magnetic refrigeration.  If only there were enough affordable rare earth materials available.  More on that – and how one company is getting around the problem – in a minute.

But first, while you’re scratching your head:  Yes, that’s magnetic refrigeration, not refrigerator magnet.

WATCH YOUR MAGNETO CALORIES

Magnetic refrigeration promises to do away with environmentally damaging refrigerant gases, and to drastically reduce the amount of electricity it takes to chill your meat and vegetables. It replaces those ubiquitous noisy, power hungry compressors – replacing them with silent efficient magnets. Some people trace the idea back to Albert Einstein.

The concept is simple:  Expose a certain material to a fluctuating magnetic field within the walls of a refrigerator and it will absorb heat, a property known as the “magnetocaloric effect.” Expel the heat, and your milk stays cold.

And you guessed it, that “certain material” happens to be a rare earth element. At least it is in the case of magnetic refrigeration pioneer Camfridge Ltd based in Cambridge, England, which is using a rare earth element called lanthanum.

But that’s only part of Camfridge’s rare earth story. The other part resides in the magnet that springs lanthanum’s magnetocaloric somersaults.

As people who follow rare earths know, magnet makers tend to use a rare earth element called neodymium, a metal in demand for wind turbines, hybrid cars and electric vehicles, among other markets.

That was the plan at Camfridge. That is, until China tightened already severe restrictions on rare exports and drove up the price more than tenfold in 2011, from around $19 per kilogram to, at one point last year, $244 per kilogram, notes Camfridge CEO Neil Wilson.

“Suddenly, with that spike in rare earth prices, it threw out all the calculations,” Camfridge CEO Neil Wilson told me when I spoke with him by phone recently.

DIAMOND IN THE RUST

Although prices have come down again (nowhere near their low), and China has recently slightly eased export restrictions, the volatility caused obvious problems – including “making our investors nervous,” Wilson said.

Innovation to the rescue!

“Our response to the price spike has really been to try to work to stopping using these neodymium iron boron magnets,” said Wilson.

His substitute material is something as old as traditional magnets themselves, and in fact, as old as the hills, really:  Iron (ferrite) oxide, or as Wilson calls it “fancy rust.”

The move to ferrite-based magnets itself is not innovative, although it is much cheaper.  Ferrite magnets cost about a tenth of neodymium magnets.

The trade-off is that ferrite magnets are also “two to three times less powerful,” says Wilson.

And that’s where the innovation comes in. A less powerful magnetic field induces less of a magnetocaloric effect in the rare earth coolant material – the lanthanum, which is actually a lanthanum silicon alloy

Thus, Camfridge and its partners are busy developing a product that uses a lanthanum alloy that can compensate. As Wilson notes, the ferrite “Puts more of onus on the way you make and process the lanthanum silicon material. We’re focused on making really good lanthanum.” If they improve the lanthanum, they can still have their gem of a coolant.

But isn’t the lanthanum also subject to the vicissitudes and volatility of the rare earth market?

Wilson says that at the moment, that is not a concern. Among other reasons: His product does not require a lot of lanthanum – the neodymium represented a far greater portion of the rare earth materials he was using, he notes.

And in the current developmental stage, “we’re only using tens of kilograms,” an amount that Wilson says “is covered by R&D budgets.”

COOL PARTNERS

One of the key partners in his lanthanum development is German magnetic materials specialist Vacuumschmelze.

Camfridge is working with several other partners as well. Those include refrigerator makers Whirlpool from the U.S., Italy’s Indesit (which sells the Hotpoint brand in the UK) and Turkey’s Acrelik (known for the Beko label in the UK). Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge are also on board. The company is backed financially by venture firm Cambridge Capital Group, and by Cambridge Enterprises,  an investment arm of the University of Cambrdge, among others.

It hopes to show a prototype of its “cooling engine” built into a Whirlpool machine by early next year. The idea is to build a magnetic “cooling engine” that is roughly the same size a today’s gas compressor, making it easier for refrigerator makers to swap out the old for the new.

Wilson thinks that his product could hit the commercial market by 2015, when manufacturers would build it into high end, ultra-energy saving models and cut at least 10 percent off the price of the machines compared to conventional gas compressor models. The rare earth engine would require only one half to two thirds the energy of compressors, one source said.

The Camfridge CEO sees the product eventually going mainstream. The company will have to continue refining its engine and making it small enough and affordable enough before that happens. But if it does, Camfridge will have demonstrated how to work with – and without – the realpolitik of the China-controlled rare earth industry.

Photo: Life Photo Archive via Wikimedia.

Trevor Blench surveys the Steenkampskraal monazite mine, which will provide thorium for STL’s pebble   bed reactor. Blench is chairman of STL and of RARECO, the rare earth company developing the mine.

You wouldn’t think a pile of pebbles would be much more than, well, a pile of pebbles.

Unless you were looking at the stack that Trevor Blench and his crew are assembling in South Africa.

Blench is chairman of Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd. (STL), a company that is developing a “pebble bed” nuclear reactor (PBR) that he says will outperform conventional reactors in all important aspects, including that key post-Fukushima way: it’s meltdown proof.

“Nuclear power in its present configuration has three big problems – meltdown risk, nuclear waste, and proliferation risk,” says Blench, referring to the light water (LWR) designs used in almost all of the world’s commercial nuclear power plants.  “These three problems account for most anti-nuclear sentiment.  If nuclear power is to be successful in the future, there must be a big improvement in nuclear technology that addresses these three issues.”

Blench, whom I interviewed along with chief technical officer Martin van Staden last week when they were in London, believes that STL’s reactor answers all those concerns by deploying several alternative designs.

Chief among them: Pebbles replace fuel rods; thorium fuel replaces uranium; and gas – helium – replaces water as the coolant and heat exchange medium.

The company’s “Th-100” reactor stacks 135,000 6-centimetre spherical pebbles – “bigger than a golf ball and smaller than a tennis ball,” says van Staden – inside a 16-meter tall industrial cylinder.

WON’T MELT

Each pebble houses thorium nuclear fuel and harbours a reaction that emits heat. Helium gas enters at 260 degrees C, runs through the cylinder and acquires the heat before exiting at 750 degrees C and relinquishing the heat to water, through an exchanger. The water turns to steam that drives a turbine, and the helium returns to the cylinder to do it all over again.

So how is that meltdown proof?

The short answer: The reaction simply stops if the temperature rises to a certain level, says van Staden. So if the coolant – the helium – fails, the reactions cease, unlike in LWRs, where reactions continue in a coolant failure and require the immediate intervention of control rods. A bit more detail for those you who can stomach it: The Th-100 shuts down because it works by the principle of “negative temperature coefficient.” By the time the reactor hits 1550 degrees C, atoms move so fast that neutrons cannot find them to split.

Some more safety features: STL’s PBR has a much lower heat density than a conventional reactor, which allows it to dissipate its heat naturally, without extra safety engineering.

“They don’t need active cooling to be safe,” says van Staden, noting that the Th-100 operates at 3.8 megawatts of heat per cubic meter, compared to 100 megawatts per cm pebble bed reactor for LWRs.

“If the coolant stops (in a conventional reactor) and you have100 megawatts of heat per cubic meter, you’ve got a problem, because you can’t dissipate naturally,” he says. “Our reactor can dissipate the 3.8 megawatts to the graphite structure of the reactor and through to the environment.”

NO EXPLOSIONS EITHER

The graphite to which van Staden refers provides yet another safety feature: Unlike the metal cladding in conventional reactors, it does not release explosive hydrogen in extreme conditions. And the system’s helium is harmless, because helium is inert, he notes.

But helium is in short supply – so won’t that crimp the pebble bed style? No, says van Staden, because a reactor continually recycles its helium. “It’s not like steam or something that you use up,” he says, adding that one Th-100 requires about 150 cubic meters of helium, which he says “is not a significant amount.”

He and Blench rattle off a list of other safety advantages provided by their reactor. Among them: 99.99 percent of the reactors’ fission products stay inside the meltdown proof pebbles, so they cannot accidentally leak to the environment. The helium coolant doesn’t even stand a chance of transporting them around the reactor, as the coolant touches only the impenetrable outside of the pebbles.

One of STL’s Th-100 reactors has a thermal capacity of 100 megawatts (that’s the “100” in the name; the “Th” is thorium), and an electricity capacity of 35 megawatts.

Chairman Blench envisions commercializing the technology within 5-to-10 years, a pace that he and van Staden point out is much quicker than the outlook for other alternative reactors, such as liquid thorium molten salt reactors (MSR) under development in China and also by U.S. companies including Flibe Energy and Transatomic Power.

“The molten salt guys have an excellent idea in concept,” notes van Staden. But he says that decades of PBR development have helped get the Th-100 closer to reality.

EXPERIENCE COUNTS

STL draws on experience that date backs to at least the 1960s, when Germany developed and ran its thorium-fuelled AVR (Atom Versuchs Reaktorand), a 15-megawatt test reactor that it closed in 1988 amid public anti-nuclear sentiment after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Germany also operated a larger, thorium-fuelled, 300-megawatt PBR, the THTR-300, from 1983 to 1989, which ran into cost overruns. Both German reactors incurred their share of mishaps. A crack in the AVR – probably related to high temperatures – led to radioactive contamination of soil and groundwater, for instance.  The THTR released radioactive dust when a pebble lodged in a feed pipe.

The South African government also infamously tried to develop a modular, uranium-fuelled, pebble bed reactor before cancelling its PBMR project in 2010, after over a decade of work and about $1 billion in expenditures. One problem there: Engineers attempted to develop a helium-gas driven Brayton cycle turbine process, rather than use traditional steam-driven Rankine cycle turbines running off of steam, as STL is doing.

STL is drawing from lessons learned at all of these projects. Most of the nine people – soon to be twelve – working at STL also worked on the PBMR.

“We’ve been able to draw from experience there,” says van Staden.

There’s another key asset on STL’s side: It has a ready source of thorium, the fuel that will drive the Th-100. It just so happens that a related company, Canada’s Great Western Minerals Group, owns 20 percent of STL and also owns a South African monazite mine, a rock that contains both rare earths  minerals and thorium. Great Western itself is interested in the rare earths. It will give the thorium to STL, which has the rights to it. STL chairman Blench is also chairman of Rare Earth Extraction Co. (RARECO),  the Great Western Group that runs the mining operation.

That’s one direct connection to thorium, the fuel hailed by some as superior to uranium because it burns more efficiently, leaves less dangerous waste, and is more difficult to fashion into a bomb. There’s another link: STL owns 15 percent of Thor Energy, the Norwegian company that is developing thorium fuel. (Blench says that STL’s wil make its own fuel, and that it could be thorium plutonium blend, or could use uranium as a trigger).

OWN A PIECE OF THE ROCK

STL’s progress will rely on attracting investors, to fund the €500 million that Blench thinks he’ll need to build a first reactor.

The company is trying to raise the money by inviting in potential customers as investors, in a profit and risk sharing arrangement it calls the “Th-100 Consortium.” Late last month, it began reaching out to the many industries it believes could benefit form a 35-mw reactor as either a source of process heat or electricity. Among the applications it is targeting: heat for chemical and petrochemical plants, refineries, oil sands and mining operations, smelters, cement factories, paper mills and water desalination; and electricity for off grid locations.

“The project is structured to award participants the opportunity to evaluate the outcome of every phase and to assess their own level of participation accordingly,” CEO Eben Mulder says in a press statement. “Since every participating member would ideally also be a potential customer they will be in a position to acquire the first reactors and without having to pay a royalty fee.”

Mulder hopes the initiative attracts more interest than did a previous Centurion-based startup, called QPower, where he served as chief technology officer and which attempted to raise venture capital to develop a similar PBR. According to Blench, QPower was unable to raise the funds. Mulder left to join STL earlier this year as CEO. Blench says there are no intellectual property issues between QPower and STL, which incorporated in April, 2011.

OTHER KIDS IN THE PEBBLE PIT

There’s no guarantee the new funding model will work either. And STL is likely to encounter competition, as other outfits are also developing PBRs. Notably, China is building a 210-mw (electric) demonstrator reactor at the Shidaowan plant in Shandong province, following about 12 years of development at Tsinghua University, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Whether STL can raise the money it needs, of course, remains to be seen. When I look at the industries it’s trawling, it seems to me that the one most likely to have the cash would be the oil industry, a possibility laden with irony given that nuclear power is meant to reduce the CO2 emissions that come straight from fossil fuel that nuclear power would help extract.

Or maybe STL has other good prospects. They hope to say more about who’s interested in a few months.

Besides,  they’ll have to start somewhere if their PBRs, like the pebbles inside them, are ever going to stack up.

Photo from RARECO.


Two kids and and an adult. Transatomic co-founders Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, both phD students, share the stage with advisor Richard Lester, head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering, at a lively     TED conference.

There’s a new kid on the thorium block.

Meet Transatomic Power, an MIT-connected fledgling that’s designing a thorium molten salt reactor by combining nuclear expertise with Silicon Valley style start-up panache.

Unlike the conventional solid-fuel reactors used in almost all of the world’s commercial nuclear power plants, molten salt reactors deploy a liquid fuel, auguring a wealth of safety and operating improvements.

Transatomic is the latest company to publicize its MSR intentions. Richard Martin introduced Transatomic to the world yesterday in a Forbes website article. As many Weinberg followers will know, Rick is the author of the thorium homage SuperFuel.

First, to set the record straight: Transatomic is indeed working with thorium schemes. But as Martin notes, the company is “fuel-agnostic,” and is also making room for uranium. It reminds me a bit of Ottawa Valley Research, David LeBlanc’s Canadian project that is developing an MSR with either fuel in mind.

Now, let’s get on to something less on the technical side, and more with a marketing slant. Transatomic is slapping a stellar name onto its reactor, calling it the “Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor.” That’s a WAMSR to you fans of acronyms.  Not bad – it has a certain punch as far as acronyms go.

WHAT A WASTE

But more importantly, the WAMSR is intended to do as it says on the tin – get rid of nuclear waste by burning it in a power generating reaction. One of the top public objections to nuclear power is, to quote the masses, “yeah, but what do you do with the waste?” Transatomic provides a ready made, in your face answer with its product moniker.

The tiny company is by no means the first to propose using spent fuel from other reactors as fuel, but putting the idea right there on the label is a stroke of enlightened branding. Granted, some people might run from the scary word “annihilating.” But most won’t. Technology like this could one day make the U.S. forget it ever bitterly debated whether to use Yucca Mountain as a waste repository.

This sort of user friendliness, if I can call it that, reflects a youthful business acumen at Transatomic that is as much Google as it is Oak Ridge. (Disclaimer: I say this without having actually met the company. But I like what I see so far).

Transatomic is in part the brainchild of a couple of youngsters – MIT PhD students Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie. The kids themselves bring a refreshing accessibility to the technology. Watch Dewan in action at a TED conference late last year in a video on Transatomic’s website, (she’s about 6 minutes in) and you might think you were witnessing a lively presentation for a popular mobile phone app. About 13 minutes into the same clip, Massie looks and speaks as if he just invented Twitter – while conveying the usefulness of nuclear waste.

THE ADULTS ARE HERE TOO

Like Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google who eventually brought in technology industry veteran Eric Schmidt to run the shop, Dewan and Massie have hooked up with a seasoned business person. Co-founder and CEO Russell Wilcox is the former CEO of E Ink, the company that helped commercialize electronic displays used in e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, according to Transatomic’s website.

The company’s advisory board includes Dr. Richard Lester (he’s the grey hair in the video), head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where he is also the “Japan Steel Industry Professor.”  A tangential observation, but I like the implied connection to steel – it makes me imagine one of these waste annihilators forcing heat into a blast furnace, replacing the CO2 belching processes used today.

Other experienced advisors: MSR veteran and Oak Ridge National laboratory senior program manager in nuclear technology Dr. Jess Gehin; and MIT assistant professor Dr. Benoit Forget.

Transatomic hopes to build a prototype reactor in five years and to have live, commercial WAMSRs operating by 2030 via licensing agreements to nuclear plant operators, Martin reports. The company’s website says it is planning a small, or “modular” 200 megawatt size for electricity production.

TALKING THE TALK

The new technology could help enliven a nuclear industry that is still recovering following the Fukushima meltdowns last year. Not only could the WAMSR burn waste, but like other molten salt reactors it could potentially operate more safely than conventional designs, in part by allowing its liquid fuel to drain harmlessly into a tub in the event of an emergency. MSRs can also operate at normal atmospheric pressure rather than under potentially dangerous high pressure.

Transatomic’s website also points to reduced levels of radioactive waste, and to operating effiencies that are much higher than conventional solid fuel, water cooled reactors.

“The nuclear industry knows it’s in trouble, it’s not quite sure what to do, and it’s just trying to survive for the moment, “ Wilcox tells Martin.  “It’s a fabulous time to do a leapfrog move.”

That’s the sort of inspired rhetoric that has played out successfully in the transformed information technology world. It’s refreshing to hear Transatomic talk the talk in the nuclear industry.  Now let’s see if it can walk the walk.

Photo: Screen grab from TED video on Transatomic website.

Note: This version updates an earlier one, adding Jess Gehin and Benoit Forget as advisors.

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