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September 27, 2012

Transatomic Power Update

Forbes - Transatomic Power is trying to develop a “Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor.” Dewan and Massie’s design is fuel-agnostic in the sense that it can run on either uranium or thorium; as the name implies, its signal feature is that it can consume spent fuel from conventional light-water reactors. Transatomic joins a growing list of start-ups, including Flibe Energy, that are trying to revolutionize nuclear power by bringing back alternative fuels, including thorium, and alternative reactor designs.

Most uranium in the ground is the isotope uranium-238 (U238), which is not fissile, and thus is no good for producing power. Conventional reactors require fuel in which the percentage of the isotope U235 has been enriched up to 3% to 5%, or “reactor-grade” uranium. Uranium that is enriched to around 20% U235 is weapons-grade.




Russ Wilcox is the CEO and co-founder of Transatomic.

Wilcox was one of the founders of E Ink, which commercialized electronic paper materials originally developed at MIT’s Media Lab and ended up licensing the technology to Amazon, for the Kindle, to Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and so on. (Wilcox also points out that the ink for E Ink-based readers continues to be made at a state-of-the-art facility in Boston that employs around 100 skilled workers.) E Ink was sold to Taiwanese company Prime View for nearly half a billion dollars in 2009. Transatomic’s plan is to build a prototype reactor in 5 years, commercialize the technology in 15 years, and have reactors come online by around 2030. The company doesn’t plan to build and operate nuclear power plants, but to license its reactor technology.

Molten salt reactors (MSRs) can achieve much higher burn-up factors than conventional uranium reactors. In other words, while conventional reactors harness only around 3% of the available energy in a given volume of uranium, MSRs can capture much higher percentages – up to 98%, according to Transatomic (I should note that the nuclear experts I consulted for SuperFuel believe that burn-up factors of 50% are more realistic).

China plans to build a liquid-fuel reactor (likely powered by thorium) within 5 years, Wilcox says that he and Dewan and Massie – currently the entire staff of Transatomic – would prefer to build the prototype MSR in the United States, but will consider another country if the licensing or financing proves too difficult here.


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