Nuclear power: Former SpaceX engineers build portable micro-reactor | Building sheet

Teaser-Quelle: Radiant Nuclear

Once they developed technologies for energy sources on Mars for SpaceX, now they have founded their own start-up: A team of engineers wants to develop the world’s first portable, emission-free energy source with a micro-nuclear reactor.

Quelle: Radiant Nuclear

Visualization of the portable micro-reactor from Radiant Nuclear.

Doug Bernauer is the founder and CEO of the start-up Radiant Nuclear and previously worked for the space company SpaceX. There the engineer researched energy sources for Mars colonization and came to the conclusion that nuclear micro-reactors were a promising solution. But he also saw potential for use on earth as a flexible, affordable source of energy. Bernauer then left the company with two work colleagues to jointly found the company Radiant Nuclear.

The goal of the start-up: to make nuclear energy transportable in the form of relatively light and inexpensive micro-reactors. At the moment, many of the micro-reactors that are being developed are tied to a specific location, explained Bernauer in an interview with the magazine «Power». That should change with his project. His company wants to develop the “first portable, emission-free energy source in the world”, as in a
Press release
announced in September.

Reactor transport by plane, ship or road

The technology is intended in particular to supply remote areas such as villages in the Arctic or military bases with electricity. These are currently dependent on generators powered by fossil fuels, which, in addition to the environmental impact, also represents a logistical challenge, as regular fuel transports are necessary for this. Nuclear micro-reactors could offer advantages here: The energy is clean, the fuel lasts for more than four years and they are easy to “refuel”.

Radiant Nuclear’s reactor says it has an output of over 1 megawatt and should therefore be able to supply around 1,000 households with electricity for a period of up to eight years. According to the start-up, several units could jointly supply an entire city or a military base with energy. According to the communiqué, the micro-reactor is designed in such a way that it fits into a shipping container and can be transported by plane, ship and road.

In addition, it uses an “advanced particulate fuel” that does not melt and can withstand higher temperatures compared to conventional nuclear fuels. Using helium as a coolant would also reduce the risk of corrosion, boiling and contamination associated with conventional use of water, according to Radiant.

But all of this is a long way off. Because the micro-reactor is currently still in the prototype phase. The question of how the radioactive waste that arises from all types of atomic energy should be stored after use remains open.

Prototype is developed and tested

Visualization of the Radiant Nuclear micro-reactor

Quelle: Radiant Nuclear

The micro-reactor is to be constructed in such a way that it fits into a shipping container and can be transported by plane, ship and road.

In 2020, the start-up was able to look forward to two preliminary patents for its portable solution: on the one hand, for a technology that reduces the costs and time required to “refill” a reactor and, on the other hand, for one that improves the efficiency of heat transfer improved from the reactor core. Radiant has also signed a contract with Battelle Energy Alliance to develop and test an initial prototype at its Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

According to Bernauer, the test phase is under the direction of the US Department of Energy. The team is targeting the Department of Defense (DOD) as the primary market, as it has long been looking for a way to supply its military bases in remote areas with clean electricity. The micro-reactor should reach full power generation capacity within 72 hours of being set up, as Bernauer explains to «Power». Furthermore, the unit should be able to be relocated to a new location within a week if necessary.

The aspect of easy transport is the decisive point for the micro-reactor, says Bernauer. This is in contrast to so-called Small Modular Reactors (SMR), which are specially designed for upscaling. Such a modular configuration can also be made with the micro-reactor, but according to the engineer one is more interested in keeping one’s own solution portable.

Visualization SMR

What: Rolls-Royce

Visualization of a small nuclear power plant, which Rolls-Royce plans to supply electricity in England from 2029.

Rolls-Royce plans mini-nuclear power plants in England

The interest in the technology seems to be there: Last year, the start-up was able to secure $ 1.2 million from angel investors in a financing round to advance the development. In fact, Radiant Nuclear isn’t the only company working on mobile reactors: The construction of smaller reactors has been under discussion for several years.

The Danish company Seaborg Technologies is pursuing a similar approach to Radiant. “Compact Molten Salt Reactors” wants to build them the size of shipping containers, which are constructed in such a way that there are no nuclear disasters. For this purpose, among other things, the fuels are mixed with fluoride salts. The fissile material is therefore not cooled with water or sodium, but with salt. This means that if the coolant is damaged, it does not escape explosively as hot water vapor, but rather solidifies when it comes into contact with the air.

If the British engine and energy company Rolls-Royce has its way, small modular reactors (SMR) will supply electricity in England from 2029. These should mainly be prefabricated by robots and then installed at the desired location. The transport should also take place by road, rail or ship. According to the group, the mini-nuclear power plants will deliver between 220 and 440 megawatts, and the operating time is estimated at 60 years.

In the summer of 2021 it was also announced that a mini sodium-cooled nuclear power plant was to be built in the American state of Wyoming, according to the magazine «Tech and Nature»Reported. The lead company is Terrapower, founded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the energy supplier PacifiCorp in Wyoming.

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Nuclear power: Former SpaceX engineers build portable micro-reactor | Building sheet