Friday, April 25, 2014

What Else to Do with Nuclear Energy

phoenix logoNews from Wisconsin:

Phoenix Nuclear Labs (PNL), the Monona startup that has developed a particle accelerator-based neutron generator, announced a two-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Energy Department to design and build a “high current negative hydrogen ion source.”

That description at the end sounds a lot like fusion.

The project has applications for physics research, medical cyclotrons, semiconductor manufacturing, and—over the long term—trying to achieve “abundant, clean, nuclear fusion energy,” PNL said.

So fusion is a misty dream of the future while more achievable goals come first.

I have no particular brief on Phoenix or its prospects, but sometimes we forget that what we call nuclear energy has applications that have nothing whatever to do with making electricity. Of course, there are medical applications (a field Phoenix also wants to be in), but I’d say an understanding of its potential and actual use beyond electricity and medicine is, for many people, not much broader. And that potential is immense – as Phoenix, founded in 2005, would like you to know.

It has put together a list right on its home page of what it wants to do with nuclear technology:

  • Domestic production of critical medical isotopes used in health care for the diagnosis and treatment of cancers, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Coronary Artery Disease, and other ailments. 
  • Neutron radiography for non-destructive testing of critical components. PNL provides neutron generator technology to the US Army. PNL’s ultra-high flux generators allow for extremely sensitive and rapid imaging of components used in air and spacecraft, munitions, power generation, and many other industrial and defense applications.
  • Detection of nuclear and explosive devices to prevent terrorist attacks domestically and abroad. PNL’s core technology provides unprecedented neutron flux levels that can be used to detect a wide variety of explosive devices in order to protect our ports and borders.
  • High voltage power supplies. Through the development of our core accelerator technology, we have partnered with Rockwell Automation to design and build high voltage power supplies that offer power levels and a suite of features that cannot be found elsewhere.

For some reason, that last one made me think of a nuclear robot – I mean a Robbie the Robot-type of animated being – because Robbie would need a potent power supply, right? I believe the the third is what motivated the formation of the company, but the first is proving to have more currency. See this interview with founder Greg Piefer for more.

Piefer plans to use his Madison company's nuclear fusion technology to make molybdenum-99. The substance, known as Mo-99, produces technetium-99m, an isotope that's critical for certain medical imaging tests that diagnose, monitor and treat some cancers, as well as heart and brain diseases.

This press release from February suggests where Phoenix is in commercializing its work.

To date, PNL has been funded primarily by government grants and private investment. This sale to Ultra Electronics [for a thermal neutron generation  system]  represents the first large -scale commercial contract for PNL. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to provide a state-of-the-art technology solution to an internationally respected company like Ultra Electronics,” said Evan Sengbusch, VP of Business Development at PNL.

In other words, fairly early days.  Who knows, if Phoenix has some kind of a breakthrough with fusion energy, it might rise, so to speak, to our sphere. In the meantime, good luck to them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The most efficient way to produce moly-99 is bombarding high-enrichment uranium targets with a neutron flux from a research (production or test) reactor. Compared to that method, all others are tremendously inefficient. But no one has the guts to say that because HEU targets are supposed to be "bad". I call bullshite on that.