Thursday, August 21, 2014

Small Nuclear Reactors? Why Not Mini?

upowerMore from the world of venture capital :

Less than a couple hours ago, we were highlighted in a TechCrunch article disclosing that UPower is a Y Combinator company.  This article is currently trending at story number 1 in HackerNews.

Almost all of that is way too millenial for me, but it does raise the question: what is UPower? and Y Combinator, for that matter?

Let’s start with the second part first:

When Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham passed the keys of his uber-successful seed accelerator program to Sam Altman in February, he did so with an eye on the future.

Graham’s interest was largely in internet startups, but Altman seems to have a taste for nuclear energy and biotech:

“I’ve always loved it when we can fund companies that, if we don’t fund them, they won’t exist,” Altman said in an interview with Re/code on Tuesday. “No one is funding energy, and I think it’s a good business and really important for the world.

“Really important for the world.” It has kind of an adolescent twang to it – though he is is, after all, right. That tone, though, seems contagious. Here’s Helion Energy’s David Kirtley talking about fusion:

“Fusion is fundamentally safe. There’s no chance of meltdown, no carbon dioxide. But at the same time, it’s really hard.” The crowd chuckled. “It’s really hard,” Dr. Kirtley repeated.

It’s actually kind of charming and brings venture capitalism and nuclear energy closer to a youthful impulse to change the world -  it may be really hard, but it’s really important. Although Y Combinator invests some money into the startups it supports, its main function is to get the companies together with venture capitalists and other investors.

The startups move to Silicon Valley for 3 months, during which we work intensively with them to get the company into the best possible shape and refine their pitch to investors. Each cycle culminates in Demo Day, when the startups present their companies to a carefully selected, invite-only audience.

That brings us to UPower, which presented its idea on one of these demo days.

“Our target demographic is people off the grid,” says Jacob DeWitte, UPower CEO and co-founder. “Think of remote communities in the Northern Arctic or Canada. All of these places that aren’t connected to large continental grids rely on diesel generators for energy. … We can bring them power in a small package and get them energy they couldn’t have before.”

These aren’t small reactors, with which they clearly have some commonality, but personal nuclear reactors. I took a look  at UPower’s web site to get a fuller sense of it. It’s a trifle vague at this point.

UPower technology enables an always on, container-sized, truly carbon-free and emission-free nano-nuclear battery for remote and distributed generation where energy costs can exceed 30 cents/kWh, and power is needed 24/7.  The generator is a containerized unit that provides over a decade of energy without refueling, and can generate electricity for 40% less than competing technologies in these markets.  The UPower generator is powered by a unique compact, solid state, micro reactor that produces over 1 MW and can cogenerate process heat.

Sort of like a less intrusive solar panel on the roof. If I understand correctly, the reactor uses thorium and tungsten (formed into a “pixie stick”-like fuel rod) and is cooled by a “proprietary technology” – a heat sink, perhaps. Vague, yes, but early enough to keep questions about regulating and licensing these items at bay – not to mention non-proliferation concerns. All in good time.

I’ve been intrigued to see venture capital extend itself into the nuclear world. On first blush, it seems an extension of the interest in green technologies. Altman says as much and notes that investors have been spooked by the collapse of a few such companies – maybe that caused the turn to nuclear energy, which is green and mature, though Altman doesn’t say so.

If the idea of micro reactors sounds unlikely, consider biotech:

Glowing Plant, another startup in the biotech space, is focused on the genetically modified plant market, making “living air fresheners that don’t need chemical replacement cartridges, real cow’s milk without the need for dairy farming, and the ability to turn plants into useful fuel.”

Writers Kurt Wagner and Lauren Goode note that the audience hearing the Glowing Plant pitch were clearly uneasy with it – because it introduces ethical and moral issues regarding genetic tampering. The name Glowing Plant is almost provocative in this context. Even if you think fear of Dr. Moreau-like horrors is overblown, running these ideas past the public can be difficult.

All these ideas seem both promising and outlandish. They can be how the future is made or springboards to more practical applications (or complete dead ends, to be honest). What Y Combinator does is a working definition of “early days.” It’s interesting to see nuclear energy in the mix.

4 comments:

jimwg said...

Mega or mini, nuclear's biggest obstacle and problem isn't technical or creative but plain old PR. When is the nuclear community going to GET it, that it must aggressively educate the FUD-fed public about nuclear power? If people fear nukes in whatever shoe size they're not putting them on! Recall the words of wisdom in "The Right Stuff" regarding selling your wears to voters; "No bucks, no Buck Rogers." No Ads, No nukes. Question?

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Anonymous said...

I am one of the UPower founders. The key takeaways here are that the main hindrances to novel nuclear are (1) meeting regulatory and safety necessities without huge testing costs, which also require a customer interested in purchasing, and (2) competing with the grid, (3) huge scientific/technical risks if not yet proven.

UPower meets these by (1) being small enough to build a very tough, full scale emulator for testing, never before done in nuclear. (2) not competing on the grid, which gives immediate, in need customers which is also necessary for regulatory process to complete in (1). (3) using technologies and materials with decades of experience, in a new way, eliminating the huge uncertainties of many startups you see in the news.

Mitch said...

Anonymous --

Okay, your work's fantastic and my hat's off to you and your crew -- but all that genius and sweat will mean NOTHING if people DON'T WANT IT! Thanks to FUD artists and zit nuke Ads, people don't like nukes!! That's what jimwg's been trying to say in nuke blogs all over! Get people over FUD and the regulatory and fiscal issues are a picnic because then all your work will have some place to go! No put down but you all got to take off the engineer's hat and look at how common people think and feel about nukes!

Marcel F. Williams said...

Ironically, the highest initial demand for nuclear battery power units may be at current commercial nuclear sites in the US and around the world.

If there had been underground nuclear batteries for emergency power generation instead of the emergency diesel generators at Fukushima (which got flooded), no meltdowns would have occurred.

Marcel