The phrase “nuclear power” conjures up images of tall smoking towers or Tony Stark’s arc reactor from the iconic “Iron Man” films. But two Seattle-based startups are designing nuclear technologies small enough to be recovered and transported, thanks in part to Defense Department membership, they hope to power a new generation of spacecraft.
Avalanche Energy and Seattle’s Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation received undisclosed funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit in May to develop two different approaches to small-scale nuclear power.
Avalanche pushes the boundaries of nuclear fusion while Ultra Safe aims to revolutionize nuclear radioisotope batteries, like those that power Mars rovers. The two companies are expected to deliver a working prototype spacecraft to the Pentagon by 2027.
“Nuclear is an interesting area because traditionally it’s primarily a government domain,” said US Air Force Maj. Ryan Weed, the Defense Innovation Unit’s nuclear propulsion and energy program manager. . The unit – the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outpost – works exclusively with private sector companies to adapt emerging technologies for military use.
After six decades of materials science research, nuclear fuels are relatively safe and are being adopted by the private sector. The climate crisis has also pushed public opinion to accept nuclear as a viable substitute for fossil fuels. Massive advances in computer modeling have made the commercial development of nuclear power more feasible, said Chris Hansen, a fusion researcher who runs a lab at the University of Washington.
Washington State has a relationship with nuclear research dating back to the World War II-era Hanford site, which produced most of the plutonium for the United States. Its morally complex history aside, Hanford undeniably fostered a “culture of nuclear expertise” in the state, said Scott Montgomery, a lecturer at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.
Today, the state is a hub for commercial nuclear startups, especially companies trying to crack small-scale nuclear fusion. Unlike fission, which generates energy by breaking down heavy radioactive metals like uranium, fusion occurs when two smaller atomic nuclei collide to form the larger nucleus of a different element, releasing energy. energy in the process.
Avalanche co-founder Brian Riordan likes to visualize fusion by trying to glue two velcro-covered magnetic balls together.
“The Velcro works a very short distance, but if you could get them close enough together and the Velcro was strong, they would stick,” Riordan said.
Fusion is difficult to achieve because, like Velcro-covered magnets, positively charged ions naturally repel each other. It is even more difficult to pack it in a small container. For example, more than 35 countries have spent years and billions of dollars building the Iter Tokamak reactor in the south of France. The machine won’t turn on until 2025 and won’t be commercially viable until at least 2035.
In the meantime, Seattle startups are making headlines.
The biggest technical hurdle to fusion is getting the machine to produce more energy than it consumes, but Seattle-based Zap Energy proclaimed last week that it expects to have a working prototype within the year. In 2021, Everett-based Helion Energy announced that it would begin building the first commercial nuclear fusion reactor in Everett with an expected completion date of 2028.
Avalanche, co-founded by former Blue Origin engineers Riordan and Robin Langtry, entered the fusion race in 2018 and patented a new lunchbox-sized fusion reactor dubbed the “Orbitron”.
The device combines two existing instruments in a vacuum chamber – an “orbitrap”, which harnesses positively charged ions in a small orbit around a negatively charged cathode, and a “magnetron”, which generates a stream of electrons. Introducing electrons into the reactor neutralizes the positive charge and allows more ions to enter the gap, and packing more ions into this small gap exponentially increases the chance of merger.
The team is fine-tuning the first prototype and plans to upgrade to a larger device in August. The main technical challenge will be to miniaturize the high-voltage conductor so that it fits into the desired package while supplying enough energy to the cathode for the ions to orbit fast enough to fuse.
Eventually, the finished product should produce between 5 and 15 kilowatts, although users can group multiple units together to produce much larger amounts of power. The size makes Orbitron suitable for space travel, which sets Avalanche apart during the Pentagon contract selection process, said Weed, project manager for the Defense Innovation Unit.
As Avalanche attempts to unlock small-scale fusion, Ultra Safe develops a new and improved “nuclear battery” called EmberCore. These devices are essentially hot, radioactive rocks that steadily release energy as they decay.
“You can use hot rock like hot rock, or you can surround it with power conversion technology to turn that heat into electricity,” said Adam Schilffarth, director of strategy for the advanced technologies division of ‘Ultra Safe.
NASA has always used plutonium for radioisotope batteries, such as those that power the Curiosity rover on Mars and the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes. However, plutonium is an expensive, rare and dangerous substance. Ultra Safe explored different isotopes, like Cobalt-60 and Thulium, which can be scaled up to produce 10 times the power of traditional plutonium systems while being safer and more cost effective.
The first EmberCore Ultra Safe product to market is the size of an apple. It functions as a “hand warmer” for lunar landers so they can survive a 14-day lunar night, said EmberCore project chief engineer Chris Morrison. The final prototype for the Pentagon will be the size of a small binder.
Weed said EmberCore and Orbitron could allow spacecraft to travel farther and eliminate reliance on solar panels. With such large power capabilities, these technologies could also spawn a new generation of spacecraft capable of easily hopping between levels of Earth orbit. This could open the door to all kinds of commercial space travel, tourism and commerce.
“These new propulsion systems will allow us to have new known missions, and so it will affect how we use space power,” Weed said. “It will definitely be a game changer.”
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