The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is involved with a number of philanthropic efforts all over the world.
Infectious disease research, improving healthcare in impoverished areas, and expanding educational access are just some of the efforts the organization is undertaking to improve society.
Improving research and development initiatives for new energy sources has also been a persistent interest of Bill Gates over the years.
He believes that novel energy R&D has the potential to make a significant difference, and has called for an ‘energy miracle’ innovation that providers cheaper, cleaner energy.
To achieve this goal, one of the companies Gates is involved with is Terrapower, a firm based in Bellevue, Washington, which is working on a new type of nuclear energy technology.
Kevan Weaver, director of Technology Integration at TerraPower explained how the company was born.
“In 2006 Bill Gates and an initial group of visionary backers began searching for a scalable, low-carbon, and cost competitive energy solution. These visionaries aimed to find a way to use this energy technology to mitigate the world’s poverty problems. After exploring all available technological options, they settled on nuclear energy as the best path forward,” said Weaverin 2008, TerraPower was established to lead the effort in developing new, safe, more efficient nuclear power technologies.”
Gates presides as the chairman of Terrapower, which has 150 full time employees. The staff is comprised of nuclear physicists, engineers, project managers, and operators who seek to establish partnerships where they can find new opportunities to advance their proprietary technology.
Weaver provided insight into TerraPower’s reactor prototypes as well as where he sees the market for nuclear energy moving towards in an exclusive interview with R&D.
R&D Magazine: Discuss your technology. How does your reactor work?
Weaver: The traveling wave reactor (TWR) technology offers a new class of advanced fast nuclear reactors. TerraPower’s design differs from the existing fleet of light water reactors by using sodium as a coolant and depleted uranium as its main source of fuel. The TWR technology can greatly simplify the traditional nuclear fuel cycle, making it cheaper, safer and cleaner.
The traveling wave reactor core will utilize fuel made from atoms that are unable to sustain a chain reaction on their own. Certain atoms can be converted to sustain a chain reaction through irradiation. As the reactor runs, the TWR design gradually converts what is called ‘fertile‘ material into the fissile fuel needed to sustain a nuclear fission reaction and generate the heat necessary for electricity production. The design offers a simpler fuel cycle that allows for the expanded use of nuclear energy to produce electricity with significantly reduced enrichment needs and no reprocessing.
R&D Magazine: How is your technology different from other nuclear energy efforts being worked on in the public or private sector?
Weaver: The traveling wave reactor technology offers safety improvements, extension of fuel supplies and reduction in proliferation risks; significantly reduced spent/used fuel production; and affordable, carbon-free electricity. At equilibrium, the TWR design will use uranium 30 times more efficiently than today’s reactors. By reducing (and eventually eliminating) enrichment and eliminating reprocessing, it breaks the link between energy production and weapons. It enables new ways to reduce emissions/air pollutants, protect the environment and provide affordable electricity.
These advantages will result in cost efficiency, highly enhanced safety, greatly reduced toxic waste, greater ease in waste disposal and a high level of proliferation resistance. The value of the TWR technology extends beyond the traditional benefits of nuclear energy. It also expands America’s nuclear industrial base. Over the last 10 years, TerraPower has started to create the necessary supply chain for TWR materials, components and fuel.
Also, our design takes a different technical approach to nuclear energy. The traveling wave reactor (TWR) technology runs on fuel made mostly of depleted uranium. As a fast reactor, it uses liquid sodium as its coolant; this is different from the light-water designs operating today.
Another type of technology we’re developing is the molten chloride fast reactor (MCFR). It is a type of molten salt reactor (MSR) that furthers the progress made through MSR experiments conducted in the 1960s. Modern computing power, materials and engineering developments enable the revival of new research and development of MSR technology. Integrating new reactor options into a diversified fleet can bring high-quality, carbon-free energy to heavy industry users, such as water treatment plants, refineries and chemical processors.
MCFR technology presents a low-cost reactor that can operate safely in high-temperature regimes. This means the technology can do more than generate electricity; it also offers potential in alternative industrial markets, such as process heat and thermal storage.”
R&D Magazine: Talk about the material used to power the reactors. What makes this material so unique?
Weaver: Our reactors require materials that can withstand high temperatures, corrosive environments, and high neutron fluences. These extreme environments are duplicated so that materials under consideration can be tested. This process involves testing fuels and materials, fabricating metallic fuel, obtaining required licenses and permits, and continuing the development of a supply chain that will be able to fabricate the necessary equipment and components for advanced reactor designs.
Our work is to optimize the materials for the harsh environment of the reactor. There is existing technology that has been proven in reactors, HT9, for example, and we are working to make the material better and able to sustain a long life in the reactor.
Material science is a challenge for our fuel design due to the neutron flux, high temperatures and long lifetime of materials in the core, so we work with national labs and companies to test original materials which creates a baseline. We then work to improve these materials and we test for comparison which gives us the confidence to use in the reactor. Some of our tests are conducted in test reactors, which are very limited globally.
R&D Magazine: What are some the milestones you’ve had as a company over the past couple of years? What does the timeline look like in terms of achieving your goals going forward?
Weaver: “For the TWR prototypes, we are working on the design and engineering of the TWR to build the first demonstration in the mid 2020’s.
We have developed a detailed process to build the first TWR plant, which will be followed by commercial reactors. Our extensive program to complete the design and engineering, fabricate and test fuel and materials, build a global supply chain for equipment is underway. Much of our current work is in testing and working on developing the licensing basis of the plant.
In partnership with AREVA, TerraPower manufactured the first full-sized test assembly for the TWR. We use full-scale fuel assemblies to test to provide data on the metal-on-metal interactions that take place in a reactor’s core.
We recently advanced our cooperation with a prospective JV partner, CNNC to partner on this technology as well.
In January 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy presented a five-year, $40 million cost-sharing award for continued research and development into TerraPower’s MCFR project. It initiated a U.S. public-private partnership that includes TerraPower, Southern Company, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Electric Power Research Institute and Vanderbilt University
R&D Magazine: What are your future projections for the nuclear energy market?
Weaver: By mid-century the world will need twice as much energy as it does now (EIA, 2016). Energy innovation requires broad investment and steady progress, because the opportunities for real change can arise from many places within the industry. Competitive solutions that address the most pressing issues facing the world do not come easily. Investors are coming to realize that electricity is an asset-based business, not likely one that will deliver ’transformative’ technologies or ’revolutionize‘ markets. Slow and steady will bring investors what they are shopping for – sustainable businesses that fulfill the moral imperative of clean, affordable energy for all.
Environment and climate concerns have people thinking differently about our need for multiple pathways to success. Social and economic drivers related to climate change have recalibrated how we value investments in our electricity system. Factors like the environment, a growing global middle class and a desire for the security of knowing the lights will always come on created a need for innovation. As a result, investors – both governments and the private sector – are making capital expenditures that support long-term goals and broadening notions of value creation.
Industries of all sorts want a framework for sustainable decarbonization. For sanitation, transportation and agriculture, we need energy solutions that mitigate risk, increase opportunity and expand a marketplace for new nuclear. Our real work – beyond excellent technical assessments and superior engineering designs – is to make a stronger business case for nuclear in the clean energy mix. Reactor designs like the TWR and MCFR lend to alternate markets such as process heat, thermal storage for example. By doing so, these technologies expand nuclear’s ability to address carbon reduction in sectors beyond electricity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity