Ex-SpaceX Engineers Are Building a Cheap, Portable Nuclear Reactor

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Ex-SpaceX Engineers Are Building a Cheap, Portable Nuclear Reactor

A concept image of Radiant's microreactor. Radiant

Nuclear power is going portable in the form of relatively lightweight, cost-effective microreactors. A team of former SpaceX engineers is developing the "world's first portable, zero-emissions power source" that can bring power to remote areas and also allows for quick installation of new units in populated areas, a press statement revealed.

Last year, the team secured $1.2 million in funding from angel investors for their startup Radiant to help develop its portable nuclear microreactors, which are aimed at both commercial and military applications.  

Space tech adapted for Earth colonies

We've previously reported on floating nuclear power stations, such as those produced by Danish firm Seaborg Technologies. However, Radiant's in-development technology brings a whole new dimension of portability to the nuclear reactor. 

Their microreactor, which is still in the prototype phase, outputs more than 1MW, which Radiant says is enough to power approximately 1,000 homes for up to eight years. It can be easily transported by air, sea, and road, meaning it will bring affordable energy to communities without easy access to renewable energy, allowing them to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

Radiant founder and CEO Doug Bernauer is a former SpaceX engineer who worked on developing energy sources for a future Mars colony during his time at the private space enterprise. During his research into microreactors for Mars, he saw an opportunity for developing a flexible, affordable power source here on Earth, leading to him founding Radiant with two other SpaceX engineers. In an interview with Power, Bernauer said "a lot of the microreactors being developed are fixed location. Nobody has a [commercial] system yet, so there’s kind of a race to be the first."

Nuclear power hits the road

Radiant announced last year that it had received two provisional patents for its portable nuclear reactor technology. One of these was for a technology that reduces the cost and the time needed to refuel their reactor, while the other improves efficiency in heat transference from the reactor core. The microreactor will use an advanced particle fuel that does not melt down and is capable of withstanding higher temperatures than traditional nuclear fuels. Helium coolant, meanwhile, reduces the corrosion and contamination risks associated with traditional water coolant. Radiant has signed a contract with Battelle Energy Alliance to test its portable microreactor technology at its Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

"In some areas of the world, reliance on diesel fuel is untenable, and solar and wind power are either unavailable or impractical," said Jess Gehin, Ph.D., Chief Scientist, Nuclear Science & Technology Directorate at INL. "Clean, safe nuclear microreactors are emerging as the best alternative for these environments." 

Radiant's microreactor can be used in remote locations, such as arctic villages and isolated military encampments that would otherwise typically rely on fossil fuel-powered generators. Not only is the portable microreactor better for the environment, but it is also more practical as it doesn't rely on constant shipments of fuel. Instead, the clean fuel used for Radiant's microreactors can last more than 4 years. If all goes well with Radiant's test campaign, nuclear power might soon hit the road. In doing so it will help to power countless remote communities, and will further bolster the resurgence of nuclear power in a world that needs clean energy solutions more than ever.

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