Remote military and commercial installations often rely on environmentally and polluting fuels such as diesel to create the necessary electric power they need, to carry on.
And in some areas of the world, reliance on diesel, solar and wind power are either unavailable, impractical or untenable, say experts.
So what if you had a reliable, safe and portable means of power, that would not need refuelling for 4 to 8 years?
Thanks to the aerospace technologies and software developments that have occurred over the past 20 years, there is now another option.
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, Nuclear power is going portable in the form of relatively lightweight, cost-effective microreactors, Interesting Engineering reported.
That’s right, nuclear power is going portable in the form of relatively lightweight, cost-effective microreactors.
Last year, the team secured US$1.2 million in funding from investors for their startup Radiant to help develop its portable nuclear microreactors, which are aimed at both commercial and military applications.
According to the statement, Radiant’s in-development technology brings a whole new dimension of portability to the once feared 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.
Designed to fit in a shipping container, 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.
“The nuclear industry can benefit greatly from aerospace technologies and software developments that have occurred over the past 20 years, and have not made their way into nuclear,” Bernauer said in an interview with Power Magazine.
“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.”
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 — a crucial factor in safe operation — 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).
The use of microreactors to expand distributed power generation is part of a trend toward providing electricity to remote areas, as well as to military bases and commercial operations that need access to power but are far from the traditional grid.
“Cost optimization, a reduced power peaking factor … that’s all part of our design,” Bernauer told Power, noting the microreactor’s portability provides “freedom and optimization. One of the benefits of the portable system is that it’s so small, we can autonomously operate it.”
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.
There are many remote locations around the world that require portable power such as arctic villages and remote military bases.
These locations currently rely on fossil fuel-powered generators, which is not only bad for the environment, but also challenging logistically, because generators require constant shipments of fuel over rural roads.
In the military, transporting fuel can be dangerous: according to an October 2018 US Army report titled, “Mobile Nuclear Power Plants For Ground Operations,” about half of the 36,000 casualties in the nine-year period during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom2 occurred from hostile attacks during land transport missions.
Bernauer said Radiant is operating under the auspices of the US Department of Energy during testing, and looking at the Department of Defense (DOD) as its primary market, as the DOD seeks a way to provide power to military bases in areas where access to electricity is not available.
The DOD, like other enterprises, also is looking at ways to reduce or eliminate the use of diesel and other fuels to provide power generation in remote areas.
“We target 72 hours from setting it down onsite, to full power production capacity,” Bernauer told Power.
He said the unit could be moved to a new location “after waiting just one week. It’s a self-contained system after you hit your site. The operating life is four to eight years, and that’s of course demand dependent. It can sync with other units and with the grid as well.”
Bernauer said portability of Radiant’s microreactor is key to its deployment, unlike small modular reactors that may be designed specifically to scale up.
“We can do a modular configuration, but we’re more interested in keeping it portable,” he said.
A company investor said the engineering and aerospace background of the Radiant team is an important aspect of his decision to support the effort.
“The innovative and ambitious team at Radiant has expertise from SpaceX as well as impressive nuclear industry credentials,” said investor Tom McInerney. “They have what it takes to bring new clean-energy solutions to market, and I’m excited to be part of their journey.”
“Clean, safe nuclear power — which is now embraced by both political parties in the US — is the best alternative to fossil fuels in many environments,” said Bernauer.
“Our team’s combined expertise in nuclear technology, rapid product iteration, and commercializing complex technologies give us a huge competitive advantage in this market, and we’re grateful to our investors as well as partners such as the Idaho National Laboratory who are helping us get to our first prototype.”
Sources: Interesting Engineering, Power Magazine, Global Newswire