Thursday, June 17, 2010 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Innovation Ventures gets off to an interesting start with TerraPower

(This post is not related to investments. Skip it if you are not interested in science or venture financing.)

What Nathan Myhrvold and his cohorts were trying to accomplish sure was exciting, perhaps even the start of a new structure for science, invention, and technology. Some are critical of organizations that just invent or acquire patents without manufacturing the product or providing the service but I'm not so down on them. Given my diverse interests, I read quite a number of stories on people trying to accomplish certain things but I never quite encountered anyone like Myhrvold. He is definitely someone special and I hope he succeeds.

Well, it looks like Myhrvold and his team may be on the verge of commercializing their first, serious, idea—and it sure is a revolutionary idea! As a bonus, unlike many ideas that get floated around with no backing, this idea seems to have financial banking of several venture investors, including Bill Gates (For those interested, Marketwatch has a story on Gates increasing his investment by another $35 million.)

The idea that Innovation Ventures, the company founded Myhrvold and his team, is attempting to commercialize is a new type of a nuclear reactor. Innovation Ventures is backing a company called TerraPower, which is developing a Traveling-Wave Reactor. I know very little about nuclear technology and not sure how much of this is purely theoretical and hype, but what makes this interesting is that it does not rely on enriched uranium. It can use depleted uranium and run a very long time without re-fueling. Technology Review has a brief overview of the proposed system:

Unlike today’s reactors, a traveling-wave reactor requires very little enriched uranium, reducing the risk of weapons proliferation. The reactor uses depleted-uranium fuel packed inside hundreds of hexagonal pillars. In a “wave” that moves through the core at only a centimeter per year, this fuel is transformed (or bred) into plutonium, which then undergoes fission. The reaction requires a small amount of enriched uranium to get started and could run for decades without refueling. The reactor uses liquid sodium as a coolant; core temperatures are extremely hot--about 550 ºC, versus the 330 ºC typical of conventional reactors.

The following diagram, extracted from "Introducing Traveling-Wave Reactors" by Intellectual Ventures, provides a simple diagram of the nuclear reaction:
The concept of a traveling-wave reactor has actually been researched by scientists for a few decades now. The following diagram, from the same document linked above, appears to indicate the original idea was developed in 1958 by Saveli Feinberg of Russia.
If successful, TerraPower plans to partner with a nuclear equipment manufacturer and license their ideas. They plan to have a reactor by the 2020's, although I'm not sure if that is a prototype or an actual one. The nuclear industry is one of the most regulated industries out there and it takes decades to get the permits, so you probably won't see me writing about this for another 10 years ;)

I'm kind of excited by this project. Although there are competing technologies, not to mention competing clean energy sources (such as natural gas, hydro, solar, wind, and so forth), nuclear is the most "powerful" and the one with big scaling potential. The downside is the risk with meltdowns—it's kind of ironic I wrote an article a few days about the potential for big meltdowns in poor countries like China and India—and nuclear waste. The system proposed by TerraPower appears to generate very little waste. Certainly if you compare nuclear waste against the waste generated by current energy sources (coal, natural gas, and oil), nuclear isn't as polluting.

Another big downside with nuclear power is that they require huge capital spending and good management. Unfortunately, this sort of kills one aspect of capitalism—private investors won't do much without government support*—but that's why I'm left-leaning at times. You really can't do anything unless government provides support of some sort. Only a few companies in the world can afford to build a nuclear power plant.

Overall though, I think nuclear power is better than most others. It's not as cheap as coal, oil, natural gas, or hydro, but nuclear power is cleaner and can be a very-long-term solution (especially if some key advances are made.)

As anyone that has stared at the stars in the sky would know, nuclear power is the only source that unleashes huge quantities of energy. If we, as humans, don't master nuclear technology now, we will in the future. I have a feeling that our destiny is intertwined with nuclear power, one way or another. For instance, I really feel that the next big advance in space exploration won't occur until we power ships using nuclear power. The current method of trying to power rockets using hydrocarbons is kind of primitive. It's kind of like trying to sail the world relying on wind. So, advances in nuclear science and technology is welcome by me. We are going to cross paths sooner or later.


* Not only does the nuclear industry need government support in terms of financing, environmental help, setting electricity rates, and the like, the industry also needs government funding of research. Most of the research is done at universities and funded by taxpayers. If the nuclear research at universities were abolished tomorrow, the whole industry would die overnight. I think this is the type of industry that would never exist in a purely capitalistic society (with current economics, knowledge of nuclear science, etc.)

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