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Nuclear Energy Startups Want to Make Cheap Power

Researchers are hoping to do for the energy industry what SpaceX is doing for rocketry.

Cooling Towers

Rachel Slaybaugh is an assistant professor of nuclear engineering at Berkeley, and since her days as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, she’s been working at making nuclear power more efficient. Her studies began with the Boltzmann transport equation, “a single equation that describes where all of the neutrons are in a nuclear system,” Slaybaugh explains. “Anything in a nuclear system starts with where all of the neutrons are, so it lets you figure out everything else.”

The equation is complex and challenging, so Slaybaugh has worked to create algorithms and software which makes it easier to solve. Ultimately, this can lead to improvements when designing new nuclear power facilities. “Truly predictive modeling will end up making it a lot more feasible, affordable and practical to ask questions about what’s going to happen in new reactor design scenarios,” Slaybaugh says. “I also have this serious concern about best practices and quality: You want to make sure that the codes you are using in nuclear systems work.”

slaybaugh

Slaybaugh received a presidential citation from the American Nuclear Society

Slaybaugh was attracted to nuclear energy for its environmental potentials. Nuclear energy produces no pollutants whatsoever, with the exception of spent fuel rods, which can today be largely repurposed and used again until there’s very little radiation left. It could be a powerful weapon against fossil fuels, but governments and public opinion have been weary of it for a long time, partially due to scary words like “Chernobyl”. Perhaps that sentiment is beginning to change though:

“The big thing is that the government is making national lab resources available to private companies in a way that it wasn’t before,” Slaybaugh says. “If you are a nuclear startup, you can only go so far before you need to do testing, and you are not going to build a nuclear test facility, because that is hard and expensive. But now you could partner with a national lab to use their experimental resources. I’ve been talking about how to set up a pathway from universities for this kind of research.”

She’s been doing this by hosting a nuclear innovation bootcamp, which you can see below. Over the past year, Third Way, a supporter of her efforts, has published a number of reports on the advanced nuclear industry, and has found 48 promising startups all over the US and Canada worth over a billion dollars.

source: University of California

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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