Solid-State Nukes

Can you say, “relatively small, solid-state nuclear reactors that only cost a few million dollars each?”

Within 10 years, you might be able to.

This technology does not seem to be getting the attention it deserves. If it pans out, it will represent a complete change in the way we generate electricity. Most importantly, it will change the scale at which we can efficiently generate electricity and that has profound political implications.

Ever since James Watt, all the serious power in our civilization has come from steam. With the exception of hydroelectric power, all our electricity comes from boiling water with coal, natural gas or nuclear power in order to generate high pressure steam that can spin turbines which in turn mechanically rotate generators. 

Dr. Lonnie Johnson’s invention, the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System (JTEC) uses a completely different system. The JTEC works something like a fuel cell. It (simplistically) uses heat to pressurize a gas and push it through a membrane which shears off electrons creating a current that flows out of the unit. On the cool end of the unit, electrons flow back in from the load, reconstituting the gas which flows back around to be reheated and re-pressurized. 

Why could this change everything? Simple, with steam generation of electricity, efficiency increases significantly with increases in the pressure of the steam generated. You can’t make an efficient steam generator that would sit on a counter-top or fit in a flashlight. To get meaningful amounts of electricity from steam, you need a large heat source turning massive turbines turning massive generators. Contemporary nuclear plants cost billions of dollars because the reactors must be huge to generate enough steam to make them cost effective. This size and the associated steam pressures also pose the major safety risk associated with the plants. Handling the steam creates about 90% of the plants’ complexity.

A JTEC by contrast works efficiently at almost any scale. It doesn’t take a massive amount of heat. It only takes a few kilograms of uranium or most other nuclear fuels to create significant heat. In some cases, it takes only grams. If I calculate correctly, a uranium JTEC based reactor could be about the size of a refrigerator. With various passive mechanism to automatically control the reaction rate by its heat generation, the reactor would have no moving parts at all. 

Such small, innocuous “microreactors” could bypass the political hysteria that shuts down the megareactors. Their relatively low cost would let people experiment with them without risking billions. We could be awash in nuclear power before anyone noticed. 

There may be hope for the world yet. 

[Afterthought: Johnson’s company looks to me to be an excellent long term investment. It could be like Microsoft at 9.58.]

15 thoughts on “Solid-State Nukes”

  1. Such small, innocuous “microreactors” could bypass the political hysteria that shuts down the megareactors.

    I’m not so sure about that. Seems to me that any company or institution who installs one of these micro-reactors had best keep it on the down-low. The moment anyone living within a mile of the place hears anything about a nuclear reactor operating that close to them, people will start to freak, and then not only the politicians but the lawyers will soon begin to mobilize against the micro-reactor operators.

  2. Joshua,

    I don’t think so. People tolerate a vast array of nuclear devices in the form of medical and industrial sensor technology. I think protestors trying to raise fear about a refrigerator sized box that just sits there and hums are in for an up hill struggle.

  3. Robert Schwartz,

    There will be no nuclear power until the last environmentalist is strangled with the entrails of the last lawyer.

    Now there’s plan I could get behind.

  4. I understand that the device is basically a stirling engine with no moving parts. One thing I’d like to point out is that you could have done this sort of thing anytime you wanted by using an old fashioned with-moving-parts stirling engine; in fact, there’s federal contracts out to build such devices right now.

    But I don’t think that this is going to solve the problems of the regulatory regime currently facing nuclear power; in fact, I think that larger plants may actually be better in terms of the ratio of tons of paperwork per kilowatt-hour.

  5. Shannon, one question: what’s the energy density of this thing? Could something that massed a hundred kilos and fit in a five-gallon bucket provide useful power?

  6. Jay Manifold,

    Could something that massed a hundred kilos and fit in a five-gallon bucket provide useful power

    According the company, the JTEC itself is scalable from the size of cell battery (flashlights, laptops etc) all the way up to full power plants. If you want to use more exotic fuels for the reactor such as Plutonium-238, curium-244 or strontium-90, I think you could make a useful reactor-JTEC that would fit in a five gallon (~19 liter) bucket.

    The limiting factor here (as in all heat engines) is the differential in temperature between the source and sink sides of the engine. If you use a flat gradient, such as laying the source end of the JTEC in the sun and the sink in the shade of a tree, you won’t see much power. If you stick the source end in a sea floor volcano and the sink in dense cold water of the sea floor you could get a lot power in a small package.

  7. In addition to your nuke idea, there’s another possibility.

    If this thing still works efficiently at medium-low temperature gradients, it might function quite well using Ocean Thermal. That temperature gradient is low enough that standard steam cycles have a major problem producing energy effectively (I’ve heard as little as 5-8%), even using a different fluid than water. If this could get higher than that, we might have a non-polluting form of solar power that actually works and is cost-efficient. Using the surface of the ocean as a solar collector has always been one of the few ways to make the low Solar Constant not a problem. If that works, then the only hurdle remaining to solve is barnacles, and the only question is “closed cycle” or “open cycle”?

    Thanks, Shannon. I noticed that last night, actually, and thought it looked interesting but did not see a specific application for it. You’ve gotten me thinking.

  8. Also, on the nuke side of things, don’t some of the current mini-nuke designs currently use plentiful and non-fissionable thorium as their fuel? That might be preferable.

    And the good side is, the #$^%#^#^ boomers are hopefully on their way out. If we can hold off Obama, this may be their last really significant election.

  9. Obloodyhell, David Foster,

    The company claiming that the JTEC can be used for waste heat energy recovery so it must be fairly efficient even at relatively low heat differentials so I think both your ideas will work.It also works as a heat pump so might even make a system that store thermal energy from solar during the day and then release it at night.

    This is one of those, and I hate to use the term, paradigm shifting technologies. It’s on par with the Faraday and Pixii’s first mechanical electrical generators. It throws out the entire mechanical linkage in electricity generation. Our grandchildren may well consider it bizarre that we used to generate electricity by rotating great slabs of wire through magnetic fields.

    I think that in the near future, emergency generators could be little more that a JTEC with flame unit like you would find on present day boiler. The flame unit will have couplings/settings so that it can burn any liquid, gaseous or even solid fuel. In a major emergency you could use it generate electricity from anything that could burn.

  10. OBloodyhell:

    I resemble that remark! In fact I highly represent it! Actually I’m from the preceding war generation cohort(39-45) that is usually lumped in with the whining bastards. (I’m 64)–but I take your point. I might note that Katrina pointed out the need for independent power at hospitals. These things seem to fit the bill. Currently they are proposing a massive multi-billion dollar replacement of the New Orleans Charity and VA hospitals with a twin hospital complex that would share the same HVAC systems. I have proposed (to deaf ears) that the sort of proven, reliable and safe nuke power-plants such as Navy submarines use
    be used to power both facilities as long as they are starting from scratch–too logical, I guess…..

  11. > Actually I’m from the preceding war generation cohort(39-45) that is usually lumped in with the whining bastards. (I’m 64)–but I take your point.

    Virgil, nothing personal… there are always exceptions. I’m 50 next year, so, depending on your precise definition of “boomer” (ending from 1960-1964, usually), I qualify as one, being on the cusp. I’ve NEVER suffered from boomer-think though. In my Senior year in HS, in a Humanities class, we spent the first half of the year debating various philosophical ideas. I noticed it was almost always me and a couple others (never the same ones) vs. everyone else in the class. I was the precursor to “Alex Keaton”, arguing for right-leaning ideas and small government and free-market solutions. Some years after that, I realized I was more libertarian (small-L) than conservative, but I’m still in that general anti-Left non-boomer group, with my attitudes much more resembling Gen-Xers than boomers. So I consider myself a Gen-Xer regardless of the official designation.

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