Thursday, July 23, 2015

Funding New Nuclear Technology (and There’s A Lot of It)

Under the somewhat alarming title, How Startups Can Save Nuclear Tech, Fortune writer Katie Fehrenbacher offers a survey of, well, startups promoting nuclear technology.

logo-terra-powerFortune finds this interesting for reasons that have become obvious to anyone who has looked at recent energy policy:

But four years after the infamous accident [that is, Fukushima], environmentalists, nuclear advocates, and researchers are now looking at nuclear tech as an almost necessary way to generate power without carbon emissions that, if used correctly, could be crucial to help the world avoid the worst of global warming. And unlike with solar and wind, nuclear reactors generate power around the clock.

heleonThe article zeroes in on the investor community, which, even if your primary interest is new nuclear technology, drives that technology to market. It makes sense for Fortune to spin the nuclear diamond to this particular facet – it’s the magazine’s bailiwick – and provides a unique perspective.

Last month, beneath the high-vaulted ceilings of the sleek offices of Founders Fund, a venture capital firm that backed Facebook, Airbnb and SpaceX, sits a small group of these passionate nuclear evangelists.

transatomicDoes nuclear energy fit the so-called sharing economy? Maybe not, but the SpaceX connection is interesting – it suggests a taste for counterintuitive thinking, in nuclear energy terms favoring alternatives to light water reactors and even fission.

Last Summer, Founders Fund invested a small $2 million seed round into an early stage nuclear startup calledTransatomic Power. Founded in 2011 by MIT nuclear scientists Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, Transatomic Power is working on a nuclear reactor that uses molten salt and nuclear waste as a power source. While molten salt nuclear reactor tech is decades old, Dewan and Massie are using new designs and materials.

A bit about the venture capitalist Ray Rothrock:

Some of Rothrock’s nuclear ambitions are poured into a stealthy startup, Tri Alpa Energy, that is working on nuclear fusion (nuclear fission is what’s used in today’s reactors). Years ago Venrock backed Tri Alpha Energy, and the company now also has the financial support of the Russian government (through the nanotech company Rusnano), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Goldman Sachs. Rothrock is Tri Alpa Energy’s chairman.

Tri Alp[h]a is new to me and I guess new in general – it doesn’t have a Web site yet – that must be the stealthy part.

nuscaleThere’s more, including Helion Energy (fusion), UPower (small reactors), TerraPower (used fuel as fuel) and NuScale (small reactors). The focus remains largely but not totally on investment. Well worth a read – both for a reminder of how lively the nuclear technology scene is and for this presumption that is driving (some of) the investment.

A recent disturbing report predicts that despite a colossal number of new solar panels and wind turbines over the next quarter century, the planet will still face dangerous rising temperatures. Basically even if these widely embraced clean energy technologies are put on overdrive, we’re still probably screwed.


1 comment:

Marcel F. Williams said...

The nuclear industry also needs to stop limiting itself solely to the production of electricity for utilities. Floating nuclear power plants, even deployed hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from any coastal shores offers the promise of producing valuable carbon neutral commodities such as ammonia for fertilizer and other industrial uses.

Using the US NAVY's new synfuel from seawater technology, floating nuclear power plants could be used to produce methanol for flex fuel automobiles and sea vessels, carbon neutral jet fuel for military and domestic aviation, and, ironically, electricity for coastal methanol electric power plants around the world.