Science & Technology

“Atomic Batteries” Offers a New Approach to Carbon-Free Energy


This cut-away rendering of the MIT Atomic Battery concept shows key components such as instrumentation and control modules, nuclear reactors, and power modules.Credit: Courtesy of researchers

Jacopo Buongiorno et al. State that factory-manufactured microreactors that are trucked to their location could be a safe and efficient option for decarbonizing power systems.

We may be at stake in a new paradigm of nuclear energy, a group of nuclear experts recently proposed At the bridge, Journal of the National Academy of Engineering. Designed for autonomous plug-and-play operations similar to connecting oversized batteries, just as large, expensive centralized computers have replaced today’s widely distributed PCs. There are reactors manufactured in a new generation of factories that are relatively small and inexpensive. On the horizon, they say.

These proposed systems can heat industrial processes, power military bases and neighborhoods, operate unattended for 5-10 years, and then truck back to factories for refurbishment. I will. Author — Jacopo Buongiorno, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, TEPCO at MIT; Robert Frida, Founder of GenH; Steven Aumeier, Idaho National Laboratory; And Kevin Chilton, former commander of the US Strategic Army, said these small power plants. Is called a “nuclear battery”. Due to the simplicity of their operation, they could play an important role in decarbonizing the world’s power systems to avoid catastrophic climate change, researchers say. .. MIT News I asked Buongiorno to explain his group’s suggestions.

Q: Q: The idea of ​​smaller modular reactors has been debated for several years. What makes this proposal for atomic batteries different?

A: The units we describe take the concept of factory manufacturing and modularity to the limit. Previous proposals considered reactors with electrical power in the range of 100-300 MW. This is one tenth smaller than the large Gigawatt-scale nuclear reactor, which is a traditional large beast. These can be assembled from factory-manufactured components, but still require on-site assembly and a lot of on-site preparatory work. So this is an improvement over traditional plants, but not a big improvement.

This concept of batteries is actually different because of the physical scale of these machines (about 10 MW). It’s so small that the entire power plant is actually built in a factory and fits in a standard container. The idea is to put the entire power plant, which consists of a microreactor and a turbine that converts heat into electricity, in a container.

This offers several advantages from an economic point of view. You completely separate the project and technology from the construction site. This has been the cause of delays and cost overruns for all nuclear project schedules over the last two decades.

In this way, it becomes a kind of on-demand energy. If customers want either heat or electricity, they can get it within months or even weeks, and then it’s plug and play. Only a few days after this machine arrives at the scene, you begin to gain energy. In other words, it’s a product, not a project. That’s how I characterize it.

Q: Q: You talk about the possibility that such units are widely dispersed. How confident are people about the safety of these plants?

A: Very robust — that’s one of the selling points. First of all, the fact that it is small is good for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the total amount of heat generated is proportional to the power, which is small. But more importantly, the high surface-to-volume ratio. This is also small, making it much easier to maintain cooling under all circumstances. It is passively cooled, eliminating the need for anyone to do anything. You don’t even have to open a valve. The system will handle it automatically.

It also has a very sturdy storage structure around it to prevent the emission of radiation. Instead of the traditional large concrete dome, there is a steel shell that basically encapsulates the entire system. Also, when it comes to security, most sites expect these to be below grade. This provides some protection and physical security from external attackers.

As for other safety issues, considering the famous nuclear accident, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, all three issues are mediated by the design of these batteries. They are so small that it is basically impossible to get such a result from a series of events.

Q: Q: How can we know that these new types of reactors work, and what needs to happen for such units to become widely available?

A: NASA and the Los Alamos National Laboratory have carried out a similar demonstration project called a microreactor for space applications. It took only three years from the start of design to manufacturing and testing. And it cost them $ 20 million. It easily cost more than $ 1 billion and was orders of magnitude smaller than traditional large nuclear power plants, which took more than a decade to build.

Currently, there are various companies that are developing their own designs, each of which is a little different. Westinghouse is already working on such a battery version (although it doesn’t use that term) and plans to bring the demonstration unit up and running within two years.

The next step is to build a pilot plant in one of the national laboratories with a wide range of equipment for testing reactor systems, such as the Idaho National Laboratory. They have many facilities that have been modified to accommodate these microreactors and have an additional layer of safety. This is a demonstration project, so if something unexpected happens, you need to make sure there are no releases to your environment.

The plant can then go through an accelerated test program and be exposed to even more extreme conditions than would be encountered in normal operation. It basically exploits it and shows that direct testing can handle all these external loads or situations without exceeding the failure limit. And if proven there under harsh conditions, extensive commercial installations can start very quickly.

These batteries provide resilience in very different sectors of the economy by providing a stable and reliable power source to back up the growing reliance on intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Ideally suitable for producing. These highly distributed systems also help reduce pressure on the grid by placing them where they need output. This makes the grid more resilient to interruptions and virtually eliminates transmission loss issues. If they become as widespread as we can imagine, they could make a significant contribution to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Reference: Jacopo Buongiorno, Robert Freda, Steven Aumeier, Kevin Chilton, “Strategy to Unleash the Potential of Nuclear Energy for a New Elastic Global Energy Industry Paradigm,” June 14, 2021. bridge..

“Atomic Batteries” Offers a New Approach to Carbon-Free Energy “Atomic Batteries” Offers a New Approach to Carbon-Free Energy

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