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And the DOE energy innovation award goes to ... a new type of nuclear power

Posting in Design

The Twitter Generation's' next-generation nuclear. MIT PhD students Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan are feeling pretty chirpy about their molten salt reactor.

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A couple of Transatomic Power's young co-founders - Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan - look more Twitterati than Nuclearati.  But make no mistake. They're obsessed with nuclear power. So much so that this week, the newfangled nuclear reactor they're developing beat over 200 inventive contestants from across all areas of energy to scoop the top award at a U.S. Department of Energy "innovation summit," voted by investors and entrepreneurs.

Massie, Dewan and fellow co-founder and CEO Russell Wilcox - the former CEO of electronic display innovator E-Ink - are developing what's called a "molten salt reactor" (MSR). Proponents of MSRs say they are meltdown-proof, and that they are safer and more cost effective than the conventional reactors that the nuclear industry has built for some 50 years. Transatomic's MSR would also use existing nuclear waste as fuel, thus alleviating the vexing problem of where to store nuclear waste (see their YouTube video below).

Pitted against breakthroughs in solar, water treatment, clean fracking, biofuels and other areas, the company this week beat eight finalists in a "pitch-off" in front of a clean technology group that included a panel of four corporate and venture capital investors who moderated the pitches.

SHELL'S GAME?

Notably, oil giant Shell was among the investor panel, represented by Richard Smith of Shell's GameChanger Team, which is "responsible for finding, filtering and funding revolutionary technology and business models that are related to the energy industry," according to a web page for the DOE event, called the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. The other investors came from VCs Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates, and Clean Energy Venture Group.

In fact, Shell was a co-sponsor that helped bring together the original 200-plus entrants in the contest, organized for DOE by New York-based Future Energy, a group that hosts a series of technology-investor match-ups.

Some industry watchers believe that the oil and gas industry will help fund and develop alternative reactors like MSRs, not only as a future source of energy for the public, but also because new and smaller nuclear reactors (MSRs can be made in affordable small sizes) could provide clean and effective heat that hydrocarbon companies would use in their own industrial processes. Oil and gas companies today rely on CO2-emitting fossil fuels to provide that high temperature "process heat."

INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH

Other high temperature manufacturing industries like steel and cement could also benefit.

Molten salt reactors run at much higher temperatures than conventional solid-fuel reactors, which makes them more efficient. They put a radioactive element - uranium or thorium - into a liquid, which is a molten salt. Molten salts flow like water but have a much higher boiling point, which is good when you want to keep the liquid circulating. They are highly effective at absorbing and exchanging heat, which is what nuclear plants do - they tap heat from nuclear reactions to drive turbines.

MSR supporters say they are meltdown-proof because in the event of a malfunction the fuel drains harmlessly into a tank and the nuclear reactions stops. In conventional nuclear, although control rods can stop fission reactions, decay heat can build into a meltdown if cooling systems fail, as happened at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. MSRs also function at normal atmospheric pressure, rather than at the high pressure of many conventional reactors.

Transatomic has referred to its reactor in the past as a "Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor" (WAMSR), although the ARPA-E contest refers to it by the more pedestrian moniker of "uranium molten salt reactor."

THORIUM TOO

Some MSR developers, like Flibe Energy of Huntsville, Ala., say that MSRs are best optimized by using liquid thorium fuel instead of liquid uranium.

Transatomic's Wilcox says the company is still "fuel agnostic," but  that it is deploying first with uranium. "The reactor construction is simpler for us, there is an existing supply chain for uranium, and a uranium design lets us burn spent fuel which makes everyone happy," he told me via email. He said that a uranium model would serve as "a stepping stone" to a thorium version.

Transatomic is a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Massie and Dewan are PhD students. Its advisers include Richard Lester, who is head of MIT's department of nuclear science and engineering, and who is also the school's "Japan Steel Industry Professor" (are Japanese steel makers interested in one of these MSRs?).

The company has an impressive advisory panel of senior nuclear veterans, to which it added this week. Among others, the board now includes retired Westinghouse Electric chief technology officer Regis Matzie, who is also the leading commercial adviser to the molten salt nuclear collaboration between China and the U.S. Department of Energy.

ARPA-E is a DOE group that encourages development of advanced energy technologies.

Here's a YouTube video of Massie and Dewan waving their "WAMSR" at a TEDx talk in late 2011:

Photo is a screen grab from a YouTube video of a TEDx event not associated with this week's ARPA-E Summit.

Note: This post corrects an earlier version that stated fission continues after an emergency in conventional reactors. In conventional reactors, control rods stop fission, but decay heat continues to build if the reactor is not properly cooled. Updated around 5:35 a.m. PT, March 2.

There's more than one way to harness an atom, on SmartPlanet:

For a longer list click here

— By on February 28, 2013, 9:31 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure