Bill Gates’s TerraPower is making its next big move on nuclear energy.
If you’ve never heard the name “Bill Gates” come up in conversations about nuclear power innovation, then there’s no time like the present. The globally recognized Gates led the launch of TerraPower in 2006, not far from where Microsoft began in the United States. Now it’s making its next move.
The company is part of a partnership to develop liquid salt-based reactors that may replace light water reactors. They’re safer to use, the U.S. Department of Energy says, and they’re targeted for small scale use too. That’s in line with the Gates vision to develop nuclear technology that delivers more power in more places, in a world where 1.1 billion people – one in every six – has never had access to electricity at all.
Many more need reliable service to achieve sustainable economic development goals, or to keep cool in a warming world, and that’s a sobering challenge when balanced with critical carbon emissions targets. With a projected population of 9 billion by 2040, the planet needs to generate 48 percent more power.
“Nuclear energy provides the only large-scale, low-carbon source of baseload electricity that can affordably meet the world’s growing energy needs,” says John Gilleland, the chief technical officer for Terra Power.
TerraPower’s work on a molten chloride fast reactor (MCFR) project has that future in mind, and it’s designed to operate within tougher temperature ranges. “This means the technology can do more than generate electricity; it also offers potential in alternative markets, such as process heat and thermal storage,” the company explains.
The design uses liquid chloride salts as a coolant and fuel. They flow through the reactor core, allowing the fission to directly heat the salts. The mixture is then circulated through a heat exchanger in a second loop that can be used for generating power or alternative uses.
The MCFR can produce up to 1,100 megawatts of electricity, but a test reactor has shown the potential for smaller-scale use. “It is a major departure in terms of simplicity, fuel cycle and proliferation characteristics relative to other more-complex nuclear reactor concepts and offers significant safety, performance and economic benefits,” the U.S. government said.
There’s more than $40 million in government funds also supporting the project, which for all its 21st-century innovation is actually a return to the past. This MCFR startup traces its roots to a four-year project at the U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s and began as a nuclear power experiment in fueling airplanes. That never got off the ground, so to speak, but TerraPower builds on the science.
In addition to Oak Ridge and TerraPower, partners include the Southern Company, Electric Power Research Institute and Vanderbilt University. The Gates-backed TerraPower also is developing a second project, called the Traveling Wave Reactor. See the video for more information about TerraPower and TWR safety.