Zeno wins $7.5M contract for underwater nuclear power

Zeno Power says it’s been awarded a $7.5 million contract from the Department of Defense to build and demonstrate a radioisotope power system that can provide distributed power on the seabed.

The program, funded through the Pentagon’s Operational Energy Innovation Office and the Office of Naval Research, calls for the demonstration to take place by 2025.

Zeno maintains offices in Seattle as well as Washington, D.C., and one of its partners in the program is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash.

The objective of the program — known as Distributed Energy Provided Throughout the Seas, or DEPTHS — is to develop decentralized nodes for energy generation and distribution on the seabed. Such a system could open the way for long-endurance seafloor sensor systems and charging stations for autonomous undersea vehicles.


Zeno Power tests a new type of nuclear heat source

Zeno Power says it has successfully completed its first demonstration of a new type of radioisotope heat source that could be used to generate off-grid power in settings ranging from the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the moon.

The demonstration — performed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. — took advantage of the energy provided by the radioactive decay of strontium-90. Zeno said its tests confirmed that the company’s technology can increase the specific power of its heat source compared with previously available strontium-90 heat sources.

Zeno uses radioisotope heat sources as the building blocks for its power-generating systems, which are designed to convert constant thermal energy into electricity. Strontium-90, which is typically created as a byproduct of nuclear fission, is an abundant fuel for such systems — but existing strontium-based power systems tend to be bulky. Zeno’s design could generate more power with less bulk, opening the way for a wider range of applications.

The work at PNNL involved radioactive and non-radioactive activities, including chemical processing and fuel fabrication, materials handling and heat source characterization. The test data will support further development of heat sources.


DARPA and NASA pick Lockheed Martin for nuclear rocket

NASA and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have selected Lockheed Martin and BWX Technologies to move forward with development of a nuclear thermal rocket, or NTR, that could blaze a trail for future missions to the moon and Mars.

The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, is slated for launch in 2027.

“The DRACO program aims to give the nation leap-ahead propulsion capability,” Tabitha Dodson, DARPA’s program manager for the effort, said today in a news release. “An NTR achieves high thrust similar to in-space chemical propulsion but is two to three times more efficient. With a successful demonstration, we could significantly advance humanity’s means for going faster and farther in space and pave the way for the future deployment for all fission-based nuclear space technologies.”

Dodson told reporters that NASA and DARPA will go 50-50 on the $499 million cost of the project. The two agencies have been working together on the rocket development effort since January.


Nuclear deep-space probe gets a new boost from NASA

Seattle-based USNC-Tech has gotten the green light from NASA to continue development of a rapid-response spacecraft that would use a nuclear-powered propulsion system for deep-space exploration.

The company’s proposed Nyx mission is one of six projects receiving Phase II grants from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC. Each grant provides up to $600,000 of support over the course of two years to follow up on Phase I NIAC projects.

USNC-Tech, the advanced-technology arm of Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., has been working on a next-generation radioisotope thermoelectric generator known as EmberCore. RTGs are basically batteries powered by the decay of radioactive material. They’ve been used for decades for missions ranging from Apollo moonshots to Mars rover treks and deep-space odysseys. EmberCore promises to provide 10 times as much electrical power as the current generation of RTGs.

For the Nyx mission, USNC-Tech envisions adapting EmberCore for an electric propulsion system that could propel a spacecraft to extremely high speeds. “The spacecraft architecture is capable of incredible delta-V on the order of 50-100 km/s,” USNC-Tech’s Christopher Morrison says in the company’s proposal. That would translate to 110,000 to 220,000 mph.

Such spacecraft could theoretically catch up with mysterious interstellar objects like ‘Oumuamua, which zoomed through our solar system in 2017. Other potential missions include detection of objects in the far-flung Kuiper Beltparallax microlensing to look for free-floating planets, and fast trips beyond the solar system’s zodiacal glow.


How power plays could open new frontiers in space

As more and more hardware goes into Earth orbit, and eventually to the moon and Mars, where will the power to run all those machines come from?

That’s one of the questions under consideration at a State of the Space Industrial Base workshop that’s being conducted this week at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

The workshop, hosted by Space Northwest, is bringing together government, academic and commercial leaders to assess the state of advanced power and propulsion for space missions, as well as the outlook for a Department of Defense initiative known as Hybrid Space Architecture.

Input from the workshop will be combined with insights gained at two other workshops in Florida and New Mexico to help the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit produce its annual report about the space industry’s potential contributions to sustaining America’s leadership on the final frontier.


NASA and DARPA team up on nuclear rocket program

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has taken on NASA as a partner for a project aimed at demonstrating a nuclear-powered rocket that could someday send astronauts to Mars.

DARPA had already been working with commercial partners — including Blue Origin, the space venture created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, as well as Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, or USNC-Tech — on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations program, also known as DRACO. USNC-Tech supported Blue Origin plus another team led by Lockheed Martin during an initial round of DRACO design work.

Now DARPA and NASA will be working together on the next two rounds of the DRACO program, which call for a commercial contractor to design and then build a rocket capable of carrying a General Atomics fission reactor safely into space for testing. The current plan envisions an in-space demonstration in fiscal year 2027.

“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today in a news release.


Nuclear power in space? Pentagon boosts two projects

Two Seattle companies have won Pentagon contracts to develop nuclear-powered prototypes for space applications, with orbital demonstrations set for 2027.

The Defense Innovation Unit says Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies has been tasked with demonstrating a chargeable, encapsulated nuclear radioisotope battery called EmberCore for propulsion and power applications in space.

Plutonium-powered radioisotope batteries have been in use for decades, going back to the Apollo era. For example, NASA’s Perseverance and Curiosity rovers are relying on such batteries to provide the heat and electricity for their operations on Mars.

EmberCore would provide 10 times as much power as those batteries, producing more than 1 million kilowatt-hours of energy using just a few pounds of fuel.

Another Seattle-based venture, Avalanche Energy, will receive backing from the Defense Innovation Unit to continue development of a compact fusion device known as Orbitron. The device, which is about the size of a lunchbox, would use electrostatic fields to trap ions in conjunction with a magnetron electron confinement system.

The resulting fusion reaction would produce energetic particles for generating either heat or electricity, which can power a high-efficiency propulsion system.


TerraPower wins $8.5 million for nuclear fuel recycling

BELLEVUE, Wash. — TerraPower, the Bellevue-based nuclear power venture co-founded by Bill Gates, has won an $8.55 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to work on safer methods to recover uranium from used nuclear fuel.

TerraPower’s recycling process is among 11 projects that will receive a total of $36 million in federal funding from the department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E. The grants are aimed at supporting technologies that would limit the amount of waste produced by advanced nuclear reactors.

““Developing novel approaches to safely manage nuclear waste will enable us to power even more homes and businesses in America with carbon-free nuclear energy,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said today in a news release. “ARPA-E is doing just that by supporting companies and universities that are working on next-generation technologies to modernize advanced reactors and strengthen the nation’s clean energy enterprise.”

TerraPower’s grant is the largest of the 11 announced today for ARPA-E’s ONWARDS program. The acronym stands for “Optimizing Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems.”


TerraPower picks Wyoming site for its first nuclear plant

TerraPower, the nuclear power venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has chosen a soon-to-be-retired coal-fired power plant in Wyoming as its preferred location for a next-generation demonstration reactor.

After an evaluation process that included meetings with community members, the Bellevue, Wash.-based venture selected Kemmerer, Wyo., for the site of its Natrium reactor, which will make use of technology from TerraPower and GE-Hitachi.

The project is one of two projects supported by the U.S. Department of Energy with an initial funding round totaling $160 million. The other project is planned by Maryland-based X-energy, with Washington state’s Hanford nuclear reservation selected as the preferred location. The Department of Energy plans to invest a total of $3.2 billion over a seven-year period to turn the concepts into reality by 2028, with matching funds provided by industry partners.

TerraPower had previously signaled that it planned to build the demonstration reactor at one of PacifiCorp’s four retiring coal-fired plants in Wyoming, but today’s announcement revealed the precise location.

Cosmic Tech

Fusion research gets a $500M boost at Helion

Helion is revving up its quest to commercialize nuclear fusion power with a $500 million funding round led by tech investor Sam Altman.

Altman, who’s the CEO of OpenAI and the former president of the Y Combinator startup accelerator, will help raise another $1.7 billion if Helion reaches key milestones on the way to producing a net electricity gain by 2024.

Fusion power takes advantage of the nuclear chain reaction that takes place in the sun, unleashing massive amounts of energy in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. The process is more energetic and potentially less polluting than the more familiar type of nuclear power, produced in fission reactors.