BYU professors create cheaper, smaller and safer nuclear reactor

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A digital rendering shows the ARC Generator, a micro salt nuclear reactor, commercialized by Alpha Tech and created by BYU professors. The generator would fit on a 40-foot truck bed. (Photo courtesy of Alpha Tech Research Corp)

BYU professors created a new nuclear reactor designed to dissolve fuel into salt and produce clean energy.

Chemical engineering professor Matthew Memmott saw the challenges related to nuclear. While noting cost, worry and size issues, Memmott said he wanted to fix all the problems at once instead of taking 50 years to do so.

“The molten salt reactor idea originally had been done in Oak Ridge and had the potential to be really small, compact and cheap,” Memmott said.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory said the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment goal was to understand the feasibility of commercial use of liquid fuel reactor technologies. Created by Alvin Weinberg, the experiment operated from January 1965 through December 1969.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory Molten Salt Reactor Experiment operated for four years into the 1960s. This video describes the design, facilities, development, assembly, installation and features of the reactor. (Video courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

The BYU Engineering website states “the standard nuclear reactor used in America is the light-water reactor. Uranium atoms are split to create energy, and the products left over will radiate massive amounts of heat. They are kept in solid fuel rods, and water is run through the rods to keep everything cool.”

Noting the new molten salt reactor, the website said the radioactive byproducts are instead dissolved into molten salt. While the products contained within the salt allows for the elimination of nuclear waste, valuable products may also be removed and sold.

BYU mechanical engineering professor Troy Munro explained how the products of the nuclear reaction can be removed from the salt.

“When uranium splits, two different atoms are produced, but they are never the exact same atoms. You get a variety of elements including strontium, iodine and most importantly for medical purposes, molybdenum,” Munro said.

Then, elements dissolve in the salt and can be extracted if the chemistry of the salt is changed, allowing them to deposit onto a probe, according to Munro.

Comparing the process to how materials become chrome-plated, Munro said the chrome ion is dissolved in the water while electricity is flowed between one electrode to the material that will then be plated. The electrons in the electricity combine with the chrome ions, forming chrome metal on the surface.

Memmott said once the byproducts are removed from the salt, the salt can then be reused forever.

“The goal of these new, advanced nuclear reactors are to produce clean energy,” Munro said, “and to be deployable at smaller scales.”

Smaller scales allow for more remote locations to have reliable power which does not come from hundreds of miles away but is instead local, Munro explained. This nuclear reactor does not require down time for refueling and can run continuously.

The Alpha Tech Research Corp licensed the intellectual property to commercialize the reactor, Memmott said.

“The big barrier to this, as with all nuclear, is it has to be licensed by the US and it is a long and difficult process,” Memmott said. “If it is cheaper, safer and easier to use, it will be really easy to get adoption I think.”

The team behind this development also includes BYU professors Stella Nickerson, John Harb, Yuri Hovanski, Ben Frandsen and BYU graduate student Andrew Larsen.

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