Nuclear Startup Transatomic Power Lands $2M From Founders Fund

8/5/14Follow @mlamonica

Transatomic Power wants to build a new type of nuclear reactor, an endeavor that could take many years and hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, the startup is announcing that it’s landed a venture investor—Founders Fund—willing to bankroll one early step in the journey.

Cambridge, MA-based Transatomic has raised $2 million from FF Science, a portion of Founders Fund’s $1 billion investment pool that is targeted at science- and engineering-based companies. Transatomic, which was started by two former MIT nuclear engineering students, previously raised about $1.5 million, mostly from angel investors.

The company’s vision is to create reliable, carbon-free power from the hundreds of thousands of tons of spent fuel piling up at nuclear stations around the world. The new money will be used to refine Transatomic’s computer simulations and test the materials the startup intends to use in its molten salt reactor, which it hopes will be able to generate electricity from the radioactive waste produced by conventional nuclear power plants.

Leslie Dewan

Credit: Ellen Harasimowicz

The company is still doing technical research, but the investors at San Francisco-based Founders Fund were comfortable with the long timeline and hefty capital requirements Transatomic presented, says Leslie Dewan, a co-founder who recently became CEO. “Founders Fund and FF Science were the [investors] we clicked with. Everyone is on the same page in recognizing that it might take a long time, but if it comes to fruition, it will be amazing for the world,” she says.

Founders Fund has experience with this kind of long-running startup vision: the firm previously backed SpaceX, which took nearly a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to make the Falcon 9 rocket. Transatomic is roughly on the same schedule and has similar capital needs, Dewan notes. In its manifesto, Founders Fund argues that many venture capitalists are backing companies that produce incremental changes, rather than breakthrough technologies, which has hurt returns over the past decade. Its catchphrase is: “We wanted flying cars. We got 140 characters.”

Transatomic will work with universities, including MIT, to test its materials and getter better data on the performance and corrosiveness of the materials it intends to use. That testing will take about a year. Then it will need to do further experiments and start planning for a prototype and demonstration-scale facility.

There are a handful of nuclear startups pursuing alternatives to the light-water reactor design used in power plants now, including a few trying nuclear fusion. These ventures face serious hurdles in finding investors willing to back them. Money from federal labs in the U.S. is difficult, too, since that research is geared at refining existing systems, rather than completely different reactor designs. Beyond the technical risk, there’s also a great deal of uncertainly regarding how long and whether new reactor designs will approved by regulators.

Transatomic’s planned reactor would dissolve spent nuclear fuel in a tank of molten salt, rather than submerge fuel in water as today’s plants do. In the case of an emergency shut-down, the liquid salt would drain into a holding tank below the main reactor vessel and cool itself within a few hours.

Bellevue, WA-based TerraPower, which is financed by Bill Gates, is also designing a reactor that uses the substantial amount of energy that resides in nuclear waste. Executives have said they intend to build a first reactor outside the U.S., in countries where governments are willing to fund first-of-a-kind energy projects.

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  • Marc Sellgren

    I am of course happy to see initiatives like this, but I do not like the credit being taken as “first-of-a-kind”. This sounds exactly like the molten salt reactor Alvin Weinberg and Eugene Wigner built at ORNL in the sixties. Their MSR proved the concept worked and made way for future designs like the LFTR (Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor) which has yet to be built, but will likely be a key step in keeping this planet habitable to us. Among all the advantages the LFTR has, the possibility of using waste heat to produce fuel which could replace diesel and petrolium by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere must be one of the greatest. Effectively making it a CO2 negative energy source. This possibility exists with technology we already have.

    • Martin LaMonica

      Yes, this design is an updated version of the ONRL molten salt reactor from the 1960s. But it would use different materials in the reactor (i.e. no graphite moderator and different fuel) as well as a modern power generation system. Also, the intent is to be a commercial plant, not one for research.

      • Marc Sellgren

        Yes, I assumed it would be commercial, though I guess Weinberg would have open the gates to commercial use for their MSR as well, had he not been fired and the project lost its funding. Of course, it only makes sense to use modern electricity-generating methods, like the Brayton-cycle, but that wasn’t really the issue either. I guess it just bugged me when I read the article, an honorable mention of the great work accomplished by Weinberg, Wigner and the others at ORNL, which this project was based on, would have sufficed :)

  • pm

    The bulk of heat is produced by fission. Some relatively small amount of heat comes from radioactive decay of daughter products. If you want heat (energy) there must be fision and fision produces nuclear waste which (as is said) is normally dangerous for +100,000 years. Transuranics can be somewhat burned up in MOX reactors but daughter elements are not adequately attacked.

    Founders better find out whether the claims that nuclear waste is reduced or lasts a shorter time is true – I doubt it! What is the physics? – anyway $2m is not enough to do anything much.

    • Thomas Beach

      In their white paper, they compare the amount of waste generated by a similarly sized LWR (current technology) to that produced by the MSR technology they are developing. According to their models (using a well established simulation code I might add), they estimate a reduction of waste from 10 to .5 metric tons. Of those .5 metric tons, only 20 kilograms will be actinides, meaning only 20 kg will be as long lived as current spent nuclear fuel. They suggest that such a small amount of actinides diluted by the rest of the stored waste would reach background radiation levels in the same time frame as the shorter lived stuff (i.e. a few hundred years), but acknowledge that if the presence of actinides is too tough of a pill to swallow, they can be extracted offsite. As for the 2 mil, hopefully they get more money soon! This seems like a great technology.

    • Er

      The physics works. constant refueling is the key.
      The waste fraction in a solid fuel causes the core to loose criticality over time. There is a bunch of fissile fuel left in solid waste. (Search PUREX).
      The liquid fuel allows the fuel fractions to stay steady, via constant refueling. This allows the reactor to be designed for lower enrichment feedstock, and allows the reactor to burn all the fissile fuel. Transurancs (the long lived stuff) are not removed. They transmute to fissile or burn.