When Will We Have a Working Molten Salt Reactor?
Back in October of 2015, we did a write up on 6 Nuclear Energy Companies Building Molten Salt Reactors, evaluating new strides being made towards safe nuclear power. The Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), which is projected to be safer, cleaner, and cheaper than traditional nuclear reactors, could be the next bit step in energy tech that we’ve been waiting for. The article has generated a fair amount of interest, so we thought we’d put together a comprehensive list of all startups working on this technology and try to guesstimate if/when we should see a working molten salt reactor.
Frankly, as investors, we always get a bit sick of waiting for technologies that are moonshot. Nonetheless, the benefits mankind would reap from such a clean energy source mean that we need to check in every so often. The good news is that, in addition to the six companies we covered in 2015, there are at least four more pursuing the advancement of MSR technology. The bad news is that we’re still at least a decade away from using molten salt reactors to provide good clean energy. At the rate we’re installing solar, in 10 years this technology might not even be economically viable. Let’s take a look at the progress of the original six startups we profiled, then get into a few promising MSR developers that were brought to our attention by one of our lovely readers.
Founded in 2013, Terrestrial Energy went all-in on their “Integral Molten Salt Reactor” (IMSR), which has targeted remote communities and industrial operations with their smaller, modular design. So far they’ve taken in $15.3 million in funding from undisclosed investors and just last month, notified the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of plans to license their IMSR in the United States. Though they still have to work through pre-application, design certification, and construction permit processes, Terrestrial’s CEO, Simon Irish, has publicly announced that 2017 will be the year that they move forward with the regulatory actions needed to bring their IMSR to market. Stay tuned for a live product in the 2020s which should look something like this:
Founded in 2008, TerraPower has given birth to the “traveling wave reactor” (TWR), which uses depleted uranium to simplify the nuclear fuel cycle. After almost 10 years of research and development, TerraPower is now taking the TWR to the engineering phase, planning to enter construction within the next five years. TerraPower, along with Southern Company (an Atlanta-based utility), was recently awarded $40 million from the Department of Energy to further their efforts. The Company was founded and funded by Bill Gates for an undisclosed amount. We’re pretty sure that funding isn’t going to be an issue here.
Founded in 2012, Moltex broke the conventional MSR mold by pursuing the development of what they call the “Stable Salt Reactor,” which uses molten salt fuel held in static fuel tubes, as opposed to the traditional MSR ‘pumped circulation’ design. In September of last year, Bloomberg interviewed founder Ian Scott and he stated that the Stable Salt Reactor is still in the works, and will be rolled out fast enough to “help prevent catastrophic climate change”. He also said that they’re looking for $30 million to make that happen. Their last news release in September of 2016 talked about press coverage they were receiving but what they really need is funding to make it happen.
Founded just recently in 2015, Elysium Industries has joined the fleet of MSR developers with their own fresh ideas in tow. Co-Founder Matthew Hayes says that other companies are just dusting off old technology, but Elysium is different. “Our team is taking into account all the recent scientific advancements and coming up with an original concept.” Elysium has already filed quite a few patents on the tech that has been spawned from this original concept. Elysium says that they’ll have a working prototype in the next five to seven years, and will be actively manufacturing in eight to 10 years. With an ambitious timeline like that, Elysium may be worth keeping an eye on. With more than 70 employees working on the project, it would seem that they’ve taken in more than the $200,000 which is listed in the public domain.
Beginning in 2004, the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) has been focusing their efforts on a Molten Salt Fast Reactor (MSFR), a fast spectrum MSR with a thorium fuel cycle. Unlike thermal molten salt reactors, the MSFR doesn’t use any solid moderator, making it a fast-spectrum reactor with the possibility of fuel reload without reactor shut-down (we have no idea what that means either). Scientists find the technology exciting, but its definitely in the beginning stages of development. French analysts predict that deployment of the MSFR would likely be post 2050, around the same time that the last human jobs will be migrated to robots and AI.
Founded in 2010, Transatomic has taken in 3 rounds of funding totaling $5.5 million from investors that included Peter Thiel. The Company is developing their “Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor” (WAMSR) (fcuk yes) which is a 520 MW molten salt reactor which uses the waste from traditional reactors as a fuel source. Here’s a look at their milestones and progress:
While a traditional reactor may use up to 4% of the energy in their uranium fuel, the WAMSR utilizes 96% consequently reducing nuclear waste to 2.5% of what is produced by a typical reactor. Overnight cost of the WAMSR is $1.7 billion, and they are currently running lab-scale experiments to refine the design for the prototype facility which is expected to be complete by 2020.
UPDATE: The same day this article was published, MIT published an article titled “Nuclear Energy Startup Transatomic Backtracks on Key Promises“. Long story short, it went from being 75X more efficient to 2X more efficient and investors said they were still confident in the company’s mission.
Next up is a company called Martingale (of which little information could be found) which is developing an MSR called Thorcon. The Company claims that their decades-old original Molten Salt Reactor design needs no new technology, is completely fixable, and rapidly deployable. They also claim that their cheap, reliable, CO2-free electricity is here, NOW. They have a written and published prototype test schedule that requires just five years, and a cool $170 million in funding.
UPDATE 2/27/2017: Here is an update from Robert Hargraves, founder of Thorcon:
Regarding ThorCon, the IP assets of Martingale have been transferred to ThorCon International Pte Ltd, a Singapore corporation. Over a year ago we signed a MOU with 3 Indonesia state-owned companies to pursue our thorium/uranium liquid fission power plant.
Our team is in Indonesia, again. Indonesia finished the “pre-feasibility study”. We’re working closely with their universities, ministries, nuclear energy agency, and the regulator. They are working on an assessment guided by IAEA INPRO. Demonstration site is chosen. Discussing plans with vendors for turbines, generators, graphite, salt, pumps, and shipyards. Raised most of the $10 million first round.
Founded in 2011, Flibe proposed to use thorium as a nuclear fuel instead of uranium. The founder Kirk Sorensen, both a nuclear engineer and rocket scientist, claims that corporate interests have prevented thorium from being used as a nuclear fuel. Flibe’s liquid fluoride thorium reactor is expected to cost several hundred million dollars to build. They’re looking for partners and if you want a thorough look at what they’re proposing, this deck is pretty informative once you get past the intro slides. If you just want a quick schematic instead, here is the “Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor” or LFTR:
In the same location as it says on the tin, Copenhagen Atomics is the brainchild of two gentlemen who see the same potential for thorium as does Flibe Energy. The startup is focused on solving the challenge of nuclear waste with a Thorium Molten Salt Reactor called the “Waste Burner”. On their website is a white paper on their technology dated back to November 2014 and they have a team of 16 people working on the project. They also appear to have posted some information on Quora in 2015 which should be taken with a grain of salt because that could be anybody posting.
Now this is where things get a bit weird. There’s another Danish firm doing the exact same thing. It’s not just they’re both developing a Thorium Molten Salt Reactor, it’s that they’re even named the same. Seaborg’s reactor is called the “Wasteburner” while the Copenhagen Atomics’ reactor is called the “Waste Burner”. They both have a similar looking layout for their websites. They both have a single white paper (here is the one from Seaborg) that from our layman’s eyes doesn’t look all that different (here is the one from Copenhagen Atomics). If we didn’t know any better, we’d say there was a falling out at Copenhagen Atomics at some point and Seaborg spawned off as a result of that. Do you think they go out for drinks and swap notes or is it just awkward chance encounters at the local bar? Fascinating stuff.
With the exception of the companies that have received meaningful amounts of funding, it seems like everyone else is actively seeking funding and hoping some investor ponies up 10s of millions of dollars to start building their own superior version of the MSR. There is certainly interest from retail investors because we see a lot of Google searches for terms like “Flibe Energy stock symbol” or “Terrestrial Energy stock”. The problem is that even if these startups turn to crowdfunding, they just won’t be able to raise the type of money they’re looking for from the average retail investor who wants to take a punt with a few grand. The fastest dog on the track at the moment, and the one with the deepest pockets, seems to be Terrapower which claims they will enter the “construction phase” in 5 years’ time.
If you have a dog in the MSR race and you think you’re further ahead than Terrapower, drop us a note in the comments section below.
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