Last week saw the delivery of a paper by Liviu Popa-Simil, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear engineer, and now a founder of a private research and development company called LAVM. With Claudiu Muntele of Alabama A&M University the men say they have a concept that transforms the radiation of atomic decay, a major source of the energy released from atomic fission, directly into electricity. If the concept and the innovative design at hand now becomes commercial the pair assert it would be twenty times more effective at harnessing the energy than thermoelectric materials which would be working at the heat released alone.

The “grail” matter in all of this is that such devices would be harvesting the energy of the radiation whether or not there is a reaction underway. That is to say, that harvesting would be possible both during a reaction and after the reaction as the newly formed elements from the reaction decay. This would dramatically affect the calculation of the total energy that would be released from a fuel product.

With thermal efficiencies now past 30% and headed for 40% of heat to electricity, adding thermoelectric devices to go further and now add the radioactive harvest the prospects for future electrical power generation increases greatly. That and there would be significant value recovered from the spent fuel that is waiting for “disposal” now, so disposal might be something we want to think through before we commit to a disposal plan that would be non recoverable in design. The “grail” may be in the vernacular, “holy” indeed.

This development changes the view of atomic fission fuel products and all of the other radioactive products industry, medicine, and government produce. If one were to reassert the breeder technology to spent fuel, the prospects for electrical power while not limitless, would be incredible and last far into the future.

The concept that Liviu Popa-Simil and Claudiu Muntele devised is based in innovative application of nanotechnology. They are constructing tiles that can be assumed to be shaped to form a sphere around a fuel pellet. The tiles are made from carbon nanotubes, which are packed with gold with the assembly then surrounded by lithium hydride. The action is in the radiation crashing into the gold that in turn releases a shower of high-energy electrons. The electrons exit into the lithium hydride that harbors electrodes to permit the electrons to form a current that will flow out of the device. Popa-Simil says, “You load the material with nuclear energy and unload an electric current.”

Hat tip to Brian Wang at Next Big Future for spotting the paper that was presented last Wednesday at the Materials Research Society spring meeting in San Francisco.

One might want to be thinking from an investors view about the price of uranium and thorium a little differently. The gold involved is of some concern, and the prospects for the production of carbon nanotubes needs some thought. At this date, the concept is new and more innovations are sure to come from others. At the first try back in the 1940s by Linder who invented the thermo-ionic fission device that led up to the concepts of beta-voltaic and liquid electronics, these gentlemen’s concept will also have spin-offs and derived innovations.

The reach for the “holy grail” of atomic power has just gotten much closer.


4 Comments so far

  1. John Bailo on April 1, 2008 11:05 AM

    I’ve always thought that real “Green Technology” should be more like a Personal Computer than a typical generating station.

    You should be able to go to Wal*Mart, in the garden section, plunk down $5,000 to $10,000 (the price of a really big home entertainment system) and bring back a “power plant” for your basement and install it right next to the water heater and central air conditioner.

    It sounds like the “waste” in this scenario now becomes “fuel” that can be used by such devices.

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