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    • 2020-10-06 13:25:45
    • Article ID: 739317

    Could Argonne’s mini nuclear reactor solve the e-truck recharging dilemma?

    • Credit: (Image by Shutterstock / Mike Mareen.)

      A new nuclear microreactor, designed by Argonne scientists, could recharge electric semitrucks on cross-country trips. The one-of-a-kind system is flexible, safe and practical, say nuclear engineers at the laboratory.

    Electric semitrucks could revolutionize the transportation industry. But not until a convenient source of electricity is found. Could mini nuclear reactors at rest stops solve this problem?

    Driving a newer electric car for the first time can instill the excitement of playing a favorite video game. Everything is sleek, fast and futuristic. That’s an image that every technology firm wants to convey, including the makers of semitrucks, many of which have unveiled plans to electrify their 18-wheelers.

    At first glance, electric semitrucks sound like a great idea, leading to cleaner, carbon-free skies. But the largest cross-country 18-wheel truck needs five to 10 times more electricity than an electric car to recharge its battery. And these trucks often need to recharge far from high-power transmission lines. Where will that electricity come from?

    A team of engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory will tell you the answer is clear — microreactors.

    These microreactors, which rely on nuclear fuel and passive safety features, could recharge cross-country semitrucks at thousands of rest stops across the country, say these engineers who have developed a novel way to generate power that links a nuclear reactor — about the size of two home water heaters — to an energy storage system.

    The reactor can operate for more than 10 years and generate direct current power to charge electric semis at rest stops,” said Derek Kultgen, a principal engineer in Argonne’s Nuclear Science and Engineering division, who leads the new project. ​We expect recharging costs to be far less expensive than fueling a diesel semitruck.”

    Shrinking reactors, reducing complexity and costs

    Nuclear experts have designed small reactors that could generate power in remote areas — e.g., the Arctic, military bases, on spacecraft — for years without refueling or servicing. These designs arise from 20-plus years of DOE research and use mature, proven technologies for nuclear safety.

    Indeed, Kultgen’s plan is one of five new projects at the laboratory that are exploring how so-called microreactors can help solve the nation’s energy challenges. The projects combine two of Argonne’s strengths — nuclear research and energy storage.

    Yet, this rest stop concept stands out for three reasons.

    First, the system is flexible; it adjusts as demand swings when trucks come and go — even as the reactor’s power output remains steady. When the rest stop is empty, the reactor produces power in the form of heat, which is transferred and stored in a separate tank of inert heat-transfer fluid. When trucks crowd the rest stop, the system taps that heated fluid to produce steam, generate electricity and recharge batteries. (To learn more about this, see ​How this design transfers and stores heat” on the right.)

    Second is the rest stop reactor’s safety-forward design; the team chose a special type of nuclear fuel that secures all radioactive material. The fuel is made of Tri-structural ISOtropic (TRISO) pellets, developed from 60 years of research at DOE National Laboratories. The pellets contain low-enriched uranium covered by layers of carbon and ceramics. Those protective layers ensure the reactor’s safety.

    Third, the Argonne team aimed to keep the cost of the rest-stop reactor low — under $3,000 per kilowatt-hour for capital costs — by choosing proven, practical approaches. The team, for example, picked a thermal reactor design — the same type that powers all 95 nuclear plants in the U.S. — because of its 70-plus-year track record of safety and reliability. The system, said Kultgen, works at relatively low temperatures (about 700 degrees Fahrenheit) to reduce costs and promote rapid development.

    The decision to go with a temperature lower than many advanced designs require came, in part, from Kultgen’s four years of managing Argonne’s Mechanisms Engineering Test Loop (METL) Facility. There, a team of engineers gauge the durability of equipment by dunking it in liquid sodium at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit for months or years.

    Sticking to lower temperatures may sacrifice efficiency for cost and safety, but Kultgen accepts that tradeoff.

    Cost is one of the biggest challenges to constructing and operating a facility to withstand these extreme temperatures,” he said.

    Design within reach

    To design the system, the team turned to Nicolas Stauff, a principal nuclear engineer who had already designed microreactors for startup companies and the Department of Energy. Stauff used modeling software, including the laboratory’s award-winning System Analysis Module (SAM) Reactor Analysis Code, to pick the best reactor size, fuel amount and heat-transfer fluid type. With these tools, Stauff also designed the reactor core and simulated how the whole system would operate.

    At that point, everything clicked. ​We realized we could put this together,” Kultgen said. ​The system could be standardized, mass produced on an assembly line and loaded on trucks to ship to installation sites across the country.”

    The road ahead

    The team has shown that the approach could fill a gap in infrastructure for electric long-haul, 18-wheel trucks. But they stress that much work remains.

    We plan to go much further in the analysis of this reactor,” said Stauff. Over the next year, he plans to examine the tradeoff between the reactor core’s size and its longevity, while exploring the reactor core’s behavior with tools that offer high-fidelity, multi-physics simulations.

    Stauff is an expert user of these tools as he leads the microreactor area within the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy’s Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation (NEAMS) program.   

    Other team members include Darius Lisowski, manager of Argonne’s Reactor Safety Testing & Analysis group; Matthew Bucknor, principal nuclear safety analyst; and electrical engineers Theodore Bohn and Gedeon Teame.

    The project was funded by Argonne’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program. DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy funds Argonne’s research on advanced nuclear design.

    The Argonne team is looking for collaborators. For more information, please contact Derek Kultgen.

    Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

    The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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    A first-of-its-kind catalyst mimics natural processes to break down plastic and produce valuable new products

    A first-of-its-kind catalyst mimics natural processes to break down plastic and produce valuable new products

    A team of scientists led by the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory has developed a first-of-its-kind catalyst that is able to process polyolefin plastics, types of polymers widely used in things like plastic grocery bags, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, toys, and food containers.

    A new approach boosts lithium-ion battery efficiency and puts out fires, too

    A new approach boosts lithium-ion battery efficiency and puts out fires, too

    This new technology addresses two major goals of battery research: extending the driving range of electric vehicles and reducing the danger that laptops, cell phones and other devices will burst into flames.

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    Story Tips: Remote population counting, slowing corrosion and turning down the heat

    Story Tips: Remote population counting, slowing corrosion and turning down the heat

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    Researchers generated genome sequences for nearly 600 green millet plants and released a very high-quality reference S. viridis genome sequence Analysis of these plant genome sequences also led them to identify for the first time in wild populations a gene related to seed dispersal.


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    Who Will Get the Prize for Better Hurricane Monitoring?

    Who Will Get the Prize for Better Hurricane Monitoring?

    The Ocean Observing Prize seeks competitors for an incentive prize program to help inventors advance new concepts for marine energy technologies that can power ocean observing systems. This phase focuses on observing platforms that host instruments that can provide better data regarding hurricane formation.

    Berkeley Lab Names Noel Bakhtian to Lead New Energy Storage Center

    Berkeley Lab Names Noel Bakhtian to Lead New Energy Storage Center

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    CERN Senior Fellow Dorota Grabowska Receives Leona Woods Lectureship Award

    CERN Senior Fellow Dorota Grabowska Receives Leona Woods Lectureship Award

    Dorota Grabowska, a senior fellow in the department of theoretical physics at CERN, Europe's particle physics laboratory, has been named a recipient of the Leona Woods Distinguished Postdoctoral Lectureship Award. The award was established by the physics department at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory in honor of renowned physicist Leona Woods to celebrate the scientific accomplishments of outstanding female physicists and physicists from other under-represented minority groups, including the LGBTQ community--and to promote diversity and inclusion in the department.

    Process to recover metals from batteries licensed by Momentum Technologies

    Process to recover metals from batteries licensed by Momentum Technologies

    Momentum Technologies Inc., a Dallas, Texas-based materials science company that is focused on extracting critical metals from electronic waste, has licensed an Oak Ridge National Laboratory process for recovering cobalt and other metals from spent lithium-ion batteries.

    PPPL physicist wins third place at Innovation Forum for advanced liquid centrifuge invention

    PPPL physicist wins third place at Innovation Forum for advanced liquid centrifuge invention

    Physicist Erik Gilson won third place at the Princeton University Keller Center's 15th Annual Innovation Forum for his invention with a team of PPPL researchers of an advanced liquid centrifuge.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UT's Tony Schmitz elected to ASPE College of Fellows

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UT's Tony Schmitz elected to ASPE College of Fellows

    Tony Schmitz, joint faculty researcher in machining and machine tools at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has been elected to the College of Fellows of the American Society for Precision Engineering.

    Coming Down the Pike: Long-Haul Trucks Powered by Hydrogen Fuel Cells

    Coming Down the Pike: Long-Haul Trucks Powered by Hydrogen Fuel Cells

    The Department of Energy has announced several major investments to take hydrogen fuel cells to the next level, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is set to play a leading role in providing the scientific expertise to help realize DOE's ambitious goals.

    Media Advisory: Epic Arctic Science Mission End Briefing

    Journalists are invited to join an October 12 Zoom media briefing with U.S. scientists and agency experts involved in the yearlong international research expedition MOSAiC: Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate.

    Jennifer Doudna Wins 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

    Jennifer Doudna Wins 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

    Biochemist Jennifer Doudna, a professor at UC Berkeley and faculty scientist at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), is co-winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for "the development of a method for genome editing."

    Path-setting theoretical physicist Elena Belova elected an APS Fellow

    Path-setting theoretical physicist Elena Belova elected an APS Fellow

    Profile of PPPL physicist Elena Belova, a pioneer in developing hybrid simulation codes in fusion and space plasmas, who has been elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society.


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    Harvesting Energy from Light using Bio-inspired Artificial Cells

    Harvesting Energy from Light using Bio-inspired Artificial Cells

    Scientists designed and connected two different artificial cells to each other to produce molecules called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

    Engineering Living Scaffolds for Building Materials

    Engineering Living Scaffolds for Building Materials

    Bone and mollusk shells are composite systems that combine living cells and inorganic components. This allows them to regenerate and change structure while also being very strong and durable. Borrowing from this amazing complexity, researchers have been exploring a new class of materials called engineered living materials (ELMs).

    Excavating Quantum Information Buried in Noise

    Excavating Quantum Information Buried in Noise

    Researchers developed two new methods to assess and remove error in how scientists measure quantum systems. By reducing quantum "noise" - uncertainty inherent to quantum processes - these new methods improve accuracy and precision.

    How Electrons Move in a Catastrophe

    How Electrons Move in a Catastrophe

    Lanthanum strontium manganite (LSMO) is a widely applicable material, from magnetic tunnel junctions to solid oxide fuel cells. However, when it gets thin, its behavior changes for the worse. The reason why was not known. Now, using two theoretical methods, a team determined what happens.

    When Ions and Molecules Cluster

    When Ions and Molecules Cluster

    How an ion behaves when isolated within an analytical instrument can differ from how it behaves in the environment. Now, Xue-Bin Wang at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory devised a way to bring ions and molecules together in clusters to better discover their properties and predict their behavior.

    Tune in to Tetrahedral Superstructures

    Tune in to Tetrahedral Superstructures

    Shape affects how the particles fit together and, in turn, the resulting material. For the first time, a team observed the self-assembly of nanoparticles with tetrahedral shapes.

    Tracing Interstellar Dust Back to the Solar System's Formation

    Tracing Interstellar Dust Back to the Solar System's Formation

    This study is the first to confirm dust particles pre-dating the formation of our solar system. Further study of these materials will enable a deeper understanding of the processes that formed and have since altered them.

    Investigating Materials that Can Go the Distance in Fusion Reactors

    Investigating Materials that Can Go the Distance in Fusion Reactors

    Future fusion reactors will require materials that can withstand extreme operating conditions, including being bombarded by high-energy neutrons at high temperatures. Scientists recently irradiated titanium diboride (TiB2) in the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) to better understand the effects of fusion neutrons on performance.

    Better 3-D Imaging of Tumors in the Breast with Less Radiation

    Better 3-D Imaging of Tumors in the Breast with Less Radiation

    In breast cancer screening, an imaging technique based on nuclear medicine is currently being used as a successful secondary screening tool alongside mammography to improve the accuracy of the diagnosis. Now, a team is hoping to improve this imaging technique.

    Microbes are Metabolic Specialists

    Microbes are Metabolic Specialists

    Scientists can use genetic information to measure if microbes in the environment can perform specific ecological roles. Researchers recently analyzed the genomes of over 6,000 microbial species.


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