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Summary:

When Microsoft Chairman and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates mentioned TerraPower in his speech at the exclusive tech conference TED last week, it was the first time that many had heard of the nuclear project. I was monitoring Twitter during Gates’ talk and many audience members at […]

When Microsoft Chairman and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates mentioned TerraPower in his speech at the exclusive tech conference TED last week, it was the first time that many had heard of the nuclear project. I was monitoring Twitter during Gates’ talk and many audience members at TED tweeted wondering why “TerraPower” was getting special attention in a speech from one of the most famous computer technologists of all time.

Well, first off TerraPower is a nuclear spinoff project from incubator Intellectual Ventures. Former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold founded Intellectual Ventures, and Bill Gates is a principal owner of TerraPower. TerraPower uses a “traveling wave reactor design,” which is technology that has been researched since the 1990′s, but according to MIT Tech Review TerraPower is the first company to “develop a practical design,” for travelling wave nuclear reactors.

There’s been a lot written about TerraPower over the past few years, and the company has done a good job of explaining how travelling wave reactors work in these videos on its incubator website. TerraPower’s President John Gilleland explains the process in one video as a new type of nuclear reactor that can provide an infinite amount of power, and unlike the current reactor design that uses only enriched uranium for fuel, TerraPower’s reactor largely uses waste byproduct of that enrichment process, or waste uranium.

TerraPower uses a small amount of enriched uranium at the beginning of the process (see slides at the bottom of the post), but then the nuclear reactor runs on the waste product and can make and consume its own fuel. The benefits are that the reactor doesn’t have to be refueled or have its waste removed until the end of life of the reactor (theoretically a couple hundred years). Using waste uranium reduces the amount of waste in the overall nuclear life cycle, and extends the available supply of the world’s uranium for nuclear by many times.

Not surprisingly, with its Microsoft connection, TerraPower has leaned heavily on supercomputing to design and model the reactor and the lifecycle of the fuel. The TerraPower team is using “1,024 Xeon core processors assembled on 128 blade servers,” which is a cluster that is “over 1000 times the computational ability as a desktop computer.” On Intellectual Venture’s site, they explain the importance of computer modelling as:

Extensive computer simulations and engineering studies produced new evidence that a wave of fission moving slowly through a fuel core could generate a billion watts of electricity continuously for well over 50 to 100 years without enrichment or reprocessing. The hi-fidelity results made possible by advanced computational abilities of modern supercomputer clusters are the driving force behind one of the most active nuclear reactor design teams in the country.

How close to reality is this technology? According to this presentation by Gilleland, “operation of a traveling wave reactor can be demonstrated in less than ten years, and commercial deployment can begin in less than fifteen years.”

So, that’s what Gates was talking about.

Images courtesy of TerraPower.

  1. Amazing! with such longevity, and outpout on the scales of “billion watts of electricity continuously for well over 50 to 100 ” Does this mean that this could very well solve our energy problems? Solve as opposed to improve… Simply amazing.

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    1. TWR’s are the key to making the earth sustainable at 8 billion people. Fusion is the key to moving out to the moon and mars……

      two major milestones in the history of man

      Fusion isnt practical now however a reactor of vital importance is being planned and developed at the moment in europe. its also a reactor that has been heavily modeled thru super computer simulations. and in the simulations that have gone on in the last 12 months its a sustainable reaction. which is incredible.

      The sooner we can leave the uranium coal and oil in the ground and start sucking our energy out of the vast oceans of water we have the better for the whole of civilization

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  2. an we ly have to hold our breath for 10 or 15 years?
    line up !!
    meanwhile??? Thorium Fluoride might be here by then. Nuke power on a mesh grid is its added benefit due to plant scale.

    Whatever can replace oil and coal (nuke dirty coal!!) should get all the support possible.

    Hold breath, pray…..

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  3. This concept was originally designed by Teller and Lowell Wood at Lawrence Livermore. Brilliant stuff. Note that this is almost as powerful a technology as Fusion energy…it is on that scale of importance. However unlike Fusion, this is really quite feasible.

    Kudos to Gates and Mryvold for identifying this and bringing their massive resources to bear.

    Could this save the world? Yes.

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  4. Yet Another Perpetual Motion Machine???

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    1. No, not perpetual motion. Mass is converted to energy.

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    2. Uhh, no.

      Just a bigger gas tank than you’ve seen before.

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    3. Yes, yes! Another Perpetual Motion Machine. Because designers will digest the money perpetualy for another hundred years or Gate dies.
      The history repeats once again.
      Here in Russia some guys develop another idea of the same scale – nuclear reactor with led coolant.
      Nobody knows where to find enought led to fill the first circuit and what value the prime cost of kWt will come to.

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  5. So, a pilot operation should be put in place by those who can afford it. Meanwhile, the alternatives including 3rd Gen nuclear power [or 4th] should proceed. Other experiments should be supported as well – including all 3 prime fusion experiments.

    Most of the world already recycles 95% of spent fuel rods. Only the U.S. dodders along with overpriced storage systems leftover from overpriced boondoggles in the first place.

    Bill can afford it.

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  6. Atleast give a defn of this technology [in the first 2 para] rather than giving links to others who does. But thanks for telling about it.

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  7. [...] energy dominated Bill Gate’s TED talk last week, and this morning it’ll lead the clean power headlines. According to the Associated Press, [...]

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  8. We will not hav a world by then

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  9. @dremel knock on wood

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