Molten salt nuclear reactors and air-borne wind generators

Science and engineering are about ideas, some practical, some not. I came across two stories of innovative ideas on electrical generation. I don’t know if either of these ideas is actually technically, commercially, or politically feasible, but both are interesting.

Molten salt reactor

WAMSR-300x174Two MIT PhD candidates, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, came up with an ideal on how to generate electricity from spent fuel rods from conventional nuclear reactors. The idea is called Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR). They formed a corporation, Transatomic Power, to exploit their idea. According to their website: “WAMSR can be powered by nuclear waste because it uses radically different technology from conventional plants. Instead of using solid fuel pins, we dissolve the nuclear waste into molten salt. Suspending the fuel in a liquid allows us to keep it in the reactor longer, and therefore capture more of its energy. Conventional nuclear reactors can utilize only about 3% of the potential fission energy in a given amount of uranium before it has to be removed from the reactor. Our design captures 98% of this remaining energy.”

They designed a compact 200MWgenerator that can be transported to existing nuclear generation sites to process the conventional nuclear waste and generate more electricity. They claim such generators “can convert the high-level nuclear waste produced by conventional nuclear reactors each year into $7.1 trillion of electricity.” They also claim “a WAMSR reactor reduces the majority of the waste’s radioactive lifetime to hundreds of years from hundreds of thousands of years, thereby decreasing the need for permanent repositories such as Yucca Mountain.”

Air-borne wind farms

Floating-wind-farmA helium-filled shell transports a wind turbine aloft where the winds are stronger enabling it to generate more electricity than a similar generator would produce at conventional tower height. This is another idea from MIT. A prototype of this contraption has successfully generated electricity from an altitude of 350 feet during a field test in Maine. See press release here.

See also:

Solar Updraft Towers, an alternate, alternative energy source

Vertical axis wind turbines may provide more energy on less land


  1. I love seeing innovation, but reinventing the wheel doesn’t count as innovation.  This Transatomic power reactor is based on technology developed at Oak Ridge National Lab, which failed to perform as well as several other candidate technologies.  There’s a reason why no molten salt reactors exist today, they aren’t as safe, reliable, or cost effective as current reactors or about three other types of advanced reactor designs! This isn’t because political factors and conspirators forced molten salt out (which is what molten salt “theologians” will baselessly claim), it’s because it does not work that well!  As an engineer involved with the development of these technologies, I hope MIT has better ideas than this.  It’s sad to see engineers make such claims like this group is making only to win attention in the cleantech startup world.  It only leads to failed investments and dried up capital pools.  Case in point, they don’t tell you that you need a material thats almost as expensive as gold to handle the intense conditions molten salt produces.  So according to their math, you would probably need to invest $10 trillion to get $7.1 trillion back.  Do your reading people, if you want to learn how to capture energy from nuclear waste, read about the integral fast reactor program.

  2. Nuclear_Futures said “failed to perform as well as several other candidate technologies… aren’t as safe, reliable, or cost effective as current reactors or about three other types of advanced reactor designs! … you need a material thats almost as expensive as gold to handle the intense conditions molten salt produces.”

    “Failed to perform as well” by what criteria? Didn’t breed plutonium as fast; that is no longer important. MSR wasn’t pushed by the Navy, wasn’t funded nearly as well, so was not ready as early — that doesn’t mean MSR works better or worse. 98%+ fuel consumption is vastly better than the ~2% for LWR, or any solid fuel reactor.

    Almost all safety issues with current light water reactors (LWR) are from using water, including: loss of coolant accidents (which produce nuclear meltdown), steam explosions, hydrogen explosions. MSRs don’t use water, so these are not possible in MSRs. Yet he think MSR is not as safe as LWR?

    The salts are used in industry (e.g. aluminum processing), graphite was used to separate fuel salt from coolant salt, and Hastelloy-N was used to contain the reactor core; neither is nearly as expensive as gold; Nuclear_Futures is making up numbers.

    The specific salt used doesn’t “produce” intense conditions, it is chemically stable with everything in the reactor, and essentially impervious to radiation. He’s making up excuses.

    – Molten fluoride salt coolant stays liquid, so MSRs operate at atmospheric pressure. No high pressure to contain, no pressure explosions possible.
    – Coolant can’t evaporate away, loss of coolant accidents physically impossible
    – No chemically unstable or combustible materials, nothing reacts to water or air, no explosions.
    – Nuclear reaction is self-regulating (LWR requires careful use of control rods).
    – In any emergency, Freeze Plug melts, fuel drains to passive cooling tanks, using no power or water. Removing fuel from the core is safer than LWR (where need complex mechanical systems to override everything normally occurring in the core).

    – Ambient-pressure operation makes MSRs easier to build and cost less; no steam containment building, no high-pressure pipes.
    – Inherent safety means less complex systems
    – No expensive enrichment or fuel rod fabrication is required
    – Total to develop MSR technology and factory < $5 Billion; then 100MW MSR cost $200 Million (Single LWR costs $10-12 Billion)

    – Not needing huge steam containment building, MSRs use a much smaller site than LWRs.
    – No water required, can operate in deserts (incl Tucson).
    – MSRs can be deployed for military field use or disaster relief.

    See for very clear explanations and links to technical references.

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