Jacob DeWitte and Leslie Dewan made a joint appearance at the September TechCrunch Disrupt – video here. This purpose of this post is to rummage for some scraps on what Jake DeWitte’s UPower is up to. UPower has been in stealth mode since their launch, so it isn’t easy to figure out what their technical/business approach is. My understanding is UPower is designing a 2 MWe sodium fast reactor that can use both U-238 and SNF as fuel. If you watch the Harvard Alumni presentation by Joe Lassiter and Ray Rothrock you’ll notice that Joe uses PRISM and UPower to illustrate the category of factory-built SFRs (Sodium Fast Reactors).
“The reactor is also fuel agnostic, meaning it can run on uranium, thorium, even nuclear waste. In fact UPower’s technology can turn existing stockpiles of nuclear waste around the world into almost a millennium of clean power.”
When Sam Altman’s Y Combinator funded UPower that signaled to me there was something quite unusual going on. On nothing but guesswork I infer they have a design/build concept intended to achieve unusually rapid time to market. Could the first customer be the US Military? If that’s true does it improve the outlook for speed through regulatory hurdles? I don’t want to say more in case I’ve guessed some part of the strategy that’s actually true:) If their plan has them delivering product fast then a competitor might be able to exploit early knowledge of what UPower is doing.
For me, that Sam Altman invested, then went on their board – that says “very special, and special relative to the other advanced nuclear startups.”
I’ve collected the following UPower insider comments from a long Hacker News thread [I’ve not identified who donttrustatoms is, but she clearly is an insider]:
★donttrustatoms 87 days ago
You’re exactly right, and that’s what we designed for with UPower. I would have written the exact same thing when we began talking about doing something in nuclear 5 years ago.
Too many reactors are designed without the market or financing in mind. We decided on the simplest possible reactor optimized to a size useful to a market in dire need- just MW scale.
It has no pumps, no water in the reactor, and builds upon a legacy of data so that there will be minimal fuel and materials qualification, which adds up very quickly in both time and money.
Why hasn’t it been done before? The key, as you bring up, is in manufacturing, simplicity, a relatively new and hugely growing microgrid market that didn’t exist much before, and a business model that doesn’t require the customer to buy the unit as opposed to power purchase.
★beat 87 days ago
It’s exciting work, to be sure. Before now, the only small-scale nuclear work I’d seen were plutonium batteries (like for powering satellites), which are horrendously expensive and not something you ever want in the hands of Bad Actors.
It looks like UPower is currently targeting environments where traditional power is impractical and lots of power is needed, and plenty of budget is available – remote mines, military installations and such. Do you see a market for urban/residential power grid in the future, too? Or would that be too difficult a squeeze between distributed solar and traditional power plants?
★donttrustatoms 87 days ago
The short answer is yes. We see this as our Tesla roadster (well designed niche product for a market willing to pay, in this case however, desperately in need for a solution that doesn’t involve constant shipments of expensive and polluting diesel for loud generators) from which we will streamline and optimize to make our “model 3” so we can produce something to meet and even beat grid prices. It actually isn’t a big jump between the two, we have good indication now that it will be possible without much iteration to beat grid prices in all but the cheapest markets. And as you pointed out, the financing at that stage will play a significant part. 🙂
★donttrustatoms 87 days ago
Solar is much cheaper and wind was already cheap, however the question, for both carbon and cost, is what is the price of the renewable intermittents with storage and backup. Batteries and storage in general have not had the step changes in cost and performance that solar has. Backup tends to be fossil plants. Ultimately energy density is a zero sum game for the environment and cost. In more detail:
On storage: Rough calculations show, if there were just enough Powerwalls to backup US peak demand for one hour it would require 10x the global annual mining production of lithium. And that’s just one hour. And that doesn’t include the electricity production.
On panel material required for production: It’s generally estimated that US power, with good transmission, would require enough solar panels to cover the entire state of Massachusetts. Most non solar advocates think it’s this square footage that’s important. But of course this can largely be put on built land or in deserts so that is a relatively moot point. In fact, I want to get solar panels on my roof. However the real concern is what does this look like in terms of material mining? In immense panel production factories? (which isn’t the greenest mfg process ever, likely one of the reasons it is largely done in China)
On mining and transporting material required: Mining is almost entirely powered by fossils, it has to be. And so is most transport. And so is recycling of metals. So the energy density of an energy source really is a zero sum game. If it takes a millionth the material for one source versus the other, that adds up.
On maintenance Then in maintenance, solar farms are truly “farms”- they require a lot of water to wash away dust to operate optimally. A states’ worth of water is significant.
On lifetime/end of life First of all the lifetime of a panel is very optimistically 30 years/for a nuclear plant 60-80 years, and for the UPower fuel in particular can be used and recycled repeatedly for about 70+ years.
On afterlife/recycling Then in recycling at end of life, and this is why I got so excited about nuclear as a somewhat hippie child growing up around oil companies in Oklahoma, solar is going to require a lot of energy (and fossil fuels or nuclear) to recycle, while nuclear can produce energy in recycling its fuel.
The main import, to me, is: what is the energy density of this energy, and if emitting, how much pollution? Coal is far more energy dense than wind, which is why humans evolved from windmills and wood to coal. But it’s so polluting which is why we are all working towards better sources, and the greater energy density (nuclear on order of 2M x any other source) that’s roughly 2M less trucks transporting, 2M less mining to do, 2M less recycling, etc. Thats more on the environment than pure cost like you are saying but the costs add up if the full life cycle is taken into account on both sides
★donttrustatoms 88 days ago
I am one of the UPower founders. There are two big stories here that most people don’t know yet: 1) that a fast reactor can be waste-negative, I.e. transform existing waste to energy. 2) a fast reactor destroys the long lived waste- instead of trying to store waste for a hundred thousand years it’s on the order of a hundred.
Both of these are critically important for existing waste but also having an emission free energy source with a closed fuel cycle. No other energy source is better than a hundred thousandth as energy dense and no other energy source could produce clean energy for its own recycling.
It’s obviously just a cool technology but more than that it’s amazing what that could mean for the environment and remote communities. Even for solar and wind materials mining, these remote mines generally have to burn tons and tons of diesel. That’s what we are trying to fight.
★donttrustatoms 88 days ago
So true. That’s exactly why this is so exciting. With a UPower generator, small communities or neighborhoods could have always on, emission free power for a decade.
and then, as you indicated, with enough clean power, individuals can create desalinated water or even extract water from air. They could cleanly power greenhouses even in the arctic. We could remove carbon from the air.
There is a separate very interesting. TechCrunch interview with Jacob DeWitte at the Disrupt 2015 conference