Austin Lo

Research and Test Reactors Physics Group

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

August 23, 2021

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Ep 329: Austin Lo - Research and Test Reactors Physics Group, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
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Bret Kugelmass
We're here today with Austin Lo, who's a postdoctoral researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Austin, welcome to Titans of Nuclear.

Austin Lo
Great to be here. Love the show. Thanks for having me on it.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, super excited to have you as well. I think the way that we got connected was someone wrote into the show and referenced an article that you were featured in. Why don't you tell us your story?

Austin Lo
Yeah. I mean, I guess the story starts pretty early, because where I grew up had a big part of how this all happened. I grew up in a very small town in northern Michigan called Petoskey, a town of about 5,000 people. And people summer vacation up there during the summers, because it's absolutely desolate during the winter. And so my dad was a doctor and he sees most people, most summer vacationers that kind of come through. And so, I don't know if you want me to start with like my dissertation work or-

Bret Kugelmass
No, I'd love to- yeah, I think that's relevant.

Austin Lo
Yeah. Let's just go from, let's go from the actual upbringing part. So I grew up, grew up in Petoskey, basically playing classical piano with tennis throughout my whole life. And it really wasn't until high school where I actually got into the sciences and whatnot. One thing came to another, went off to college in Michigan State, and studied physics there, love physics. Eventually, that led to me pursuing nuclear engineering at Berkeley for graduate studies. However, the first time around, I really wasn't feeling grad school that much. And so I took a leave of absence after my master's degree. I got a Master's in nuclear engineering from Berkeley and I left and I joined the Navy for a while.

Bret Kugelmass
Why did you join the Navy?

Austin Lo
So I didn't necessarily want to be doing graduate school and nuclear engineering at that point, but I really did like nuclear engineering and I wanted to still sort of pursue studies, pursue a career in that field. And so honestly, I think it was just a random sort of look up on the internet about careers in nuclear and the nuclear Navy came to be. That's how I joined. It ended up not being so-

Austin Lo
I was originally slated to do nuclear submarines, naval nuclear propulsion. It did not end up working the way I intended it and not- I didn't get along as well as I thought in the naval, sort of, regime. Actually, that's probably where I met the person who sent you the article, because we reconnected sort of on his last stint. He's getting out now and so he was calling me up to kind of see what options might be. So I did my time in there and, as I was coming out, I started working sort of remotely for the startup that was working on a novel sort of energy conversion method for nuclear-based applications. He had sort of a different spin. He wanted to use what's called thermionic energy conversion for radioisotope energy conversion. Basically, being able to extract the heat from waste products from nuclear, and then make direct electricity out of that. And so this is kind of where I fell into a very unique and honestly kind of forgotten area of nuclear, which was in this direct heat to electric energy conversion. And so I worked there for about a year. Then as I was transferring out of the Navy and as funds were running a little short, for the startup, I recommended that I could take this idea and pursue it partially as a PhD dissertation back at Berkeley. And so I went back to Berkeley and my advisors really liked the idea, so they allowed me to continue this energy conversion scheme.

Bret Kugelmass
What did you do for them?

Bret Kugelmass
How exactly is the heat converted into electricity?

Austin Lo
It's a process called thermionic energy conversion. Thermionic energy conversion comes by this process called thermionic emission, which is when you get a material, usually some sort of metal or refractory metal, hot enough so it starts boiling off its own electrons. The short of it is that, if you get a material, two dissimilar materials - one that's called your emitter, which is going to emit the electrons where you heat up very hot, and then a colder collector, that those electrons will traverse this gap and sort of condense on the collector - then you can generate electrical power from that based on the fact that they have two different- it's called the work function, which kind of describes the minimal thermodynamic energy it takes to take an electron out of that material. If you get these two metals, one with higher work function, one with lower work function, you can drive a potential across that.

Bret Kugelmass
Do these two dissimilar metals need to be separated by some sort of vacuum? Can they be touching each other? What are the conditions that allow for the electrons to jump?

Austin Lo
There are a couple of different- thermionics sort of had this development period in the 50s, all the way up until the early 90s for this whole slew of technologies. One of them- there's called the vacuum type where you have nothing in between the two plates. And one of the major difficulties of this device is that they these plates have to be about three to five microns away from each other or anything under 10 microns, which, when you're talking about heat systems that get in excess of 1700 C, that's really tough. So that's the vacuum type. The type that we were working on, and that I pursued for my dissertation, requires this plasma, this low temperature plasma in order to mitigate what's called the space charge effect. I guess, going back to the reason why the plates have to be so close together for the vacuum devices is because the space charge effect becomes a big deal where basically electrons that are preventing other electrons from coming out of the emitter and going into the collector. In order to mitigate that, you either get the place really close or you get a low temperature plasma in between them that sort of buffers that zone.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, and what does this plasma consist of?

Austin Lo
In the early- well, actually, the only practical devices, the plasma almost exclusively was made of cesium vapor, because cesium has a really, really low ionization potential, about three or 3.9 electron volts. And so, with cesium, the electrons being emitted from the surface themselves can ionize this gas, because the electrons will be emitted at 2000 degrees, or 1700 degrees, but the very tail end of that Maxwellian for these electrons, those are at much higher energies, and they can actually ionize the cesium plasma. That's the way that the most practical cesium diode works is through electron emission, ionizes this plasma, which allows more electrons to sort of travel across.

Bret Kugelmass
How do you mitigate material degradation from that original material? If you're boiling off all these electrons, don't they need a certain amount of electrons for the structure of the material itself to remain stable?

Austin Lo
Short answer is that you use refractory metals for the most part, which do not, or at least, are very less likely to degrade. For any plasma, any low temperature plasma, you're also- at the same time you're boiling off electrons, you are getting plasma electrons that are coming back and replenishing that the surface. And then cesium season also helps. It has a special property where, when bonded to refractory metals, it lowers their work function, making it easier to emit electrons. So that's another big thing.

Bret Kugelmass
Where's the potential being created, exactly? Where do you hook up your wires to continue the circuit?

Austin Lo
You can, honestly, you can hook up a battery or any sort of load right between the emitter and the collector if you wanted to.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, so literally, I can just imagine this circuit and you've got some sort of connection- you got some sort of circuit where one side is connected to, let's say, this outer cylinder and one side is connected to an inner cylinder, essentially. You shoot up that inner cylinder and then that is what creates a potential.

Austin Lo
It's not the actual heat that creates the potential. The two materials themselves, regardless of heat, there's a- it's called a contact potential. Say it's tungsten and molybdenum, two dissimilar metals, two similar work functions. If I took a wire and I connected those two and I had a gap in between them, I would measure this contact potential. If you were to apply the same- the equal and opposite potential to that, that's really where you're getting your energy, just by applying the equal and opposite potential and then collecting the electrons across that potential.

Bret Kugelmass
So what does the heat then do?

Austin Lo
The heat is there to actually boil off the electrons to make sure they- to force them to go across the gap. Otherwise-

Bret Kugelmass
So it just it increases the current then essentially?

Austin Lo
Yeah, it provides the thermionic emission current which drives the current of the device.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, got it. Okay, go on.

Austin Lo
Where was I?

Bret Kugelmass
So you're building experience at the startup with these thermionic generators?

Austin Lo
Yeah. Okay. And then back, basically- back as pursuing this PhD thesis at Berkeley, my advisor- because one of the major breakthroughs that this device would have is that, instead of using these emission electrons to ionize the plasma, you would use radiation coming from alpha particles, beta particles, fission fragments, that actually ionizes plasma. And so, immediately, my adviser said, Yeah, that sounds good, but I think this is only going to work with fission fragments, so immediately set focus on fission fragments in order to do this. That directly puts you into more nuclear reactor design type work. That was more or less how my dissertation was gauged or kind of framed.

Bret Kugelmass
And when you say fission fragments, you just mean the fission products from a fission event, essentially?

Austin Lo
Yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
Something that was roughly half of uranium-235.

Austin Lo
Yep, yep. Correct.

Bret Kugelmass
And then where would you get these from? Do you just get used fuel pellets, essentially, and shove it in the middle of this thing? Or do you have to go through some sort of isotopic separation process and just pick out the ones that you want?

Austin Lo
No. For any reactor system, this would be a very small layer on the fuel element. Because fission fragments in solid material, they only have a range of about five to six microns. In order for these to escape into the gas to begin with, they have to be very, very close to the surface. You're talking about, I mean, the fuel element design would be something like just an unclad, uranium carbide type fuel.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, what you're saying is you would actually have an active reactor providing the source material to then create the thermionic generation?

Bret Kugelmass
Yes.

Bret Kugelmass
It's all coupled together. Why bother with the active reactor? If you can do it with the fission fragments, why not do it from spent fuel, and that way you kill two birds with one stone? You don't have to license a real reactor, you get to use up the spent fuel?

Austin Lo
Yeah, right. I mean, that's definitely, that would be a good starting point, as well. But I think the main objective was to design more or less a nuclear reactor for space. And so that was, I mean, of course, gonna involve a space reactor.

Bret Kugelmass
And how much power do you need? What are the requirements of the space reactor?

Austin Lo
Well, that- I mean, there are a lot of- I guess, so right now, well, the thing with this particular technology is that it gets kind of scalable from anywhere from the kilowatt to megawatt range. Right now, I think NASA is sort of pursuing very low level right now, and so honestly, any range would be fine.

Bret Kugelmass
And is there something specific about the space application that requires a different power conversion cycle, other than we see in standard commercial reactors?

Austin Lo
With space nuclear power, you're really concerned about the mass in your system. Especially as you increase the power output of your system, what eventually becomes the limiting piece is the thermal radiator that comes, that has to reject the heat. It's very important that these higher power operating reactors are running very hot. That's kind of why thermionics was pursued in the first place, and that's kind of where the technology is born, because it's very high temperature heat production for electrons and then also high temperature heat rejection, which makes the thermal radiator much smaller.

Bret Kugelmass
Got it. Great. Okay, so where did all this lead to?

Austin Lo
Let's see, there were a lot of sort of unknowns about the problem, especially in the plasma. It had not been very well studied under the context of thermionic energy conversion, except this one study back in the 1960s. And this was a study that was done by General Motors and the Office of Naval Research. Big story back then was that there was a time where General Motors was thinking about getting into the nuclear sub business. They went in on a 10 year sort of study with the Office of Naval Research, sort of pursuing this novel electric- or heat to electric energy conversion method, which was thermionics that used fission fragments to ionize the interelectrode plasma. And this was led by a man named Frank Jamerson, who I had the pleasure of meeting one fateful summer. I'll get into that in a little bit. But yeah, so one of the main issues that came out of the study was that essentially - and this was out of the classified part, which was declassified later - the device performed better than they anticipated, by like a factor of three. And so they really didn't have the requisite plasma physics knowledge to kind of put the pieces together.

Bret Kugelmass
That was why it happening. That's very interesting. Yeah.

Austin Lo
And so at the end, this program got canned. Basically, after the 10-year study was over, General Motors decided to go about their way and make cars and Naval Reactors decided to make PWRs until now, well, I mean, probably further from now. So the plasma physics needed to be solved and that was the bulk of my dissertation work was kind of unfolding what this problem was and how come this thing actually performed the way it did. In the end, the pieces that were missing were their sort of energy that they performed on, on what the temperature of the electron should have been, as well as sort of the recombination phenomena that were happening in that plasma. It turns out when you crank the temperature up in the gas, the electrons are not as likely to be combined, because they're these low energy sort of vibrational states that kind of allow them to still be free. But anyway, that's the boring answer to my dissertation. But really, the fun part about this was that this guy, Frank Jamerson, being from General Motors, which is in Detroit, Michigan and a lot of people from Detroit go up to Petoskey, Michigan during the summer, because it's a great vacation spot. One day, he actually rolls into my dad's office. My dad's a general practitioner, he has his own practice. So Frank came in and they started to get talking. My dad asked, Well, what did you do for a living? He's like, Well, I was a was a nuclear physicist for General Motors. And my dad's like, Oh, my God, really? And so, I mean, they talked for a really long time. My dad, I talk to him a lot about what I do and kind of keep him up up to date on my research and stuff like that. I always mentioned this one guy named Ned Razor who's kind of like the godfather, or just the father of thermionics in the United States. And so he gave it a shot. He said, Yeah, I wonder if Frank knows of this guy. He said, Hey Frank, do you know a guy named Ned Razor. And Frank just stopped in his tracks and threw up his arms, Oh my God, I worked with Ned Razor on nuclear thermionics! And he said, Wow, I've gotta give my son a call. And so he says - Frank is like 92 at this time - and says, Hey, Siri, send a text message to Austin saying, Call me, and Frank said, Wait, your phone can do that? Can my phone do that, too?

Bret Kugelmass
This guy’s totally, totally overwhelmed by the phone technology.

Austin Lo
Yeah, so that happened and we ended up meeting up for lunch at first. We talked about all this nuclear thermionic stuff. This is actually before I had come up with this huge 10-year study. I had only had one of his previous papers that- I mean, they basically, out of that 10 years, there are hundreds and hundreds of pages of experimental data and all this stuff. And afterward, they basically compressed all that into like two or three papers. So I had those three papers, but it wasn't really enough to string anything together. He said, You know what, why don't you come on over. I have all of these documents, I've got a patent on this, and I've got all these contract numbers that are really important. And I said, Oh my god, yes, of course. And so we run over to his house, and I get all the information, get all the contact numbers and stuff, and then I basically use my Freedom of Information Act in order to get all of those documents released, and that was that was kind of the amazing part about it, because there's probably- I'm not gonna say there's no way I would have gotten a hold of those documents, but there was a good chance that I would not have ever gotten hold of documents and that would have changed the entire course of my dissertation, because I did not know that there was this experimental, 10 years worth of experiments on this stuff, and I was going to have to reproduce all of that, which would have been a huge mess.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, which would have been impossible in today's age where you can't just whip experiments together like that. Just like so much overhead. No, I honestly think that some of the stuff that they did back then, unless we make a fundamental change to how important we think nuclear is, or a fast track way to cut through the overhead, both bureaucratic and from a licensing perspective, I think that what they did back in the 50s and 60s will outpace what we can do, maybe forever, unless we fix the bureaucratic issues. Because they were able to experiment. They were just able to just activate some reactors, put it in the middle of desert, do whatever you want, collect some results, send the guy over there without 10 years of prepping exactly how he's gonna walk over there and just grab some samples, thrown it in, take a look.

Austin Lo
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it's tough, because we're well set up for small incremental changes, which I would call growth. But in terms of true exploratory invention, discovery, I think it's really, really difficult, because of all the things you just said to make any of that happen. Yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
Pretty amazing coincidence, though, and making that all came together. So, what was- any big conclusions from what this work amounted to?

Austin Lo
Yeah. Actually really, really big conclusions. Their experimental data was right. And actually, from that, I was able to design my own reactor using MCMP and a thermal model and now a good plasma model to generate a very, very high specific power nuclear reactor, which has not been designed to date. I mean, right now, actually-

Bret Kugelmass
Can you actually break out that term specific power, please?

Austin Lo
I mean, watts, energy per unit time, per unit mass. The amount of electrical power we can produce per unit mass. On the one hand, this may be some sort of power, or specific power range that the next competing thing can create, like a Brayton cycle or something like that. But really, my big takeaway was that this particular nuclear thermionic reactor is no longer a heat engine, because it has a supplemental sort of- First of all, you gain extra sort of heat coming from the electrons themselves, because in this electron, this low temperature plasma, the temperature of the electrons is actually much higher than the temperature of the ions. So you've essentially increased the upper limit of your hotlink temperature, because it depends on the temperature of the electrons and not the temperature of the rest of the system. And so you've made a much, much more energy dense, or power dense system, just because you've been able to- now you've taken the heat of the material out of the way, and you only depend on the heat of the electrons as they are, quote unquote, your working fluid, in this case. This is a direct energy conversion scheme. I think given that, that kind of makes the possibilities so much more in terms of looking at specific power and how much power we can put out to space and there are some figures out there saying, We will never be able to get things beyond five megawatts out there, because X, Y & Z. I mean, this kind of breaks that mold, because I think we're forced into these criteria based on these out of date understandings of how we can actually use nuclear power. I think that's kind of, it's important to pursue as a study, and it's important to bring to light once you figure something out.

Bret Kugelmass
That's pretty amazing. And then also, the system just feels a lot more solid state than other power conversion cycles, too. Is that right?

Austin Lo
Yeah. It is completely solid state. There are no moving parts.

Bret Kugelmass
Before we move on, how did it- your relationship- did this - I know he passed away recently - but did this blossom into something more throughout the course of this research?

Austin Lo
I mean, we got together for lunch every summer, so it was for the past couple of summers. I most recently saw him in the winter. He was really the one that encouraged me to go for nuclear power as a career. Otherwise, coming out of Berkeley, we're kind of a kind of a farm for Livermore, which is not too much into nuclear reactor design. And so it was really the influence of Frank that kind of put me on on this path that I'm on right now. I'm super thankful to have known him. Yeah, I was at his memorial service last week. And I mean, it was great to hear other stories about him. He was such a lively guy. It was always awesome to be in his presence.

Bret Kugelmass
Amazing. Well, I'm glad you got a chance to tell the story then. Now, there are kind of two ways I want to take the rest of our conversation. I do want to hear about the work that you're doing right now as well, but before we get there, can we just explore the constraints of space energy systems a little bit more? What exactly are the limits, like the mechanical limitations on rejecting your heat load? Can you describe that a little bit more? What's been tried and where do people run up against walls?

Austin Lo
We break it down into two types of energy conversion systems. The first is static, which is- actually, those are actually the only things we've ever deployed in space so far. And that goes down into thermoelectrics and thermionics. Thermoelectrics has, of course, a solid state, so it's very simple, but it really suffers from having one, kind of this low operating temperature and kind of a low rejection temperature, which is a problem. And then two, it suffers from efficiency. None of these devices have cleared 7 or 8%. And there's talk of things in excess of 12 to 15%, but that doesn't even come close to any of the dynamic systems we know up today. Moving into the dynamic systems, we have the Brayton cycle, the Stirling engine, and then for a brief period of time, they were thinking about doing Rankine cycle, using liquid metals. That actually fell out of favor, because it was not going to work very well in low G, and so they kind of cast that away in the early 1960s or 70s, or something like that. Now, we're kind of down to four options. We've got thermoelectrics, we've got thermionics, Stirling, and Brayton. Good thing about Stirling is that it's a very simple, dynamic system. That's what they're using right now for things like Crusty. I think the next, the higher power version of that - we call it megapower. And the good thing about Stirling is that, okay, yeah, simple, relatively efficient. And then moving into Brayton, that has a much higher operating temperature, which, advantage there, which means a higher rejection temperature, and the main drawback - well, not a drawback, I guess a drawback - is the complexity. You really want things to be simple out in space, because you really don't want them to break, otherwise you're kind of dead in the water, dead in space. Brayton cycle is kind of slated as the only technology being applied to these higher powered systems, which I would have to push back on, because I think, especially when you're talking about- you never want to put your eggs in one basket. And I think putting your eggs into the Brayton cycle basket might be a mistake, especially if something like thermionic energy conversion that's scalable from kilowatts to megawatts and has been flown in space-This is another fact that most people, I guess, have forgotten in the US is that the Russians put up two of these thermionic nuclear reactors that operated for six months and a year at a time, like completely autonomously. So thermionics is really the highest power proven technology in space. I think it could be a big mistake, sort of, not to at least pursue that on a research level, which I have not seen so far.

Bret Kugelmass
Tell me a little bit more, though, on the heat rejection side of things. In the Brayton cycle, which seems to be the favorite right now, you still need to create, essentially, a low temperature side, right? Is that correct?

Austin Lo
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's gonna be taken away by heat pipes, for the most part, when the heat pipes will extend into the thermal radiator. Then, just by thermal contact, that's how it needs to do thermal radiation.

Bret Kugelmass
So yeah, what form is the energy actually leaving your system? You said thermal radiation, but what is that? And what materials allow that? Do those materials last forever? What are some of the limiting factors on how much thermal radiation you can get out of your system?

Austin Lo
Sure. Thermal radiation just means photons. Just like- I mean, take some hot piece of metal out of the oven, it's mostly thermal radiation that's coming off of that. There's a little conduction in the air and stuff like that. But yeah, the physical mechanism is emitting photons of a certain longer wavelength, that's actually taking away the heat. There's definitely a lot of work going into these materials that can handle higher heat loads. It all depends on two- yeah, two terms. There's a thermal emissivity, which is the, basically kind of a physical property of the material of how many photons it can let off or how many photons it's going to let off, and then there's the temperature. And we really harp on the temperature, because the relation is temperature to the fourth power. Immediately, if you're raising your temperature by 10 or 15 degrees, you're emitting or sort of rejecting way, way, way more heat. That's kind of why, especially at the higher power levels, the heat rejection system becomes the limiting factor.

Bret Kugelmass
And then just so we can fully understand the system - and correct me if I'm wrong on any of this - the problem is your efficiency comes from your delta between your high temperature and your low temperature, right?

Austin Lo
Yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
But your ability to reject heat, you want it to be a higher temperature. So your low temperature, you actually want to be high temperature? That's like a fundamental problem here in space?

Austin Lo
Yeah, because the surface area required- the lower your temperature, the higher the surface area of your thermal radiator and basically, surface area is going to equal mass, so that's why you really want to minimize that. Especially when you get up to the past 100 kilowatts, your rejection temperature has to be in excess of like 600 C, 500 or 600 C.

Bret Kugelmass
That's the T low side.

Austin Lo
The T low side. Yeah, so that's really a limiting factor for dynamic systems too, because that means your hot link has to be that much hotter. And once you get up to those temperatures, especially for Brayton cycle where you have the turbines - I don't even know what the RPM is - but you're really reaching the limit of the materials that you're using, especially when you're talking about systems that haven't been tested in space, which are subjected to cosmic radiation, all sorts of stuff out there. Space is a very hostile environment.

Bret Kugelmass
Very interesting. Okay, cool. Now I think I understand the Space Systems a little bit better and some of the constraints there. Not such- so it's like, there are a lot of reasons that nuclear actually has some trouble in space, but once again, the advantage is you're starting with such an incredible energy density advantage from the fuel itself. That's where- so it's got its disadvantages, but it's also got its super duper advantages, and it's just a matter of balancing those out.

Austin Lo
Yeah, well, when it comes down to it, there's virtually no other option for sustaining human life in space on other planets.

Bret Kugelmass
Well, other planets would be a different story, because your ability to reject heat is a lot easier.

Austin Lo
Oh, that's true, yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. It's just the traveling through space and how you're going to do that, that's a bit tricky. Okay, cool. Yeah, I'm always fascinated by this. I think a lot of people are, even if it's not as like directly applicable or practical for our lives. There definitely is a certain fascination with space stuff. I think maybe it's just bred into us from the 1960s, like from the culture. I don't know if it's innate to humans, or if it's like, just generations of hearing that the coolest thing that ever happened in the 60s was going to space.

Austin Lo
Yeah. I mean, I think curiosity is bred into humanity. And I think it's very important to keep feeding that. And that's, I mean, that's one of the reasons why I even thought about doing a dissertation with space nuclear power at all. everybody has that exploratory curious side.

Bret Kugelmass
Cool. So what are you working on now?

Austin Lo
I recently started a postdoc at Oak Ridge National Lab as an advanced nuclear reactor analyst. And so that sort of- right now, a lot of our work is focused on a recent sort of call for the reformation of the NRC to- basically, we need to give the NRC tools to start certifying or validating these advanced nuclear reactor concepts that are coming out. We've worked on most of the development of our code suite for nuclear reactor safety codes, called SCALE. There are a lot of different modules that come with that. But I was particularly tasked to focus on molten salt fuels and molten salt cooled reactors and sort of the reforming the codes and kind of validating the codes to make sure that what we were seeing in some of these designs is what we expect. Yeah, I've been here now for, yeah, about four months. It's been really awesome to kind of work with the big leagues, because before doing my dissertation, it was me all alone. I realized after starting this postdoc that it's something that at least the nuclear side that I was doing, probably could have been knocked down in a few weeks versus a few months.

Bret Kugelmass
What are some of the ways that you validate these codes?

Austin Lo
We have, particularly for molten salt reactors, we were also very lucky to have some research from the 1960s called the- so the main one is the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment. And thank God for that, because I have no idea what we would do otherwise. They did- there are a lot of sort of zero power experiments that they were doing. What we like to focus on the most for the molten salt fuel reactors is sort of the flow of new collides in and out of the system and kind of keeping track of where they are. That is the most- that's kind of where we're doing the most validation work so far.

Bret Kugelmass
When you're reading these papers and trying to get an understanding, do they also tell you the operational setup? They're like, for MSRE we built this building and-

Austin Lo
Yeah, oh, yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And I should- sorry, I hate acronyms. I should've said Molten Salt Reactor Experiment. Okay, so Molten Salt Reactor Experiment. So they tell you, hey, we built this building and here's the size of the reactor and here's where the pipes went and here's our-

Austin Lo
-dimensions, here's the schematic of where everything was going, and blah blah blah. And there are even separate manuals of the actual operating procedures, what they were going through and-

Bret Kugelmass
Is this open to the public or only to people with special clearance at or at Oak Ridge?

Austin Lo
I think it is mostly open to the public. But being- I think I have the most experience now in looking up very esoteric nuclear reactor information. And I can tell you, it's an art form. It doesn't matter if these things are in the public domain. Good luck finding them, because it's been quite, quite difficult.

Bret Kugelmass
I know, I spent six months just trying to look up data that I knew was collected, like economic data that the government collected, but it just like, was not easy. And it wasn't restricted, it was just not easy to get a hold of, and you have to email this guy, and then they have to send you a CD, like a CD ROM, like yeah, you can have it, you just need to now buy a CD ROM player, because that's how we store this data.

Austin Lo
Right. Yeah, same thing goes with all this old nuclear reactor data. I always wonder how much are we being held back just by the fact that it's very difficult to find this information?

Bret Kugelmass
I know. And then we should give credit to- God, I can't- whoever it was, thank you. They did release a bunch of information, like five years ago. Someone went through some sort of- I can't remember which organization it was, maybe the DOE or some function of the DOE. They did release a lot of data that wasn't available before. That is pretty amazing. But you're right, there's just so much more out there. And if like, yeah- if it doesn't have a national security implication, I just, I don't know why someone just doesn't digitize it and get it up online and make it searchable, text searchable. If you made it text searchable, it's like so easy for researchers to get ahold of whatever they want. But what I wanted to ask you is, you're reading through all these manuals, and you're getting some perspective of what - and when talking to Frank, too - you get some perspective of what things were like back then. And now you see how difficult it is to even just do anything. What was different back then? Why can't we just do- I understand the culture was different. But do you see any fundamental, glaring issues about how they did things that we couldn't just do it the same today. If we really cared about pushing technology, and we really considered climate change threat and clean energy a priority, we consider it like a World War style priority, why couldn't we just do what they did back then and set up 50 different experiments in three years?

Austin Lo
Yeah, well, of course, I mean, the party line goes back to regulation and whatnot. But I think that's kind of a cheap answer. I really, I think, back then, I think there was a lot more interest from industry to do these nuclear-based- I mean, look at GM, they were a car company.

Bret Kugelmass
Not GE, GM.

Austin Lo
Yeah, GM. And they partnered up with the University of Michigan and their swimming pool reactor, and then in comes the Navy and they set up a contract. One of the things I think is kind of important is that we actually have experimental test facilities that are available, not just at the DOE. That's kind of a big focus lately, especially, INL is coming up with a fast neutron reactor test facility. But I really do think it's important for universities even. I mean, why can't anybody just buy a TRIGA reactor? Why can anybody, why can't they putz around with and get some experiments going on? Because that's really where- that's where these groundbreaking type things happen.

Bret Kugelmass
I mean, I've never actually heard anyone say it quite like that, but let's, can we just double click on that for a second? Why can't anyone buy a TRIGA reactor?

Austin Lo
Okay, I only bring it up because I was actually thinking about that the other day. And I haven't quite looked that up, but I I'm actually quite curious myself.

Bret Kugelmass
For God's sakes, like Michigan, one of the top engineering, nuclear engineering schools in the world, they don't have a research reactor, right?

Austin Lo
Yeah, well, same with Berkeley. We got rid of our TRIGA back in the 90s. And this is kind of where a lot of people got rid of their TRIGA reactors. Yet Berkeley replaced it with a with a DD/DT fusion neutron source for various purposes, but that's kind of, I think that's kind of the direction people are going. They're getting rid of reactors and they're creating fusion neutron sources. But that doesn't- it's not the same, it's just not the same. You don't get the flux levels that can do a lot of different types of experiments with. It's not the same energy, blah, blah, blah. I really would like to get to the bottom of why or maybe there is no reason. Maybe you can't. Maybe there's no research interest for whatever reason.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, maybe it's not- yeah, maybe it's just a confluence of a few things. It's just like, with a bureaucracy and convincing people, it's just- it's not impossible, but it's just a little more expensive. It's a little more expensive. It's too hard to justify to the department heads. If it's too hard to justify, there's no political will within a university. There are maybe just a few factors piling up there.

Austin Lo
Yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, any other just kind of general thoughts as a young guy in the industry, done some research, met a bunch of other nuclear engineers, just kind of general thinking about where the industry should go? Or other things maybe you don't understand or other areas that we should explore?

Austin Lo
Yeah, for sure. I mean, like you said, I'm very young. I just sort of started my career in nuclear energy. My general outlook, I'm not worried about nuclear growth. But what I define nuclear growth to be is more of this sort of continued moment of traditional heat engine-based nuclear power. It's your light water reactors, even advanced nuclear reactors, and even further on into fusion. In the end, they all produce heat. I think these problems are going to be solved through innovations and very small, small steps. And it's going to happen by looping in things like additive manufacturing, robotics, AI, machine learning, insert any buzz techie word in here. That definitely has a role in making nuclear energy grow. And I think we've set ourselves up really nicely for making the innovations happen. But that's not necessarily my outlook on the actual progress of nuclear energy. I would define nuclear progress to be something that really pushes us beyond this traditional mold that nuclear has lived in, literally since its inception. I’m talking about nuclear thermionics, nuclear pumped lasers, direct energy conversion schemes. I mean, literally, the ideas are unlimited, because they're brought about by discovery and invention, and those don't have limits. And so I think we're definitely on this path to come out of the dark ages of nuclear, which was basically from the 1980s onward, but I don't know if we're necessarily setting the stage for this nuclear renaissance that everyone keeps on talking. Because a renaissance, a renaissance isn't just like, Oh, this population boom. There's this cultural growth and invention, innovation, discovery, new science. I love, I absolutely love nuclear energy and it gets me excited every day to work on it. But the aspect that's getting me excited is not the prospect of putting out the next small modular nuclear reactor. That doesn't get me excited. It's more of the progress aspect, it's really pushing that boundary. And I know I'm not the only one who sort of has that thought. My real hope for nuclear is that we find a way where both nuclear growth and progress can truly be pursued simultaneously. And it's really only then where we can even think about reaping the benefits from a nuclear renaissance. That kind of leaves the question, I mean, who's gonna pick up that gauntlet? And that's kind of my burning question out of all this. Who is going to make nuclear progress actually happen for real?

Bret Kugelmass
Wow, that is- man, whew, you went deep. I didn't know what you'd come up with, but that was a good one. Yeah, I've got a couple thoughts on that, actually. It's interesting. I've never heard someone criticize the nuclear renaissance that was supposed to occur like around 2008, 2009, 2010ish from that perspective. It's actually not that it failed, but it's actually the word renaissance was always wrong. That was supposed to be like nuclear boom years, but you're right, there was no renaissance. There's no cultural growth. And I do- I agree with you. We do need cultural growth and the opportunities, I think, with nuclear are so profound, because you get to break the laws of classical physics.

Austin Lo
Yeah. And even the way it's structured right now, it attracts- I mean, there aren't that many- because by training, I'm a physicist, and actually, by my dissertation, my advisor always said that this dissertation was basically physics. I don't know if nuclear attracts very different fields of thinking. It's a lot of mechanical and thermohydraulics for nuclear power. The only physicists- basically, the only physicists I see are working on nuclear weapons or fusion.

Bret Kugelmass
Or fusion. Yeah.

Austin Lo
For the plasma aspect. Yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And that is kind of a shame. Yeah, that is kind of a shame that we don't have more of those conceptual physics or even applied physicists, but more broadly, physics, thinking about fission. You're kind of right.

Austin Lo
That's kind of what I hope that my work kind of brings out is like, hey, there's actually this- there's this direct application that fission plasma can sort of give to the world. And I hope that's at least attractive to other fields, because that's really what it's going to require. It's going to require different people thinking about these fundamental problems.

Bret Kugelmass
I think part of the problem is the government is a little bit too -well, that's not a problem, that's actually a good thing in many ways - the government's a little too responsive to the public, and the nuclear industry has really kind of done itself in in terms of public support over these years. It seems to me that the way your vision would have to happen is driven by the private sector. I think that - and I've been saying this for a while now - I think that we need one- or sorry, I think we need many really successful and competitive companies that build a huge foundation from resources, like both financial and talent, through the construction of near term technologies, like your conventional light water reactor.

Austin Lo
I mean, we need growth.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And then out of that- and it's so crazy. Because these projects are so big and so valuable, the nuclear industry spends- the industry itself spends $0 on - I'm exaggerating, but close to $0 - marketing and on true R&D, like scientific R&D. But it'd be so easy if you just said, Hey, listen, for every - and these reactors, they go for $5 billion apiece - if you were to say, 10% of ever- let's say I'm selling a product, say sell a pair of shoes. 30% of that would go to marketing. Let's say, sell a nuclear reactor. Why doesn't 10% of that go to marketing? Now you've got a $500 million advertising budget per year - which they don't spend, they spend nothing - and then another $500 million goes to like true R&D. You could conduct a lot of your experiments like that if you had like, the Google X of nuclear. And that's just from one plant. If this company was popping out 20 plants a year - and even I think that's extremely low for what we need for climate change - let's say we got up to five companies spitting out 500 gigawatts of power plants a year - which I think that's closer to where we need to be - then you've got multi tens of billions of dollar budgets to explore these frontiers of nuclear science. And that could all happen within 10 years, by the way. That is not crazy to say that could happen within 10 years. The demand for energy is that high and these systems, I'm talking about these conventional systems, we could start building them today if someone could just figure out how to do it cost-effectively.

Austin Lo
Yeah, and build out these systems to run for more, to explore further. I agree with that. And that's definitely that's something I can foresee based on your model, but something like that we wouldn't be seeing for 10 years. I don't know if that's actually anyone's, in anyone's business model. I haven't seen anybody think about it, or kind of pose it that way yet, but I would hope so. I like your point. I like your point on the advertisement aspect, because that really is a pain point. That is not something I've thought about and why is no one even setting aside any effort to really confront a real issue of sort of public support? Well, I mean, of course, it's gotten a lot better. I mean, I think there's a stat a couple of weeks ago saying that, I think 64-65% was in favor.

Bret Kugelmass
I actually don't think it's that bad in reality, and I probably shouldn't play into what everyone else says, like the whole, oh, everyone hates us type of thing. I actually don't feel that way, but it is hard to get government policy support in place, unless the people who support it - that 64% or some portion of that 64% - are extremely vocal and extremely proud and are willing to be ultra public about how much they love nuclear. And right now, it's like Eric Meyer and a few other people are the only ones who are willing to sing about it. Come on, we need- like that's where I think the $500 million should go towards, to sponsor high school students to fall so deeply in love with nuclear that they go out and sing about it from the hilltops.

Austin Lo
I was toying around with the concept of- I think, also, it's hard to hop on board with something that you can't see, you can't taste, you can't smell. Even with something like solar or wind. Solar, look up into the sky, that's where the energy sources come from. You can connect to that. The wind, when you just look out in the field, there's a wind turbine, you can connect to that. But with nuclear, it's really difficult.

Bret Kugelmass
Maybe that's the marketing challenge. Maybe that's the cookie nobody's crunched yet is figuring out how to relate nuclear to our everyday experiences.

Austin Lo
Yeah, yeah, I think crunching that cookie will be very worthwhile. For sure. You need a product that someone can align with.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Anyway, this has been a great conversation. We're about out of time. Any final thoughts you want to leave the audience with?

Austin Lo
Yeah, I mean, I guess mostly, whatever comes out of the future of nuclear, I would really, really love to see a world where people are inspired by nuclear, people are proud to work on it, and people feel free to explore new ideas of how nuclear can apply to everyday life to the next final frontier. Anything. And I think we're getting much closer to that reality and I can't wait to see it actually come to fruition.

Bret Kugelmass
Austin Lo, everybody.

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