Founder and CEO
November 21, 2022
Bret Kugelmass [00:02:23] We are here today with Greg Piefer, the Founder and CEO of Shine Technologies. Thanks for joining us. Okay. I'd love to, you know, before we get to the work that you do today, I'd love to learn about you and your background. Start us off. Where did you grow up?
Greg Piefer [00:02:37] Yes, I grew up in a town called Brookfield. That's a suburb of Milwaukee, actually. Kinda spent my time going to Brookfield Schools and then eventually ended up in Madison to go to college. Was a nerdy kid. You know, liked to read about things like nuclear fusion and particle accelerators even back when I was in grade school. So, kind of set the tone and set the interest and where I ended up early on. Like Star Trek, you know. Sort of sought ultimately nuclear fusion as a way to achieve that world. Right? Where we could just do so many new things because we'd have such increased access to energy. So, yeah. Kind of nerdy kid into computers, into all those sort of things when I was young and just kind of ended up following up with that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:03:23] Cool. Do you have parents that are engineers or anything like that?
Greg Piefer [00:03:27] My dad's an electrical engineer. My mom... So, you know, she raised us kids. There were four of us and that was a pretty busy job for her. I think she did a good job with it. But yeah, you know, I've just always... I think I've also just kind of always been good at sort of scientific things. I didn't have work very hard in class and those sort of classes came very naturally to me.
Bret Kugelmass [00:03:48] Cool. Yeah. So, when you went to school, I mean, I guess you had this vision of wanting to get involved in, you know, futuristic energy stuff. When you went to school, did that get further rooted in a specific discipline?
Greg Piefer [00:04:02] Well, it's kind of funny because, you know, as I got... So as a kid, I thought I could do anything. And then as I got older, I started to realize the world is a big place, and so it's full of lots of really talented people. And I started to believe less, I guess, in my own ability to influence things and then, you know, through school... So, I decided to pursue a Physics Major as an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin. But it wasn't a great time for physics majors to get jobs at the time. And my parents had kind of been in my ear all along and saying, "Maybe you should be an electrical engineer like your dad and my brother actually wanted to do electrical engineering too. And it turns out it was a good time for electrical engineers. You know, computers were really starting to take over. And, you know, so I added that major. I ended up adding a computer design major and really wasn't working toward energy at all. And you know, great job at particularly great jobs available like graphics, card optimization design, hardware design, which obviously now is kind of the heart of parallel processing and AI and things like that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:05:06] Machine learning and everything like that too. Yeah.
Greg Piefer [00:05:06] Yeah. So, that was like where I was going. It just so happens I took like a random class because I like to take random interesting classes and one of them was called "Resources from Space," and it was taught by two really awesome guys. Gerry Kulcinski, he ran something called the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin. And then a guy named Jack Schmitt who worked on the moon. Right? How many...? There's like 12 people who have ever done that. So, and he was the only scientist. He was the geologist that trained all the other, you know, astronauts who are all military people what to look for. So, they sent him up on Apollo 17. And the class was about going to space to get resources and bring them back to Earth for human use. And this was before it was cool. Like it's actually kind of interesting today and people are chasing it, but back then they were sort of pioneers. And what they're saying...
Bret Kugelmass [00:05:55] What resources are on the moon that we care about?
Greg Piefer [00:05:57] Yeah, well, so one of the resources they're super interested in is something called Helium-3. So like there's a lot of...
Bret Kugelmass [00:06:04] Like the movie, "Moon."
Greg Piefer [00:06:05] Yeah, right. And there's a lot of... I mean, there's a lot of resources you can find in the lunar regolith to kind of make a society able to be not totally self-sufficient, but somewhat sufficient. And then Helium-3 is the sub-site research that they thought, "If we colonize the moon, this is what they would send back to Earth, and in return, Earth would send technology up to this new colony on the moon. And you'd have a great economy." Right?
Bret Kugelmass [00:06:29] Maybe some water.
Greg Piefer [00:06:29] Yeah. So, it's pretty good, pretty forward thinking stuff. And it turns out that if you can do fusion with Helium-3 as sort of the only fuel, the only reacted. So, Helium-3 fuzing with Helium-3, you would actually essentially produce almost all of your energy in the form of charged particles. You can do direct conversion to electricity. There's basically no nuclear waste. And the moon's got tons of it. The solar wind makes Helium-3.
Bret Kugelmass [00:06:59] Can you actually describe how that works for a second? Why don't we have it on earth, but they have it on the moon?
Greg Piefer [00:07:01] Yeah, exactly. So, there's a little bit on earth, you know, produced from cosmic rays and maybe a little bit of decay, but not much. We have a lot of Helium-4 from alpha decay within the crust, but Helium-3 primarily comes from the sun and its reactions. And we have this beautiful magnetic field that protects us from the sun's charged particle radiation, including Helium-3. So, Helium-3 that would be earthbound, is deflected around the planet by our magnetic field. The moon has no such magnetic field, and thus, for the last several... Few billion years, it's been... Being bombarded with this resource.
Bret Kugelmass [00:07:37] Wait, so you're saying the helium literally gets shot out of the sun and travels and then lands on the moon... something on the moon that gets knocked off... Like and ionized by the radiation?
Greg Piefer [00:07:50] No, it's like directly implanted into the regolith from the sun and like the first meter of it or so on.
Bret Kugelmass [00:07:57] That's so cool. I didn't realize like actual atoms were flying out of the sun. I thought it was mostly like particles or something. I don't know.
Greg Piefer [00:08:04] Yeah, no. Like, yeah, there's... Some of them are gamma rays and some of them are, you know, electrons and other things. Some of them are neutrinos. Lots of those. Yeah, but some of them are Helium-3. So, yeah, it's just building up. And actually, really all you have to do is like pick the stuff up, heat it, and different volatiles come off at different temperatures. So, you know, things like hydrogen and oxygen that you would need to support a lunar base, but also Helium-3 at a certain temperature and you collect it, then you set it back down. And so you just have these little... You could imagine these little robotic miners that are doing nothing but picking up regolith, eating it up, collecting different things into tanks and then setting it back down.
Bret Kugelmass [00:08:39] So cool.
Greg Piefer [00:08:41] Yeah, so that was kind of this cool class and they talked about mining asteroids and all that stuff too. But the moon was really intriguing to me and then they were like, "All you have to do is, you know, figure out how to do fusion with this Helium-3." And so I was like, "That's pretty cool stuff." You know, I got some good job offers, but maybe I should come work for you guys instead because you're doing more interesting stuff. So, that's kind of how I got back into fusion. And, you know, Gerry said, "You should come work for me, you shouldn't take that job." And I agreed and ended up, yeah, in a research project at the U.W. On fusion.
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:16] Cool. So, tell me a little bit about that and tell me a little bit about what type of fusion is conducive to Helium-3. I guess it's really Helium-3 plus Helium-3 equals...
Greg Piefer [00:09:26] Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's Helium-3 Helium-3 that was sort of their holy grail, really beautiful fusion reaction that they were talking about. And they actually believed at the time that there might be a nuclear resonance for the reaction to occur at low energy and Helium-3 is frankly no fusion reaction...
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:46] When you say that is that a nice way of saying cold fusion without being derided?
Greg Piefer [00:09:50] Maybe warm fusion is a better way to look at it... It would still be hotter than DT...
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:56] Okay, okay.
Greg Piefer [00:09:58] So, warm for advanced fuels. But the idea... The hope was that at much lower energy... Frankly no fusion system is good for Helium-3 Helium-3... cut right to the chase. We don't how to do that and I don't know that we ever will. The temperature needs to be so high to cause good reactivity that you get a lot of ... strong radiation and even different configurations. It's not the best.
Bret Kugelmass [00:10:22] So, I see you're saying there is a theory that there's a.. I see. There's a theory that could allow you to do it. But in reality that hasn't played out.
Greg Piefer [00:10:32] Correct. So and the reason for the theory was there was this neutrino distribution they were measuring in the sun. And the only way they could come up with that sort of neutrino distribution was if Helium-3 Helium-3 fusion were taking place at a much higher rate than it should have been on the core of the sun. And so they proposed a resonance. But later on they found out that like neutrinos, I guess can change color in flight. So, they can change the type of neutrino they are while traveling from the sun to the earth. And so that completely explains the neutrino spectrum. So that resonance... And we tried to measure it experimentally.. Also did not find it. So, yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [00:11:08] I've heard this resonance thing before and I've also heard of this this idea of like these like cascades and avalanches. Does any of this hold water? This idea that, if you like, rather than trying to smash things together, if we could just like manipulate certain atoms differently, that we can still get energy out of them by things jumping between shells or falling apart or something. What is all that?
Greg Piefer [00:11:29] Yeah. Well, so nuclear resonance is a very real thing in nuclear physics and particularly in what's called the epithermal spectrum for neutron reactions. You get these really weird... Like typically it's a smooth continuum of like cross-sections. So the reaction probability, it starts high at low temperature and then it kind of degrades as you go to a higher, higher speed for the neutron. But in the middle there is like this really like up and down pattern which are nuclear resonances. And for whatever reason, I'm not sure we totally understand them. You know, it's far more likely that if you're in that very precise energy bin where you're on the top of a resonance, that a nuclear reaction will happen. And, you know, actually, in fusion, there is, you know, one such fuel source we know of that has a resonance. A Proton-boron-11 fusion actually does have a lower energy resonance. The problem with it is like if you're in a thermal distribution, like a plasma temperature, you call plasma temperature like 100 KEV or something like that. That doesn't mean the whole... All the particles in there are at 100 KEV. Right? They're broad. And so you have some that are much lower and some that are much higher. And in that distribution, that resonance gets completely washed out and essentially is ineffective. So, there are these things, but it's really hard in thermal distributions to control whether or not you're on a resonance for example. So, yeah it's very technical I know but I should... It's kind of cool.
Bret Kugelmass [00:12:55] No, no, no. Our audience enjoys that. Yeah. So, at some point I would love to explore this topic... We don't need to spend too much time right now, but I would love to explore at some point on this show if there is an entire category of physics that isn't really explored but is still within our grasp if we understood it better. You know, instead of like, you know, I'm not talking about like going super small or anything, but I would like to know if there is at least a potential for a new method of energy extraction within... like the the realm of the reasonable that we're just not pursuing for whatever reason.
Greg Piefer [00:13:33] Yeah, that'd be fun. Yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [00:13:36] Okay. But please continue.
Greg Piefer [00:13:39] Yeah. So, that got me into fusion again. I want to actually say a specific technology called inertial electrostatic confinement fusion. And the idea behind this type of system is that you have a negatively charged electrode at the center of a device. You create positively charged ions near the edge of the device. And the the ions would accelerate up to the potential of that electrode that's at the middle, and they would pass through it and then they would recycle. And so they go back and forth. So you can imagine like one configuration is spherical, you've got a grid in the middle that's a sphere... a spherical shell. You've got an ion source out at the end of a... Like a spherical vacuum chamber, and you just accelerate these particles in and they're supposed to cross each other's paths and just keep recirculating until they hit the grid or something happens. And it was thought that you could get enough recirculation that eventually you'd have a beam collide with the beam in the system and that would cause a reaction to happen. And it was thought to be potentially a non-thermal system in fact. So interesting for things like P-Boron 11 or going advanced fuels like D-Helium-3 or even pure Helium-3 because everything that's colliding in the middle would be at the grid potential. And just by changing sort of the voltage on that grid, you would be able to very precisely control the temperature, so essentially the velocity of the incident particles.
Bret Kugelmass [00:15:04] And sorry... What temperature does this... You said it's non-thermal, what temperature does this operate at?
Greg Piefer [00:15:08] Yeah. So I mean, I see device... The grids can operate very easily, you know, 100 plus kilovolts. So in theory, it should be producing the 100 KEV ions or 200 KEV ions, which, you know, would... translates in terms of temperature equivalent to like a billion degrees or more so extremely high energy. And the challenges accompanies... Manyfold actually as we learned, you know, the problem is like this cooling cross-section. So the probability of a particle scattering off of another particle from just charge, right? Even if it's a small scatter, that probability is much higher than the chance of nuclei actually getting within range of the strong nuclear force.
Bret Kugelmass [00:15:54] Right.
Greg Piefer [00:15:55] And so eventually particles transfer energy into different directions and they scatter and some up scatter in energy, some down scatter in energy. And you start to thermalize, right, eventually. So you brought in the distribution. But even before that happens, we discovered in IEC devices that the particles just tend to collide with things, either the grid wires or background gas. And it makes it very difficult to get actually as much energy as you think you should be getting. So it turns out what was conceived of as a fairly easy solution is actually pretty hard. You know, imagine that in fusion.
Bret Kugelmass [00:16:31] All things go.
Greg Piefer [00:16:32] Yeah. So, it was really cool program. I learned how to make neutron sources. I learned about a bunch of applications for neutron sources, which actually will lead, you know, as we get into the company, what we're doing now. But one thing I will say is, you know, it was really an engineering program and the Fusion Technology Institute, in particular, the fourth floor where me and my colleagues worked focused on the engineering disciplines that would be required to commercialize fusion less than the physics that would be required to actually make fusion reactions work and be exothermic. And so we're kind of thinking of the next step. We spent a lot of time thinking about the next step. And frankly, it was really discouraging because when you think about just how hard it is to go from even if you have a burning plasma, you know, to electricity generation, the materials challenges, at least at the time, were totally overwhelming. The ability to make superconductors at a reasonable size and strong enough that you could reduce the cost of these devices and like compete with like a combined cycle, natural gas plant or solar panels or something like that was inconceivable to me. And so it really led me to be, frankly, pretty depressed about what I had chosen to do. I even read at one point in an article, I think it was in one of the popular science magazines, maybe even Popular Science, and it listed like the top ten worst graduate careers and nuclear fusion was like number four.
Bret Kugelmass [00:18:05] Well they were just trying to be controversial at that point, probably.
Greg Piefer [00:18:07] Well, yeah, but at the same time, it's because you spend your life pursuing this problem where you never seem to get any closer, and then you're also subject to government funding turning things on and off, which they very much were.
Bret Kugelmass [00:18:19] Yeah, that's right.
Greg Piefer [00:18:20] And so there was never continuity. So I think they felt like they never had a chance really to deliver. At the same time, it's really hard. So I kind of got frustrated in this way where I thought that I wouldn't be able to... I thought that I wouldn't be able to to help bring fusion power to humans because I didn't see a way to make it scalable and practical.
Bret Kugelmass [00:18:42] But you didn't end up going... I'm sure they would have hired you as a Quant on Wall Street.
Greg Piefer [00:18:47] I didn't do that either. As it turns out, I had some roommates that were entrepreneurial that I lived with, and one of them had a hard drive crash, so, you know, just lost his data and he had lots of stuff on there that he wanted to get back, you know, pictures and things. And, you know, he went around online to look for data recovery solutions. And the best solutions were kind of like, "Pay us five grand upfront and then we'll try. And we may or may not get your stuff back." And so we kind of looked at that and thought that was a pretty shitty solution, right? So we ended up starting our own data recovery company just to like provide people a better answer. And it was a really simple deal at the beginning. It was like, "We're not that good at this. You know, if you have no hope, we'll try to get your data back. And if we do, we'll charge you 100 bucks. And if we don't, you pay us nothing."
Bret Kugelmass [00:19:45] Wow, you guys are a good deal. 100 bucks. Oh my god.
Greg Piefer [00:19:47] That was literally the business model. And you'd be surprised how many desperate people there were who had no other option.
Bret Kugelmass [00:19:52] I'd still do that for about three or four hard drives at home.
Greg Piefer [00:19:55] Yeah. Yeah. And so we just... We learned and we got good at it... We had tons of volume. And the logical repairs, the software based repairs, we could do almost every single time. But electrical and mechanical failures took longer. We eventually were able to repair electrical control boards very easily and then ultimately repair the internals of the hard drive as well. So like they're one of the best data recovery companies in the world right now. Like the FBI sent stuff to them. So, you know, it's pretty cool. But anyway, it got... It wasn't what I wanted to do, but it got me kind of educated on the ways of starting a business and kind of bootstrapping and building and so as needed, it was really a fun experience. So as we got closer to graduation, frustrated as I was with Fusion, you know, I decided that there were some things we could do with it today that would actually add value to the world that would be useful. And then in particular using the neutrons from DTreactions to provide a social and economic benefit. And yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:00] When you say neutrons from DT reactions... Aren't there easier ways to get neutrons?
Greg Piefer [00:21:03] Uh, no, not really. You know, you can build a nuclear reactor. You know, that's not easy. The licensing pathway associated with that's pretty tricky.
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:14] But what about sources... like activated sources from nuclear reactors.
Greg Piefer [00:21:16] Yeah. So up to a certain point, yes. But beyond that point, they're just not strong enough. Yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:22] So tell me about that. Give me the details. What's the cutoff and how does that affect different applications of how it's used?
Greg Piefer [00:21:28] Yeah, so I'm trying to think of the economics of these things. I was many... It would have cost, I know, for something to replace like with Californium 252, which is produced at Oak Ridge, you know, it would have cost I think trillions of dollars for us to buy enough Californium 252 to do the isotope business, which is not economically profitable, I can tell you. Right, like...
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:49] Oh, okay. But that's what I want to get to because our audience maybe doesn't understand where we're going with all this. So neutron sources are used for examination purposes already. Right. But at low quantities essentially?
Greg Piefer [00:22:03] And for very basic examinations. So, like our first application of fusion was essentially to use neutrons for taking pictures and to scale a neutron radiograph. And everyone's familiar with x rays where like x rays pass easily through low z materials absorbed a lot by high z materials... Neutrons kind of scatter quite a bit actually off of low z materials. So you get a lot of attenuation of a neutron light source in light materials like plastics and carbon fiber. And so they're much better at imaging detail in those type of devices or those type of systems. So... And there was a real urgent need for it in that things like modern airplane aircraft turbine blades, the turbine blades in these aircraft have... They're ceramic. They've got these super narrow cooling channels in them and they melt as well. So they're operating in an environment in the engine that is like 20% above their melting point. So it's absolutely essential that you like pull this cold air from the front of the engine, push it through this cooling channel and out the blade tip or the engine would melt and it would blow up. Right? So you need to know that these temps don't have a defect and the manufacturing process that produces them has a pretty high failure rate. So, you know, let's say 1 to 2% of the blades might fail and an engine's got lots of blades. Right. So most engines would blow up if you didn't have a way to inspect the turbine blades. So what historically has been done is there's just a few nuclear reactors which can make enough neutrons to do this that have produced those images. And so that's what happens... Like if you're a guy who makes these blades, you've got to send them all to another site nuclear reactor, image them there, and get the film back, get the blades back. Hope you didn't screw them up and then build the engine.
[00:23:56] And the idea here... Okay, so let me just kind of talk through it for a second. Okay, so different categories of applications of neutrons that require a different like... I don't know... Would you measured in flux? Is that how you would measure a quantity of neutrons?
Greg Piefer [00:24:10] Yeah, like so flux is a number passing through an area per second for example. Yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [00:24:14] Yeah. So, there's some stuff that... Because like don't they do even like nondestructive examination of like bridges or something? Is that still with neutron sources or is that another thing? Like what's an application where you use very few neutrons, but they're still neutrons as opposed to x rays?
Greg Piefer [00:24:32] Yeah. You know one of the simpler applications uses a smaller source, but it's still not a... It's still not a radio isotopic source. That would be like...
Bret Kugelmass [00:24:41] What about like the Cobalt 60... Don't they put Cobalt 60 in like cases and stuff?
Greg Piefer [00:24:46] Yeah, but Colbalt's gamma.
Bret Kugelmass [00:24:47] Oh, it's gamma. Okay, got it got it. Alright.
Greg Piefer [00:24:47] Yeah, so that would be... Yeah. So if you're looking at bridges' metal actually like gamma is really good for metal.
Bret Kugelmass [00:24:53] Okay, so there's some stuff that you can use gamma... Then there's some stuff where you use neutrons, and there's a category of things that you can use a medium amount of neutrons, let's say, for the nondestructive examination of wing... Of the foil blades or something.
Greg Piefer [00:25:08] Right, right, right.
Bret Kugelmass [00:25:10] And then there's this other category where... No, no, no... Volume actually is the key and we're going to get to that.
Greg Piefer [00:25:14] Yeah, right... And you know, that's increase.. There's a few steps where you go to higher and higher volume. Well, actually, the way we think about it is actually lower and lower cost per neutron to access these increasing markets. But...
Bret Kugelmass [00:25:28] Yeah, I'd like to hear your paradigm for it. So please continue.
Greg Piefer [00:25:32] So, having been frustrated but not really wanting to give up on fusion, you know, just because I... You know, I will say this very clearly... It is the way humans will produce energy someday. It takes us to an inexhaustible source. The energy...
Bret Kugelmass [00:25:49] You and I might have different opinions on that, but okay we'l...
Greg Piefer [00:25:50] Well, here, look, we're talking someday, right? So we can argue about when, but I actually think ultimately it's the way we're gonna go...
Bret Kugelmass [00:25:56] I have a different quibble with it, but... I want to see where you're going with your stuff first.
Greg Piefer [00:26:01] Yeah, I mean, look, that's my belief, right? So... My belief is we never run out of energy as a species. And I'm talking about a species that could consume millions of times the energy we consume as a species today and still never run out. Right. So fusion is the way the universe makes energy. So look up at the light... All the light you see in the universe essentially comes from fusion.
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:26] Except it's very low power density.... all the light that you see. What I'm getting at... Nuclear is the energy of future civilizations. I'm not sure... Well, I do think that there's good applications for fusion. I'm not sure like mass energy production is the one as compared to fission, of course.
Greg Piefer [00:26:43] Yeah, yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:44] But we can get there. We can get there.
Greg Piefer [00:26:46] I see... I see fission as a transitional step. I think fusion increases access to energy by orders of magnitude beyond that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:54] What's the downside of fission as compared to fusion that you say?
Greg Piefer [00:26:57] On the downside of fission is, well, ultimately availability of the resource. So you can try to breed more and more fuel as you want, but...
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:04] Ah, there's a billion years of of uranium.
Greg Piefer [00:27:07] A billion years and how much energy consumption?
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:09] ...100% of today's.
Greg Piefer [00:27:11] Yeah, but so what? Who wants to stay at 100% of today's?
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:14] ...I want to go 100 fold of today's...
Greg Piefer [00:27:17] What if you want to go to a million fold of today's?
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:19] ... ten million years. We're not going to be... We are not going to be like in this form of humanity and...
Greg Piefer [00:27:26] So what? It's like if you look at chemical energy it served us for the last million. Fusion will serve us for the next million. Where fission and how long of a role it plays... Fine. We can talk about that, right? But it's probably not the next million and it's probably not... Well, I mean, up till now, it's been chemical. So, you know, I agree fission is a transitional step, I think fusion... but we could probably spend a lot of time on this. But I think fusion is probably what takes us ultimately to almost unlimited access.
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:54] Okay. Okay. So, I guess let's work through your system... So, you saw some of the need. Yeah.
Greg Piefer [00:28:01] Yeah. So, you know, our... Look, I again, I didn't see a way to commercialize fusion and I think for energy, but we didn't see these near-term applications, particularly in nondestructive testing, actually looking like, you know... Neutrons can also, instead of just doing radiography, they can tell you something about the isotopic build of whatever you're looking at. So chemical composition, things like that. So if you're looking for explosive devices or if you're looking for uranium hidden in materials, neutrons can do that in a way that x rays just can't. Right? So there were a lot of neat applications for this. Defense, security and just safety in general. So I started a company called Phoenix... At the time it was Phoenix Nuclear Labs... to commercialize that product, and eventually they did. And that company is actually now part of China...
Bret Kugelmass [00:28:56] Commercialized what product exactly?
Greg Piefer [00:28:57] Yeah. So it was... There were two... Actually three different product lines we produced out of Phoenix. So they're what we call beam solid target neutron sources. So this is a particle beam shooting into a solid target and that would produce a certain number of neutrons per second.
Bret Kugelmass [00:29:14] And what is this beam?
Greg Piefer [00:29:16] Yeah, so in this case it's a deuterium beam and typically shooting into a deuterium target because most people don't have the ability to safely handle tritium, tritium being a radioactive gas.
Bret Kugelmass [00:29:30] And how do you accelerate deuterium?
Greg Piefer [00:29:33] Yeah. So in this case, we're using a simple what's called an electrostatic accelerator. So actually most of black magic is up front where you make the beam, so we'll take deuterium, we'll excite it with microwaves, just like the same type of microwaves used to heat up your food only were heating it up enough where the electrons separate off. They have enough kinetic energy that they're no longer bound. So you have a plasma. It's a combination of positive deuterium ions, negative electrons. Now we take that whole plasma source, we push it up to a big positive voltage relative to the system we want it to accelerate into. And so those positive charges are attracted down to the ground side of the system because it's too much free positive charge, right? All that positive charge recalls. And so that's it. And that's how we make it go.
Bret Kugelmass [00:30:20] And had this already been done before at the lab scale and you simply commercialized it or were you proving something new in this case?
Greg Piefer [00:30:26] Yeah. So Beam Target Fusion had been done for a long, long time, not at the scale we needed to do it at. And so, you know, we went to far more powerful particle beams than had been done before.
Bret Kugelmass [00:30:40] And what size is this entire device?
Greg Piefer [00:30:43] So a solid target device is... I want to say something like all in... Maybe ten feet long, something like that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:30:52] Like the size of a conference room table or something.
Greg Piefer [00:30:54] Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And then if you build a moderator around it, then that can take up a lot more space because you want thermal neutrons, for example.
Bret Kugelmass [00:31:02] I guess I meant the entire product, if you were to sell this to, like, border security or something.
Greg Piefer [00:31:07] Exactly. It depends on the customer. So ten-ish, twelve-ish feet is the way to think about the product for like interrogating a cargo container, in which case you would have the contents of the container do some of the thermalization. You know, if you were doing radiography, you've got to do all the thermalization yourself and then collimate the beam, you know. So, that's what we would do for radiography. We actually like have a moderator around the neutron source and you know, we have a bunch of collimators in there that allow us to take pictures, so the sum of that beam target fusion was kind of like the lowest output, the entry point kind of system. We actually then took our technology and made kind of a mid output system, but not fusion based. So using cyclotrons to accelerate protons and strike sort of a boron target. But the technology we developed for the fusion based targets was applicable to this, and that kind of gave us a midrange output source. And then we had a really high range output sources which are actually deuterium particle beam striking a tritium gas target, which is again, fusion, but and those are the highest output systems. So kind of that application dependent on what we call our phase one applications and all of those are for nondestructive testing of some kind.
Bret Kugelmass [00:32:26] And where does... Like do the the licensing bodies come into play on this for any of the devices that you mentioned so far, do you need to get NRC approval to build them?
Greg Piefer [00:32:36] Yeah, you don't. Although if you're in a non agreement state you would... You know if the NRC is... So, some states have an agreement with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that allows them to regulate this type of stuff. So Wisconsin, for example, is an agreement state. They've got their own Department of Health Services, which would... has a capability to understand radioactive material and dose and things like that. And so they would provide a license for this type of system. Some states don't have that capability and they just depend on the NRC. So in a non agreement state, you would actually have to get an NRC license for something like this.
Bret Kugelmass [00:33:11] And in the case of like Wisconsin, how much... How much work do you have to do with them, with their State Department to get approval for this type of thing?
Greg Piefer [00:33:24] I mean maybe they want to understand that it's safe. So depending on how good of a case you make, it may go faster or slower. It's typically like you think about if they don't know you and you've got... and you make a pretty good safety case, like a year of review doesn't really cost you money that's significant. I mean, it's not like the NRC, right? Like a device registration in the state of Wisconsin I think is like 50 bucks. So, you know, you just got to convince them it's safe to operate. And you do that with a submission and analysis and all that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:33:53] That's cool. And then and then is there a threshold of, I guess, activity which clearly crosses into NRC territory?
Greg Piefer [00:34:03] There's not in terms of just activity. Depending on which radioisotopes you have, it could cross into... and particularly when you involve special nuclear materials. So, things that have a high fission cross section, that pushes you pretty quickly into NRC domain in general. But other than that, like activity wise, not so much. I would say that if you get beyond the competencies of the state's ability to license and feel like they could do an analysis that proves it's safe, they may ask the NRC to either assist or take over.
Bret Kugelmass [00:34:39] What are they looking for in terms of safety? Is it just essentially like how much radiation is produced and where the people are in proximity to that?
Greg Piefer [00:34:46] Yeah, basically. I mean, yeah, they want you to fall within dose... regulatory dose limits and then they want to know in general that you're capable of following a... like concept and you know what that means and that you have good safety culture. Yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [00:35:01] Got it. Okay. All right. So those were the devices under Phoenix. And then what happened with Shine? What is the story?
Greg Piefer [00:35:08] Yeah, so and even while commercializing sort of the devices with Phenix, you know, felt really good that maybe we could expand the technology and again, you know, think about total neutron output increasing by like a thousand fold, which is actually what we needed to do to get to what we call phase two, but also the cost per neutron going down by almost that same amount. Then we would at that point, we'd have enough neutrons to now not just take pictures but to actually do transmutation. So our goal is to turn low value or... our non valuable things into super... well, hyper-valuable things. Super is not even a big enough word.
Bret Kugelmass [00:35:44] You mean alchemy?
Greg Piefer [00:35:46] Yeah. Alchemy at... with, you know... But you would never turn, spend your time turning led to gold because gold's way too cheap. It wouldn't be worth it. But we could do something like turn uranium, you know, that we can buy at sort of market rates into medical products, isotopes such as Molybdenum 99 or Iodine 131.
Bret Kugelmass [00:36:06] By splitting it?
Greg Piefer [00:36:08] By fissioning it. Yeah, you can also do it with neutron capture.
Bret Kugelmass [00:36:12] That's what I was going to say. Why not just build up from an isotope as opposed to splitting one?
Greg Piefer [00:36:15] Yeah. So... And you can. Like you can put Molybdenum in... So Moly 99 is the most important medical isotope in the world. It's used in 40 million tests a year every... around the globe, every year. So it's crazy how important it is, but the supply chain actually sucks. Like that's a whole nother topic. It's dying. But yeah, so one way you can produce is by neutron capturing. So that's how the world did it like 50 years ago. And you take either naturally occurring Moly or you'd enrich Moly 98, which is the isotope that captures it, turn it into Moly 99. So, absolutely can make it that way. You can make quantities of it that way in reactors. But it's got one little drawback, which is, you know, you're starting with this large bulk of Moly or Moly 98 if it's enriched, and the captured cross-section is pretty low. And so you end up with a tiny, tiny bit of Moly 99 in this very large bulk of Molybdenum and there's no...
Bret Kugelmass [00:37:11] You can't chemically separate that easily.
Greg Piefer [00:37:12] Exactly right. You know, only thing you could do is isotopic enrichment, which takes time and the stuff's got a 66-hour half life, so you don't have time. So you end up, like even in the best reactor, it's like the University of Missouri has got this flux trap that goes up to super high neutron flux. And even there you're going to get at best like let's say like five curies per gram in the final product. And so that... Like I said, that's how it was done. It was then replaced by fission Moly. A company called Sinochem came to market in the sixties and fission Moly replaced it completely. And the reason fission Moly replaced it completely is because you still... you're starting with a large volume of Uranium, but actually the fission cross-section specific to Moly is actually quite a bit higher than the capture cross-section for Moly 98. So the probability of making a Moly 99 with any given neutron is much higher. And then on top of that, it's a different element. So stripping Uranium and Molybdenum apart from each other is quite trivial. Not super easy, but it can be done. Right? And it can be done really, really quickly. And so Sinochem developed a process to do that. And they were producing Moly that was more like 50,000 curies per gram. And so that end product is tremendously more concentrated, like 10,000 times more concentrated, and that made it much easier to use. You know, that led to the conventional alumina generator, which is what proliferates the market today. It allowed pharmacies to be able to produce hundreds of doses per night from a single generator very quickly, very efficiently. And so the scale of the current nuclear medicine market kind of depends on that fission based Moly being there. And there have been a number of people who have tried very clever solutions and still are even trying very clever solutions to make neutron capture Moly work. But it always amounts to being more work for the pharmacist at the end of the day, because the only way to get back that specific activity is to wait for it to decay into Technetium. Six-hour half life. You can't do that in a central facility, you got to do that closer to the patient. So the pharmacist now needs to wait for it to get into Technetium and then you do that separation. So you're making the pharmacist do that hard separation rather than doing it in one central location.
Bret Kugelmass [00:39:30] Got it. Got it. Okay.
Greg Piefer [00:39:33] So they obviously would rather not do that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:39:35] Okay. So where do you come in?
Greg Piefer [00:39:37] Yeah. So, we had this neutron source. We.. were scaling nicely. We were developing the gas target technology, felt really strongly that we'd be able to scale it up to isotope production and, you know, had experimental data at low power with not tritium. But, you know, we felt we knew the cross-sections really well and knew kind of what was going to come out of that. So I actually decided to apply for federal assistance. There was a 2010 FOA funding opportunity announcement from the Department of Energy that said, "Hey, we got this Moly 99 problem." And the problem was twofold. Number one, the current supply chain was failing because it was all dependent on like 60 year old reactors that were going offline unpredictably. And then the second thing was they were exporting bomb grade uranium to use as the feedstock for the Moly and the U.S....
Bret Kugelmass [00:40:32] Why was that?
Greg Piefer [00:40:33] Yeah. So it's just it produces less waste. It's easier for the processor to use, you know, lower, thinner targets, less self shielding. There's a lot of reasons it's just easier to use HEU foils in a conventional reactor to make Moly 99. So we were exporting... I don't think the government has said this anywhere publicly, so I'll say I believe on the order of two nuclear weapons worth of HEU per year to support the US's consumption of Moly 99. And so there was a lot of work over a long period of time going all the way back to 1992 and you know, through multiple laws being passed to try and eliminate the export of HEU for this purpose.
Bret Kugelmass [00:41:16] High enriched uranium.
Greg Piefer [00:41:17] Yeah. And so what happened in around the 2010 timeframe was two major... So, three things happened, actually. One, there was a new reactor that had been built to solve all the supply chain problems in Canada. And actually, two of them, they're called Maple One and Two. And each of those reactors was supposed to cover global demand, and that was the future. So that was killed around 2010. They actually finished construction, started to commission them around 2000. They were designed to have a negative power coefficient and over a certain part of the operating range had positive power coefficient and they could never figure out why. And so they eventually stopped funding it and killed the project. So the future went away in terms of stability of supply. Then on top of that, the two biggest remaining producers, which were an old reactor in Canada called the NRU and another reactor in the Netherlands called the HFR, went down unexpectedly at the same time for major repairs that needed to be done. So they were down for many months and so millions of patient doses were missed over this time period. Probably over 10 million, actually. So you've got this huge disruption to the supply chain. And the NNSA folks decided to say, "Look, there's a problem, we need to fix it, we need a better supply chain. We're going to invest money in people that can solve our HEU problem and shore up the supply chain." So that's basically what the FOA was about. We applied... And as Phoenix at the time.
Bret Kugelmass [00:42:50] I'm surprised honestly though, that this is like a traditional FOA. To me, like the level of emergency. I don't understand why this wasn't like a sole source of like a billion dollar contract and just anyone who can do it, we're going to give you money to make it happen. Like this is a medical emergency for our country.
Greg Piefer [00:43:04] Yeah, I totally agree with you.
Bret Kugelmass [00:43:06] Like it seems like, "Oh, I just created an FOA," just like any other of these like ridiculous things they create FOA's for that we don't actually need? Like this is something we really need.
Greg Piefer [00:43:15] Yeah, well, you and I would be in shared agreement on this thing. We should probably be doing that with nuclear power plants right now. Given climate... I actually believe very strongly that right now we should be building nuclear power plants, fission based, traditional... But yeah, that basically, you know, so they did this FOA, we lobbed in a proposal because we said, "Look, we can do this with, you know, sort of fusion technology as the primary neutron source by irradiating a uranium target and allowing that target to be reused, which is another sort of innovation that we brought to the table. So our technology...
Bret Kugelmass [00:43:53] Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Explain that to me...
Greg Piefer [00:43:54] Yeah. So our technology, even though we could produce enough fusion neutrons to drive the system, it was still going to be much lower flux than a reactor core. And because it's lower flux, the only way... So again, enough neutron output, but it's too distributed and the neutrons per square centimeter per second are much lower...
Bret Kugelmass [00:44:20] Can I ask you a quick question? I know this, but is there any way to... Other than like creating like a viewport... Is there any way to control the direction of neutrons or is it all like random and probabilistic after it's created?
Greg Piefer [00:44:36] Yeah. So... Well, from a fusion reaction and from fission, they have a random distribution, so they're basically isotropic...
Bret Kugelmass [00:44:44] And there's no way to, like, create like sheets of material of various like, densities and cross-sections that in their aggregate end up bouncing things into a common direction. Is there just nothing like that?
Greg Piefer [00:44:59] My belief is that there is not. There are people who will say they can do that. I have not seen that. And fundamentally, you know, it's an optics type problem, but the distance a neutron travels before it collides again is just too great. And so you would need to build these massive optics and they would have to not absorb neutrons at all. And so, you know, I don't know. I guess you could build something out of deuterium ice, right? Which has a really lot of neutron absorption cross-section and be this massive lens and maybe that. Right. Like if you force enough collisions. Maybe then. But the problem is most materials absorb neutrons before you could ever force enough collisions to do it. They do try and do it with really cold neutrons and really cold neutrons like cryogenic neutrons. The probability of interacting goes way up at those temperatures so suddenly your optics can be more reasonably sized. So there is some of that with really cold neutrons. But at that point you've lost a lot just cooling them off. So yeah...
Bret Kugelmass [00:45:59] So, sorry back to... All right.
Greg Piefer [00:45:59] So yeah, low flux enough neutrons but low flux. So how do you take advantage of that? Well, you need a big target and that's basically what we had to do. The challenge with the big target... So traditionally a reactor of Uranium like a foil or a Uanium metal of some kind. Right? And that foil would then be taken out and dissolved. And there's only so much room to put these foils in these reactors because they weren't really designed for it. So you can't just put big targets in reactors. But we... We're starting from scratch. So we could use a big target. And the challenge with using a really big solid target, which is what conventionally would be done, is you need to dissolve a really big solid target every week and then you'd have all this waste Uranium, which you couldn't use, and you'd have to then... If you wanted to use it economically... Then have to reconstitute that back into a solid target again, only it's radioactive as hell at this point. So reconstituting it back into a solid target would be very expensive. So we said, "Well, what about aqueous solutions?" So we decided we put Uranium in salt form, we dissolve it and we would irradiate it right there as a liquid and that actually works. So if you can irradiate it as a liquid and the target can be much bigger and then you can run it through a larger separation column... The Uranium it's designed.... So it's like we use Titania. The uranium doesn't stick to the Titania, it goes right through...
Bret Kugelmass [00:47:25] Use Titanium as the vessel wall?
Greg Piefer [00:47:28] No, Titania. Yeah. Sorry. So Titania is Titanium Dioxide.
Bret Kugelmass [00:47:33] Use Titanium Oxide for what?
Greg Piefer [00:47:35] For separating out. So, actually... we'll run this liquid, so we'll cook it for, like, five and a half days. So the fusion system's on five and a half days, it's cooking the soup. And then at the end of that, we'll open a valve and we'll pump it through... think of it like a two liter bottle of soda, and that contains, like, titanium dioxide. So it looks like white sand, right? It kind of looks like sand. And the chemistry of the solution is such that the Uranium passes through this material, but the Molybdenum forms a chemical bond with it.
Bret Kugelmass [00:48:04] Okay, now I understand... So you're creating a filter out of the Titania. What's the salt, though? What's the Uranium salt?
Greg Piefer [00:48:11] So we're using Uranium... Uranium Sulfate... Yeah, it's a sulfate. And people have perceived both nitrates and sulfates for aqueous homogeneous reactors in the past. So we actually...
Bret Kugelmass [00:48:24] Can you just buy that or how does that work? You just make it in house or how do you get the Uranium into a sulfate solution?
Greg Piefer [00:48:28] Yeah. So, we can make it in-house. So what we would typically do is buy Uranium metal.
Bret Kugelmass [00:48:35] At what enrichment?
Greg Piefer [00:48:37] So 19.75. So we'll be buying the... what do you call it... the HALEU stuff from Oak Ridge.
Bret Kugelmass [00:48:45] Okay. So that's available. You can just buy that on the market?
Greg Piefer [00:48:48] If you have the right licenses to possess it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I wouldn't say on the market, you know, we had to sign a Uranium lease and take back agreement with the government and all that stuff. So, you know.
Bret Kugelmass [00:48:57] I know a lot of the the HALEU nuclear reactor companies are having so much trouble procuring it. But you're saying it is available if you have a license?
Greg Piefer [00:49:04] Well, it's available if you have a license today. At some point, I think if you had a lot of HALEU based reactors, it becomes a problem. You know, the stockpile they have comes from weapon surplus. And, you know, we made a lot of bombs. Too many bombs. They decided they had too much enriched stuff. So we did all this work to enrich it to, like, 90 plus percent. And then they downloaded it all back down to 20%. And so that's the stuff we're using. It's actually kind of a cool part of our story because we're like taking stuff that was meant for nuclear bombs and turning it into medicine, like, directly.
Bret Kugelmass [00:49:37] So, you get it from them and it's in some sort of metallic form?
Greg Piefer [00:49:41] Yeah. It's like little metal chunks. So, like, they enriched it in metallic form because that's how you make a bomb, right? They want HEU metal and then they chewed up the bombs and mixed it with Uranium metal from the ground. And so we get these chunks and we'll oxidize them, which is basically as simple as putting them in a furnace and heating em up. And then we dissolve them in the sulfate.
Bret Kugelmass [00:50:02] And you do this in your lab in Wisconsin?
Greg Piefer [00:50:05] Yeah, we do this in-house. We, you know, look if it were opportunistic to pay someone to do it for us and it saved us some space and we could open up a room in the building for other things, we might do that. But right now what we're commercializing, we want to control as many things as we can.
Bret Kugelmass [00:50:24] Nah, it's totally fine. So you do that, you get into the Uranium sulfide solution, put it into this I guess bubble surrounding your... fusion reactor.
Greg Piefer [00:50:33] Yeah. Yeah. Think of it as like a... I'm forgetting the word right now. It's just like a cylinder, right? And it's with an open center...
Bret Kugelmass [00:50:45] How big is it? How big is the whole thing?
Greg Piefer [00:50:48] We're not supposed to say exact dimensions, but you can kind of get your arms around it, you know?
Bret Kugelmass [00:50:52] Okay, so like a...
Greg Piefer [00:50:53] Couple hundred, I mean, it holds a couple hundred liters and it's not solid. So the middle is open.
Bret Kugelmass [00:50:59] You know, if it was like a size of a building or size of a table.
Greg Piefer [00:51:01] Yeah, no, it's not that big. You can kind of get your arms around it. And then, yeah, the fusion device, the gas target in this case. So there's a deuteron source at the top of the machine. It shoots the beam down towards this annular target and it hits this... tritium gas envelope that's inside of the annulus. And so then the DT neutrons that come out of that, they come out isotopically. You know, pretty much all of them have to pass through that annulus containing the Uranium solution and that's what caused the fission.
Bret Kugelmass [00:51:35] And then you mentioned like five days... What's the half life of the Moly that you're trying to create though?
Greg Piefer [00:51:38] Yeah, so Moly is like 66 hours. So we're not at saturation at five and a half days, but you're also not producing one for one. You're losing some.
Bret Kugelmass [00:51:46] That's why I'm wondering. Yeah, walk me through that exactly. So, some of the stuff that you are creating, you are losing before you extract it?
Greg Piefer [00:51:54] Yeah. Yeah. And that's always going to be the case.
Bret Kugelmass [00:51:56] What's the ideal time though? If there.... Yeah, how does that work?
Greg Piefer [00:51:59] I mean, from my standpoint and our businesses's standpoint, it might be every two or three days. Unfortunately, though, radiologists at the end of the day run the world and they like to play golf on Friday and they like to do tests on Monday. So, you know, they've got their weekly cadence that they want to take patients at. And so, you know, customers usually, right, at least you try and give them what they want. So we're trying to feed a supply chain that wants Moly on certain days.
Bret Kugelmass [00:52:24] How come there's no continuous process where you can just be constantly circulating the stuff through some sort of... And extracting the Moly in situ or like how does...
Greg Piefer [00:52:33] You could do that. However, the market doesn't want it that way. So, you'd be doing all this extra work to continually be running highly radioactive loops in your plant.
Bret Kugelmass [00:52:42] And so you're saying it's the customer or the hospital actually wants a batch delivery on a day? Same day every week?
Greg Piefer [00:52:49] Yeah, they like certain days, they like to have their batches. So we just tailored our radiation cycle to be as efficient as possible while giving them what they want.
Bret Kugelmass [00:52:57] That makes perfect sense. You know, by the way, I love your thinking about building a system to what the customer asks for instead of just what you want.
Greg Piefer [00:53:05] Yeah, I mean, I would have never started... The first conversation I had before I started Shine and even though we thought we could do it, was to go and talk to GE and say, "Tell me about the product you want." Because I'm not going to waste my time if I don't make what you guys want, right? So you know that... Those were meaningful conversations in the early days.
Bret Kugelmass [00:53:23] And then how have you established your, I guess, your sales process? Like who do you sell directly to? Is there like a middleman?
Greg Piefer [00:53:33] Yeah, there are middlemen there's like a couple of them actually.
Bret Kugelmass [00:53:36] You don't have to worry about calling up a bunch of hospitals.
Greg Piefer [00:53:38] Yeah, right. That's right. It was actually a good thing for us. Like our sales team is like two people, maybe three people, you know? So... And it probably will never get much bigger than that. So if you get a company trying to get a new drug in the market, their sales team is their primary expense. And we don't have that cost at all, essentially.
Bret Kugelmass [00:53:54] And sorry, just to come back to the NRC, what role did they play in this device?
Greg Piefer [00:53:59] Yeah. So as I mentioned, once you bring special nuclear material into the picture, they're going to be more interested in it. And we very quickly came to the realization that, you know, we were going to trip some of the NRC's sort of like automatic "this is our review" kind of thing. And frankly, the state of Wisconsin is really good at what they do. But, you know, assessing criticality and assessing accident scenarios around actual decent sized fission systems like each one of our fusion driven systems actually is like 125, up to 125 kilowatts of thermal fission happening in it. So, you know it's like... It's a nice hybrid.
Bret Kugelmass [00:54:40] That's not nothin. Yeah, that's awesome.
Greg Piefer [00:54:40] Right. So, like, it's not going to be licensed by the state of Wisconsin. They just don't know how to do it. So we would have went to the NRC, and we'd have got there one way or another. So we just chose to.
Bret Kugelmass [00:54:51] Tell me about that process. What was it like for them? Had they... Had anyone working there ever seen anything like this? Did they have a division to even analyze this?
Greg Piefer [00:54:59] Yeah, they... Well their research and test reactor group was who this fell under. And I'm kind of glad it did because they were just a little bit more flexible in their thinking. We also started talking to them before I actually founded Shine as a company too, and we hit them right as they were trying... So, they were collaborating with NNSA and aware that the US was going to make it a priority to establish domestic supply chains. And so they actually created what they called at the time draft interim staff guidance that would kind of set the framework for them to license medical isotope production facilities. And so we got input in that. And so one of the things they actually had in their ISG was like fusion driven, subcritical fission medical isotope production scheme. So they had listened to us about what we wanted to do and tried to build a framework around it because they knew this was a national priority at the time.
Bret Kugelmass [00:55:56] How long did it take to get the license?
Greg Piefer [00:55:59] Oh, yeah. So I mean, it's still a really thurough process. Part of its on us, part of its on them. The construction permit we applied for in 2013... That was granted in 2016. And then we applied for our operating license in 2018 and that review is expected to complete actually this year. So while we produce this stuff at the pilot scale, the large scale facility is still being constructed. In fact, it's out of my window here.
Bret Kugelmass [00:56:26] I see. Okay. So you... Help me understand this part because it's interesting. So you're able to do... You're able to actually do it and run a system. And are you actually delivering doses to hospitals today?
Greg Piefer [00:56:37] No. Except we are with Lutetium, one of our therapeutic products, but...
Bret Kugelmass [00:56:44] But are you able to own a subcritical reactor at small scales before you have the operating license?
Greg Piefer [00:56:47] Yeah, we did do that in partnership with Argonne. And so Argonne already used their on site licenses to do those tests.
Bret Kugelmass [00:56:54] Cool.
Greg Piefer [00:56:54] And we were also able to draw a tremendous amount of data from the aqueous reactor database. So the Russians and the US government did a tremendous amount of work with aqueous homogeneous reactors, which is a lot of what our liquid target looks like, even though it's being driven by fusion.
Bret Kugelmass [00:57:09] And okay, so you started... You applied for the operations license when?
Greg Piefer [00:57:13] Yeah, in 2018.
Bret Kugelmass [00:57:15] 2018. And when do you expect to get it issued?
Greg Piefer [00:57:19] It'll get issued probably when the facility is done. So they'll complete their... We expect them to complete their review around the end of this year. So that'll again be about three years. And, you know, you could argue it might have been faster to go for a combined license application, but we needed to retire risk as a startup in order to get funding to do stuff. Yeah. So.. And it was also really important because the design needed a lot of iteration between the construction permit application and the actual... What we've built. So we expect to finish building this and have the equipment in and sort of be able to start up and receive the operating license around the middle of next year.
Bret Kugelmass [00:57:57] And all in regulatory cost?
Greg Piefer [00:58:01] Geez. Yeah. It's tens of millions. I mean, I think, you know, that's that's counting some of the... A lot of the work we have to do internally to answer questions. But the NRC is also a cost recovery organization. So I forget what their current rate is. It's like probably like $280 an hour or something like that. So whatever their review time is, we pay for that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:58:22] And nothing... I mean, like, given how important this I mean, like, what you are doing is incredibly important. Was there a sense of urgency or are their allies in government that could understand the sense of urgency to help accelerate?
Greg Piefer [00:58:38] Yeah. Yeah. And it's been bipartisan, which has been really nice. But at the same time, they've got their job to do, which is to make sure this stuff is all safe. And it's pretty complicated. So.
Bret Kugelmass [00:58:48] But what are they looking for? Like, aren't... Can you, like, test things at the limits and say, listen, it can never go critical because of X, Y, Z? Here are the few simple equations that prove that. We just simply don't have that material. Like, what are they actually looking for?
Greg Piefer [00:59:03] Well, they want to understand the source terms. They want to understand the release patterns. They want to... You know anything that can go wrong in the facility. So we're pumping this stuff around, like, what if a pipe fails? What's the analysis look like? What happens to the farmer who lives next to our site? You know, so.
Bret Kugelmass [00:59:17] There's no way they can just handle probabilistically, like with PRA or PSA style analysis where you just say, "Listen, we're going to show you some of the worst case scenarios, show you how the source term release still isn't that bad. You know, multiply...
Greg Piefer [00:59:29] That's actually what we did. I mean, you know, we ended up designing to what they call maximum hypothetical accidents, which are limiting cases. Right. And PRAs are great if you have a source of data for the you know, to drive the probabilities. But when you build the first of a kind thing that no one's seen before, it's...
Bret Kugelmass [00:59:45] Yeah, I was just hoping maybe they'd be... You could just reasonably agree with some conservatism what the probabilities are.
Greg Piefer [00:59:51] Yeah, but you've still got to do like I mean, even in the limited cases, you've got to determine what the limiting cases are, right? So like you've gotta...
Bret Kugelmass [00:59:58] Just give me some deterministic...
Greg Piefer [01:00:00] Yeah, yeah. So you know, I think the approach is pretty good but you know, it's a long... It'd be nice if it could go faster. I actually... It was... I met with the commissioners at one point in a public meeting and Allison Macfarlane was chair at the time. And you know, I said, "Look, you know, you've obviously got to do your job. I would never ask you not to. This has gotta be safe. But like, you know, this is important for the country and important for patients and all that. So the faster you can go would be greatly appreciated by everybody." And she just looked at me and she was like, "Hey, man, you're going at the speed of light, you know, through this thing." So... And I don't think she was being facetious. I think she was actually being very complimentary about our organization and she's like, "I'm really impressed that, you know, you guys have been able to go this fast to the organization."
Bret Kugelmass [01:00:42] Yeah, but it's not the speed of light. And this is what... I mean this is what just drives me crazy. Before they had the NRC, there was the Atomic Energy Commission and you were able to license full gigawatt scale power plants in like under a year for like... $1,000,000 with like... Three competent engineers just showing the limiting case scenario and saying, "Okay, we all agree." And there's some cost benefit analysis. Am I.... Are you even allowed to have that conversation with the NRC about a cost benefit analysis, or is it, "No, we don't care what the benefit is?"
Greg Piefer [01:01:15] You know, I think you can always have any conversation with the NRC as far as we've had experience. But, you know, I think that they're going to probably think about all of it differently than we would.
Bret Kugelmass [01:01:26] But your benefit is so obvious. Like I am saving millions of lives. And the worst case scenario that you could possibly imagine doesn't even kill a person. It just gets them to some, like, dose that is, like, maybe above a limit, but it doesn't hurt them...
Greg Piefer [01:01:45] Yeah. But then they want us to prove that and you know, then they want us to, like, make sure we've analyzed everything and then they want to look at the analysis we've done to make sure we did it right. And I mean, that's how it's done today. I agree with you. Cost benefit analysis has to absolutely come back. I think, you know, one of the concepts that we talked about already... is a perfect example of that. The word reasonable needs to be assessed in terms of cost benefit thinking. And I think it's like super easy for me to do that, but a lot of people just don't like making comparisons. I don't know why, but like... Should be all about cost benefit analysis, like we're going to stay below those limits, but if we're producing product and that's going to save somebody's life down the road and we have to incur an additional ten milligrams of dose to make sure it gets to that person on time. Should we do that? Probably, right? I mean, it all depends on the certain nuances that are going on at the time. But like, if we can't avoid it and that patient's probably going to die because they've got late stage cancer, that's a reasonable to me. Right. And I think it should be reasonable to anybody.
Bret Kugelmass [01:02:48] It's a msinomer. When they say reasonable, they don't actually mean reasonable. They mean it's an excuse to hit zero. Like they don't actually mean reasonable.
Greg Piefer [01:02:54] But that's not reasonable.
Bret Kugelmass [01:02:58] But that's not. It's a misnomer. The whole... thing is a misnomer...
Greg Piefer [01:03:02] And that needs to change. That needs to change. That prevents us from doing really important things in the world, like making medicine, but even like making carbon free energy. It can drive costs up that make it impossible. You know, just that sort of thinking. Absolutely.
Bret Kugelmass [01:03:18] Was there any thoughts... I mean, you're so close to Canada already. Did you have any conversation with their regulatory... regulators and ask them if there's a faster path there.
Greg Piefer [01:03:26] With Canada?
Bret Kugelmass [01:03:27] Yeah.
Greg Piefer [01:03:29] You know, the only conversations we had with them were, you know, They were going to behave really similar to the NRC. That's kind of the way they put it.
Bret Kugelmass [01:03:36] And I guess any other country is too far, actually, to fly the isotopes cost effectively.
Greg Piefer [01:03:40] Well, and the other... It is. It's a disadvantage if you're not in Canada for the U.S. and the other challenge we had is a lot of our early funding came from this partnership with the NNSA, who was very much trying to establish domestic production.
Bret Kugelmass [01:03:52] And why couldn't you just have done it on Argonne's campus?
Greg Piefer [01:03:56] Oh, yeah, yeah. No, I would never recommend that to anyone.
Bret Kugelmass [01:04:01] Why not? Why not?
Greg Piefer [01:04:02] Frankly, the lab regulators are even more... Well, they're very... risk intolerant. Let's just say that.
Bret Kugelmass [01:04:12] Even more than 2013 to 2023? I mean, that's a that's a lot of risk intolerance.
Greg Piefer [01:04:16] I wouldn't build anything on a... No commercial site on a lab campus. I mean, they ultimately control you. And they... I mean, they're the government, right? They're the biggest target in the world financially. Everyone would love nothing more than to sue them for this and that. And it's just like, I mean, even at Argonne like the tests we did there, right? Like they had some missteps on some of those tests. And even though nobody was hurt and, you know, doses weren't very high... It shut them down for years and, you know, the fix was easy. Right? So it's just like the sensitivity, I think it being the government being this huge target has made them extremely risk intolerant. We actually looked at doing... Building one of these in the production complex out near Los Alamos as well. So we looked at these things, but you're going to end up investing probably as much or more money. Maybe you could go faster, but then you're going to have... You're not going to have control over your site. You're going to be completely subject to the other things going on in the lab. And it's political hierarchy.
Bret Kugelmass [01:05:19] What in terms... Since your system is fairly small, was there any conversation with the NRC of like, "Listen, if we just wrap this thing in like 20 feet of concrete and don't have a human operator, everything is operated remotely like, can we make this a little easy?" Like, was there any conversation like, "Is there a short cut in terms of like how we think about dose?"
Greg Piefer [01:05:41] Well, I mean, we... Like our MHA, so our maximum hypothetical accidents, for example, which are things that can even happen, right? They have no physical initiator. They're postulated events like, you know, a barrier disintegrates and even those, you know, the dose that Randy... whose my friend actually, is the guy who farms on the land around here. If he didn't leave when we asked him to evacuate after an accident, after an MHA occurs. And he not only that, stayed there the rest of his life and didn't ever go home again, he would receive less than a CT scan dose, right? I mean, so...
Bret Kugelmass [01:06:16] Why is that not the end of the safety analysis right then and there? To me, that sounds like the end of it.
Greg Piefer [01:06:22] Yeah. Well, there are some things you depend on to make sure that that's it, right? It's not a parking lot release. You have to show... I mean, if it were just wrapping in concrete, right? Like you've got to prove the concrete safe and you got to prove that the natural breathing rate of the building...
Bret Kugelmass [01:06:36] There's no sense of reasonableness? Like, "Hey, if we put... pour 20 foot concrete walls..."
Greg Piefer [01:06:42] Not without analysis. No, that doesn't exist...
Bret Kugelmass [01:06:46] No common sense. You're not allowed to use common sense.
Greg Piefer [01:06:48] No. No common sense. No, no, it's all analysis. And we haven't even I mean, honestly, we haven't tried to push the limits on that. You know, we... Everything we've seen has indicated that common sense is not going to be well received. And you got to understand a lot of people at the NRC, too, like they're hiring a lot of people outside, as you know, contractors to come in and do the analysis work themselves. So those people are going to be really opposed to not doing analysis because that's how they get paid, you know?
Bret Kugelmass [01:07:16] So it's all messed up. Yeah.
Greg Piefer [01:07:19] Yeah, yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [01:07:21] And was there any... Just to kind of keep on this because like, I think about this as I advise other nuclear reactor companies. Including my own.. Like of other regulators first demonstrate it like at a fully... Even though I know the need is here in the US... Get a functional system up and running and let's say you know pick a country, France whatever. But something with the regulator that... Argentina, I know a lot of the Argentinians are very PRA driven, very common sense, very common sense, have built all sorts... Including isotope reactors... Any sense of like doing it there first, showing that it works, and then just showing the NRC the data from that system like making the...
Greg Piefer [01:08:00] I think it's helpful. I think they'd still make you do the analysis, at least today. And so if you haven't done it, you're still going to have to do it is my experience. Yeah. Yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [01:08:11] Okay. Well, that's out, I guess.
Greg Piefer [01:08:14] I mean, it's today, right? You know, my hope is that at least with respect to things like ALARA, where you're allowed to do that, I mean, ALARA was designed like the word reasonable was put right in there. Right? Like it was designed to allow consideration of trade offs. I mean...
Bret Kugelmass [01:08:31] I don't think it ever was. I think. Well, I think it was a misnomer from the beginning. Yeah.
Greg Piefer [01:08:36] Yeah. Maybe. Maybe that's what was intended, but...
Bret Kugelmass [01:08:41] I actually think that there's real... I wouldn't say malicious intent, but I would say the wrong incentives coming from within the nuclear industry itself. Just like you said. Half the nuclear industry are safety analysis performers. Okay, so it's the nuclear experts themselves that are misrepresenting the danger to give them more work.
Greg Piefer [01:08:58] I couldn't agree with that more. And I think, frankly, the nature of reimbursement in the nuclear business being largely cost plus for a long, long time provides an incentive to be expensive and to go to zero. Right. There's no way to make more money than to try to go to zero. And who benefits from going to zero? Essentially, no one other than the people who are getting paid to do it. Yeah. So, yeah, I agree. I think, you know. We need to have that argument and that one should be won because it is just about societal tradeoffs. Right. Like that's the... Why should I slightly... Even if you believe in linear no threshold theory, which of course I don't, and I think is absolutely ridiculous. But even if you do and you're required to like... why should somebody receiving an incremental, larger dose that is so far below any proven, say, you know, a negative impact on their health, prevent us from having climate change occur?
Bret Kugelmass [01:09:55] Yep.
Greg Piefer [01:09:56] I mean, it's insane. Like you're going to kill millions...
Bret Kugelmass [01:09:58] I can make the air pollution argument all day long.
Greg Piefer [01:10:01] Yeah, and it's just not reasonable. So, you know, I would fight that one all day long. I don't know that it's codified, that it needs to be a round to zero. I think the industry does that on its own.
Bret Kugelmass [01:10:13] That's exactly right. That's why it's harder to change if you just changed like the rule here and there, I don't think anything would change because 95% of professionals in the nuclear industry benefit from unreasonable radiation standards.
Greg Piefer [01:10:28] Yeah, but we've, you know, we built our own team here from the ground up to do our own math. And we take our arguments to the NRC. And, you know, so far we haven't run into any issues with that sort of thinking. But if you hire people from the outside and we've done that, we've run some of those in and we've actually hired contractors as well. They're going to drive you to that. So you got to... We kind of have to start from scratch. Which we've been able to do. Yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [01:10:55] Okay. So you're gonna get the system online, hopefully soon. How many doeses... When you're fully up and running, how many lives are you gonna save?
Greg Piefer [01:11:03] Yes. So, this will be the biggest medical isotope production facility in the world. So it's going to make 20 million doses a year. Yeah, hopefully over its lifetime, a billion doses. So it's pretty cool. It'll be the first that I'm aware of... large scale application of fusion to benefit humanity. You know, you might... some might argue the H-bomb benefited humanity. I'm not sure I would, but that's the only other really large scale application of fusion. So that's kind of neat. And for us, it's a stepping stone. You know, the next thing we want to do is... it's pretty cool, actually. The technology we've developed here for moving around highly radioactive uranium solutions and separating out materials of value is tremendously portable to recycling nuclear spent fuel. And yeah, so we're like, that's the next plan in our business is actually to take what we've learned here. We know what the economics of this look like we know what the investment was. We know how it'll scale to something like a spent fuel recycling facility. So we really want to take that technology and move it to the next step. And we think, like I said, I think fission is a transitional step. You might think it's a permanent step, but nonetheless, we both agree it needs to happen. Cost is the biggest problem. Waste is probably the second biggest perceptually...
Bret Kugelmass [01:12:21] I'm glad you added perception, thank you. I address perception not with technology, I address it with marketing.
Greg Piefer [01:12:26] Right? Right. Yeah. So we think we can profitably run a recycling business and...
Bret Kugelmass [01:12:33] Just walk me through the characteristics of that because that's super interesting I know to a lot of our audience. Yeah. What does that look like technically? What happens to what to what to what?
Greg Piefer [01:12:40] I'm going to talk to you about what we do now and then what we would do then. And so right now, we're taking uranium, we're oxidizing it, we're dissolving it, we're irradiating it, you know, and then we're running it through a process to separate out highly valuable materials from it. And then we're putting it back in the system. Well, what are we going to do with spent fuel? We're going to take oxide. We're going to dissolve it. We don't need to irradiate. It's already done that. We're going to separate highly valuable materials. And then we're going to take some of those streams and recycle them and put them back in the reactors so at the highest level, right? That's what we're going to do. You know, we would love to produce a feedstock for a MOX fuel, right? Like we've actually already spent a ton of time developing a recycling... Like a sort of... process is what I'll say for separating out uranium and plutonium mixtures that would be usable as fuel. We'd also like to recoup some of the precious metals that are in the waste stream, and mostly, if you take the old stuff, mostly decayed. So we'd like to be able to do that.
Bret Kugelmass [01:13:41] What precious metals are in spent nuclear fuel?
Greg Piefer [01:13:44] Those are things like palladium and rhodium and radium and you know, some of those rare... really rare stuff. Now, some of it's still pretty warm, some of it's decayed away. So that's where you look at the ones you're going to focus on first. And even those can be diluted, right? So you can mix 'em... If you mix 'em 50/50 with stable stuff. I mean, they do this with steel all the time. Cobalt activated. So you can dilute it and still get paid for it. So that's... We're going to be going after some of that kind of stuff as well. And then ultimately, you know, fusion can play a role there as well, again, in a transmutation way...
Bret Kugelmass [01:14:20] Is that what you're thinking, that after you separate it, you group things and you bombard the neutrons and you turn them into something else?
Greg Piefer [01:14:25] Yeah. So we call it kind of our phase three A, our phase three is this whole recycling business. And phase three A is just like, you know, making new fuel, separating out the precious metals. And you've got a lot smaller problem to deal with because most of the original material ends up back in the reactors. And, you know, you've got fission products left and you've got, you know, some probably some true stuff left that you didn't want to put back in the reactors. So, you know, that stuff... You know the short-lived things you can build a building and you can hold them right until they kind of decay away until they're much less dangerous. The long-lived stuff would be nice to be able to transmute it, you know, to other isotopes. I-129 for example, has over a 10 million year half life, you hit it with fast neutrons, it becomes I-128, which has a half life in minutes, you know, so eventually essentially goes away. So that's where fusion would come in. You're working on a much smaller waste stream at that point, but... And actually we don't need to do that to be successful in phase three, but we'd like to do that. That's another scale up from where we're at with fusion and actually turns out to be of the scale, similar scale to a fusion power plant, so similar to what you've seen done by the labs today. But you can probably get paid more per neutron like we think 10 to 15 times as much per neutron for a transmuter than you can making electricity. And so we see this as a great way to cut our teeth on fusion systems that could potentially be used for electricity someday if we could get the cost down through economies of scale and practice and things like that. So if not, you know, we use it to help transmute long-lived waste. Yeah. So that's kind of where we're going and how I'm still keeping my dream alive of participating in fusion energy. While providing a sustainable company along the way. Because, look, I mean, there are people trying really hard spending lots of money on fusion R&D. But I think even if the science pans out really, really positively, this is a decades problem in terms of the engineering. And, you know, you're going to need a company that doesn't have to keep raising money for 20, 30 years. Right. Like it can help support itself. It can create real value along the way. So that's kind of what we're trying to do.
Bret Kugelmass [01:16:36] Listen, just hearing you talk, I just think of how amazing it is that you had that earlier entrepreneurial experience. You've clearly learned so much from it. It's like the way you think about this is not what I hear from most nuclear entrepreneurs who, quite frankly, are like PhDs who like only want to reinvent the reactor core over and over again, you know, but the way you think about this... the way you think about building a business and your phased approach and regulatory. Everything is just so competent and the product to working on is so important. So just thank you so much for everything that you do and thanks for taking the time to chat.
Greg Piefer [01:17:11] Really appreciate the opportunity. And to all your listeners, you know, if you want to start a nuclear company, I'd love to talk to you at some point because we learned a lot. We're getting still much better than we are even today. And I'd love to help... Nuclear should be a big part of the solution and no need to make the same missteps we've made.
Bret Kugelmass [01:17:30] Greg Piefer everybody.