Brent Freeze and Lex Huntsman
April 26, 2023
Charlie Cole [00:03:07] My name is Charlie Cole. Welcome back to another episode here of Titans of Nuclear. Today, we're talking to Brent Freeze and Lex Huntsman of Solid Atomic, who are developing a solid-state nuclear energy system. We're excited to talk with them about it. Brent and Lex, welcome. It's great to have you guys on.
Brent Freeze [00:03:22] Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Charlie Cole [00:03:24] Yeah, of course. Awesome. I think we'll start how we often start on Titans episodes, which is just a little about your guys' backgrounds. So, I think I'll maybe ask both of you and you can go one by one. Maybe we'll start with Lex and then Brent and switch it up later. But yeah, tell me about where you guys grew up. Were you interested in science as kids? Yeah, just tell me a little bit of background about yourselves. Let's start with Lex.
Lex Huntsman [00:03:44] Yeah, sure. I grew up in Northern California. And yeah, interested in science as a kid. I mean, my favorite toy when I was like three was, I think, an extension cord. That's what my parents tell me. So yeah, I've always been into energy. I'm a former Navy nuclear submariner. I served on the USS Los Angeles and operated the reactor plant there. So, I've got hands on experience operating nuclear reactors. And absolutely... I loved it. I really did. But I left because I wanted to get into design engineering, and the Navy doesn't do that.
Lex Huntsman [00:04:23] I've been working professionally as an engineer for 15 years. Recently, in the last few years, I've been really engaged in wanting to sort of break the deadlock of nuclear energy in North America, and really, globally, and get the technology moving again. You know, kind of bring us back to like 1959 and say, "Okay, let's pretend the anti-nuclear movement didn't happen and go from there." And so, that's me.
Charlie Cole [00:05:06] Very cool. What initially got you interested in the Navy nuclear path? How did you first hear about nuclear in the Navy?
Lex Huntsman [00:05:10] I'd known about nuclear energy for a while before the Navy, but I was just dead set on going into the Navy after high school because it's kind of a family history thing. My great-grandfather was commanding officer of a net tender during the Pearl Harbor bombing. And in fact, I served out of Pearl Harbor. So, I was actually able to see... The house that they lived in was still standing. I'd heard stories as a kid of like my grandfather and his brothers and sisters running and hiding in like a bomb crater in the sugarcane field, which is now the parking lot of the Navy Exchange. So, I got to see that house and actually, literally a couple of months before I completed my term and was honorably discharged, they condemned that block of housing and were going to tear it down. So, it was just really cool that I literally got to see it beforehand.
Lex Huntsman [00:06:27] When I took the ASVAB, the Navy was just like, "You are Nuclear Program material." And I was like, obviously, "That's awesome. Like, I want to do that." I'm like, "Double down submarines." I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, so the idea of being in a vessel where you're alive and well on one side and then on the other side of the bulkhead is certain death was just... I don't know, it was appealing to me.
Charlie Cole [00:06:59] Yeah, yeah. Did you ever think about space travel? Did you ever want to be an astronaut? That's that concept to the max.
Lex Huntsman [00:07:07] Yeah, absolutely. Space is probably my first love aside from energy. Space and energy are kind of it for me, and just engineering really cool things.
Charlie Cole [00:07:25] Yeah, totally. Cool. And I think we can pivot over to Brent and we'll dive into everything more as well. But yeah, Brent, tell me a little more about your background. Where did you grow up? Were you excited about science as a kid? That's always my favorite question. I think the pivot from children's interest in science to like real adult engineering is such an interesting pathway to me. So yeah, tell me about it, Brent.
Brent Freeze [00:07:47] Well, I grew up in Oregon in an area called West Linn, Oregon, and we had a very good public education system there. And a museum, a science museum, called OMSI, that had like Space Camp and lots of things to teach you about. Back then, there was a nuclear power plant in Oregon called the Trojan Nuclear Plant. It's been closed since then. And so, I had early exposure to some wonderful science education, a lot of AP classes in high school. Went to Cornell University. And again, back then there was a nuclear lab called the Ward Lab that produced nuclear medicine and, of course, it provided some training. It's since been torn down and relocated.
Charlie Cole [00:08:26] Was it a full research reactor, or what was that?
Brent Freeze [00:08:29] Yeah. Don't quote me on this, I think it was a TRIGA reactor, but I don't remember. It's been a quarter century. But then I went to UCLA for my graduate work and Ph.D. I think I was accepted in the nuclear program, and then they took away that away, meaning the whole program, in the summer before I got there. So, I ended up just studying as a mechanical engineer for all three of my degrees. I went to Anderson School of Management for a minor, like an MBA with a lower case m, while I was at UCLA getting my doctorate. All while working for NASA and doing future space flight, the nuclear powered spaceflight thesis and that kind of thing.
Brent Freeze [00:09:11] Then, switched over to work with the Department of Energy to finish up my dissertation. Exited and went into defense industry, and have spent the last 20 years working at small, medium and large defense contractors on all kinds of things. I worked for DARPA; I did a small startup about 10 years ago. I exited that and then went to go work for a test company and a few other organizations.
Brent Freeze [00:09:34] But throughout this period of transition, I was writing articles for the AIAA, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. And one of those articles was about the subject that Lex will talk about today. And so, Lex reached out to me recently. He'd read the article about a year and a half ago, and my coauthor and I had talked to him as kind of a student, almost, of this. But the whole point of that article was to try to bring attention to this idea and this concept that's been around for 40 years. And then, Lex reached out a couple of months ago and said, "Hey, I read that and it really inspired me. I think I want to do something about this." So, I've been helping him get that started.
Charlie Cole [00:10:13] Very cool, very cool. As someone who's also very interested in space, I know you mentioned NASA. The question I have is... And I guess everyone loves space here. What do you see as the similarities between the aerospace world and the nuclear world? Obviously, you, Brent, have worked sort of at where they overlap in terms of nuclear space travel. But do you think they are similar sciences and just approaches to technical thinking? Or, how do you see those worlds intersecting?
Brent Freeze [00:10:38] Oh, absolutely. I've spent a career going back and forth between the two worlds, trying to take as many classes as I can while they were available at both the universities I went to. Yeah, this idea that Lex will talk about shortly started on the ground, at the University of Missouri, originally, 40 years ago as an experiment. It worked; and since then, there have been peer-reviewed publications and books and things written about it. But it never really took off, industrially. It didn't have a champion, as of yet.
Brent Freeze [00:11:11] And so, I learned about it through the AIAA. I learned about it through a colleague of mine there up in Canada that did industrial research. He said, "I've heard about this thing. It had a few different names and it wasn't really popularized in the literature, but we think it can make a real big difference in terms of the efficiency of the output of a nuclear device." It didn't matter what it was, per se.
Brent Freeze [00:11:31] And so, I began to research it. And it took me a long time, it took me months of research to understand what it was, that it was real, that it worked, and how it worked. And so, I began to put together an article that was since published by the AIAA and also with Jason Cassibry, Professor Jason Cassibry from UAH. Who by the way, we were both master's degree students at NASA, at the time, 20-something years ago. And so, we reconnected over this. It's a small world up in what we do. But he's still working on amazing research in his nuclear field, in space, for space applications.
Brent Freeze [00:12:09] And so, the difference here with Lex is that Lex comes from a very rooted, very ground-based or ocean-based nuclear background with his Navy nuclear background. And he came to me and said, "I think this a really good idea, but I think it could be applied down here on Earth. Not necessarily to a single mission into deep space that needs a lot of power, but for generating electricity right here on Earth for the grid." So, with that intro, I think I'll turn it back to Lex.
Charlie Cole [00:12:35] Yeah. I think that's a good pivot into the question I have, which is... So, there's this paper that you'd written for AIAA, that I guess, Lex, you read. Tell me a little more. I guess, both can answer... Maybe Lex, or, I think both. How did this sort of transition from a conversation you guys were having and an idea that you guys were excited about into Solid Atomic?
Lex Huntsman [00:12:57] I've been looking to form a nuclear company since about 2018 and really poking around the space. Just really like, "All right, I want to do something that is really special." I started in thinking about power to gas. I was like, "Well, what if we put nuclear reactors in the Gulf of Mexico and generated natural gas or hydrogen from seawater with them instead and then pipelined that." Because the entire idea was that putting nuclear reactors on land is kind of not a great idea for a lot of reasons. You know, there's an unbelievable amount of infrastructure required. They're susceptible to bad weather and natural disasters. They have all these limitations, and they need tons of cooling. And so, you have to locate them where you have lots of cooling.
Lex Huntsman [00:14:11] But, the ocean... And I know this from submarine experience... When you're 500 feet underwater, there's no weather. You know, you can have a hurricane, a Category 5, like rolling over the top of your head, and at 500 feet underwater, it's like, "What hurricane?" And the ocean has infinity cooling. You're never not in contact with coolant. And so, it seems like the perfect place to locate nuclear reactors and why not just put them there?
Lex Huntsman [00:14:49] And so, I went up to Huntsville because I read an article about Pu-FF drive, which is effectively, extremely scaled-down Project Orion, which is a nuclear bomb-powered spacecraft that NASA was working on like 30 or 40 years ago, and canceled. I met with Brent's colleague, Jason Cassibry in his lab and talked to him about, "Hey, I'm looking to commercialize a really neat nuclear technology." And Jason was like, "Well, hey. Look at this paper that I co-authored with Brent, and you might want to meet him." And so, I looked at the paper and I read it. And I just, like, practically fell over. I was like, "Are you kidding me? 60% efficient and it doesn't have any moving parts?" And I was like, "Wait." And then,I emailed Brent, and Brent and I talked for, probably, three hours straight over just the nuclear...
Charlie Cole [00:15:50] As any good idea starts, just like diving in.
Lex Huntsman [00:15:53] Right. And I emailed Brent, I'm like, "All right, so just to clarify, that 60%... The rest of the power, the rest of that energy is being rejected as heat, right?" And I was like, "So, hypothetically speaking, you could strap a Carnot cycle to this if you really wanted to and then make this thing push this into like the 80% range of efficiency?" Brent, like, nodded on that. And I was like, "What?"
Charlie Cole [00:16:25] That's crazy. Oh my God.
Brent Freeze [00:16:26] Theoretically.
Lex Huntsman [00:16:28] Theoretically, right. But we really just started talking about it back and forth. We were like, "Okay, though the 80s are great, the 60%, that's better. That's like practically double any nuclear technology out there in the field as far as efficiency goes." And also, the simplicity of the device... Like, the way PIDEC works... PIDEC stands for photon-intermediate direct energy conversion. The way it works is... Take a material, an excimer material. And, excimer takes radiation and emits light. And you put it right next to your fuel with a little photovoltaic cell right in between there.
Lex Huntsman [00:17:22] And this is what Mark Prelas, the original inventor, did at the MURR test reactor like 40 years ago. He used xenon as an excimer and opened up a hole in the side of the 10 megawatt MURR test reactor. Surrounded this box of xenon with solar cells, fired up the reactor, and holy crap, it works. So, it's effectively a solid-state nuclear reactor that uses a solid heat conductor to just dissipate the remaining heat. But then 60% of that energy comes out in the form of DC as electrons.
Charlie Cole [00:18:00] So, what's moderating the fission reaction in a PIDEC system?
Lex Huntsman [00:18:05] So, this is a fast reactor, the one that we're particularly working on. So, we've got, as in all fast reactors, a big beryllium shield around this thing to reflect neutrons back in. So, this thing, effectively, to dissipate the remaining heat... So, beryllium is actually extremely thermally conductive. So, we just interfaced the core with a light electrical insulator with the beryllium shield of this thing. And immersed in a tank of water, this thing conducts all that heat off. Like, no problem, because beryllium has, effectively, equivalent thermal conductivity to aluminum. So, immersed in water, all the heat sucks right off this thing. So, it stays at like room temperature, practically, while it's running. So, it's a room temperature reactor that outputs at 60% efficiency pure DC, and it's got one moving part, which is the control rod to start it up and shut it down.
Lex Huntsman [00:19:16] Since the reactor power level is a function of the photovoltaic output, that's also your nuclear instrument. So, your output level tells you what's going on with your fission reaction as well. It consolidated instrumentation, it consolidates cooling. It consolidates all the things that are, quite frankly, terrible about current nuclear reactor designs. So, we've got this model for this thing that's just this big,one meter diameter, ten foot tall block that outputs three megawatts of DC. And that's what we've done so far.
Charlie Cole [00:19:57] Very cool. My other relatively technical question I have is just sort of about what makes a good excimer. I know you said that these experiments were from 40 years ago. Was that a history of discovery to figure out that you can convert radiation into photons? Or was that like, known by Madame Curie? What's sort of the history and the science... Either one of you guys can take it, whoever's more excited... Of converting radiation into photons?
Lex Huntsman [00:20:22] Brent's going to take this one.
Brent Freeze [00:20:24] I'll do my best. I was not in the field back then, but I have done a bit of reading and talked to Mark Prelas a few times, and others. So, there were many, many paths to get to where we are here. It wasn't just linear, but Mark played a critical role in sort of connecting up some early ideas from the original founders of nuclear science that had this idea of making of this... This is slang, but the nuclear light bulb or laser and things like that. Stuff that has interesting physics, but it didn't really pan out, industrially. And there were many tendrils that came off of that which didn't really go anywhere for process chemistry or hydrogen production or desalination, the kinds of things that Lex was alluding to earlier.
Brent Freeze [00:21:13] But one of them was this little side experiment on the side of the MURR reactor that did work. Functionally, I mean, the physics checked out. And it was demonstrated with more primitive materials than we have available today, but in the preceding 30 or 40 years, databases have built up at NASA, by Mark himself at the Department of Energy or presented in books and in other organizations; there was one that was co-published with him and NATO, actually. And so, what I did for our research at the AIAA years ago, or three years ago, was I started looking at these old databases of what was the band gap, the actual photon emission line of these different materials, these different excimers.
Brent Freeze [00:21:54] So, we built up a database where we essentially just combined the work of these, roughly, three or four different groups, and we built a database of excimers and we built a database of photovoltaics. So, not just silicon or silicon germanium, but excimers going back 40-something plus years that didn't really work out for solar energy because solar is a very broad spectrum. So, we worked out all of the band gaps for different semiconductors that could produce photovoltaic effect.
Brent Freeze [00:22:21] So, you have an incident photon. It generates an electron which generates electricity, and at a certain voltage. And a lot of work had been steered towards diamond-type materials that have a very high band gap, and they're producing five plus volts. And that's very exciting physics, but it may not be very practical to engineer something with because the materials just aren't that available. So, there was this older material that was produced, I think in the '70s, called zinc selenide. It's kind of a yellow-mustard material. It's used industrially for coatings today on glass, for anti-reflective IR coatings and IR sensors, and it works very, very well at a particular wavelength of blue light. A little bit like my shirt here, that's colored deep blue or a little more like light blue, like Lex's shirt, that you can't see because it's kind of dark.
Brent Freeze [00:23:06] And then, we found an excimer, cesium iodide, that generally emitted at two wavelengths, which is inefficient. But if you add a little bit of sodium to it, it suppresses the higher wavelength and it goes for the lower, more energetic wavelength, which is in blue light. And we found that those two overlapped quite closely. And close enough that, when I brought this to Mark Prelas's attention and some of the students, their eyebrows kind of went up and they said, "Oh yeah, when you combine that one material," which I think they were aware of, "with this other photovoltaic," that they hadn't really thought of, it was a mix and match. And once we did that, we saw an efficiency in the mid-60s. And then, there are other losses that occur that are not quantum-based, that are laying out the circuits and having methods of taking heat away from the waste heat process. Because there's still waste heat generated in this, it's just not as much. It's about half as much.
Brent Freeze [00:23:56] So, we've got a lot of materials in the mid-40s, a few in the 50s, and this one or two... There are a couple that are up there. But there's also no real limit. Like, I was looking at some of the original, what we call W value, standard theory as produced in 1961 by a gentleman named Dr. Plattsman, who writes about these... Not about PIDEC, but about how to match these efficiencies between a photovoltaic and an excimer. And really, the quantum efficiencies get much, much higher. And we see this in certain other devices where 60% is nominal, it's not a maximum. And so, it's very exciting for the future to think about where this technology might go in other products and other devices. Anything that has an energetic ion that comes out at MeV or equals the speed of light, and then you want to take that energy, convert it to light, and then absorb that in a photovoltaic. There are a lot of applications for this. And so, Lex is probably one of the more energetic people pursuing one of the more energetic applications of it. So sorry, long history there, but that's were we got today.
Charlie Cole [00:25:01] No, no, no. I have sort of one more follow-up history question, which is, these experiments that... I'm sorry, what was his name? Mark?
Brent Freeze [00:25:09] He's Emeritus Professor Mark Prelas. And I'm sorry, I'm blanking on where he's at currently. He may be semi-retired now, I'm not sure. But he is an emeritus professor.
Charlie Cole [00:25:25] Gotcha. So, his experiments 40 years ago... Did he pursue a commercial application for this or, what stalled? Was it just sort of like a lack of interest? What stopped this discovery 40 years ago of this excimer box of xenon from...
Brent Freeze [00:25:43] Having talked with him and read his books and things like that... Mark is a Professor of Physics; he's a experimentalist. He's a pioneer. He is there to go forth and discover new physics. And he discovered, by the way, many other things because he's been working on and trained loads of Ph.D. students, like I once was. So, his career went in another direction. But he did look, at the time, and talked about this in his books and papers, other applications.
Brent Freeze [00:26:10] And you've got to remember, this is the mid to late '80s. So, there were other things on the mind of someone that encounters this effect than simple energy production. You know, hydrogen production, process chemistry like desalination, water production, and other very interesting physics. There's a lot of really fascinating physics that's happening at the conversion of the ion to the photon to the electron level as well that they wanted to pursue and he did pursue. And he published all of that. So, he has a volume of work spanning decades that is impressive, and PIDEC is by no means the only thing that he has produced. But that was kind of his focus and where life took him in his career.
Brent Freeze [00:26:52] That being said, he did use the tools that were available to try to promote this. He doesn't have a giant marketing budget. And of course, me, being a trained mechanical engineer and you as well... We were taught, kind of by rote, to think about, "Okay, we've got energy. Let's go put that into heat. And now, let's go have a Carnot cycle." That's kind of the one, two, three steps, sort of like, using Runge-Kutta or Monte Carlo analysis. Those are the tools we're given. Let's go hit that iron with that approach.
Brent Freeze [00:27:21] But what Mark did was, from a basic physics standpoint, back up and take a very methodical, logical, step-by-step approach saying, "Well, why are we taking this super powerful thing and ramming it through a Carnot cycle and losing all that efficiency?" And he came out with a solution that, at the time, was not more efficient. Xenon to... I think it was a photodetector, not necessarily a solar cell, but that conversion process was not more than 30% efficient. I can't remember what it was. It was very low, but it worked. That was the key part.
Brent Freeze [00:27:54] And so, it took others working elsewhere, at NASA, and other sources of databases... Basically, material scientists, many of them, measuring materials. And again, we don't have a complete database of all possible materials. It's largely incomplete. It was just me as a reviewer, not even really a researcher, comparing these different databases. For some reason, no one had bothered doing that in a while. It's a lot of very detailed work, too, to kind of model all of this and then set up a giant spreadsheet and then look at it and say, "Oh, there does happen to be this closeness.".
Brent Freeze [00:28:30] And then of course, I've been talking with Mark about ways to improve it. There's very advanced physics today called band gap tuning, where you're blending materials to try to match the wavelengths more exactly. And he kind of helped me know where the guidelines were, where are the cliffs on that. And so, there are ways to take the existing material and make it better. You may even approach 70% efficient with, basically, the same material, just blended in a way that is more efficient. So, he's cognizant of that, but again, it's been 40, 41 years of detailed research. And that's, in a nutshell, why it just hasn't been taken on.
Brent Freeze [00:29:09] Personally, I asked him, because I was with AIAA at the time, "Why not space?" And his reply was actually fascinating. He said, "Well, it was a very niche market." And I thought about it, and I was like, "You know, you're right." It's one mission, right? I'm talking about one nuclear reactor on one mission. And from his perspective, that's very narrow. And so, again, it depends on your perspective. How are you looking at this?
Charlie Cole [00:29:33] Yeah, totally. I've got more questions coming. So, I was reading through the technology brief and I saw DC output and I immediately thought about transmission and application. I know you've talked about hydrogen and desalination, is the idea to put some load very close to these? How is transmission from 500 feet under the ocean working in the Solid Atomic game plan.
Lex Huntsman [00:30:07] So, it's really kind of whatever the specific application is. To me, ideally, there's terawatts of these things down there and located with inverters right nearby that are then sending it back to shore in the form of just straight-up AC shore power. And to me, locating the inverter as close as possible to the reactor makes the most sense, especially since inverters need lots of cooling, too. And that's what you get when you are greater than 500 feet under water. So, that's how I see these pairing up.
Lex Huntsman [00:30:49] But there are also more localized applications where... There have been a lot of underwater DC data centers where they're starting to put data centers in the water because when you put a data center on land, once again, it's something like 80% of the load of a data center is cooling. And so, once again, locating a data center in the ocean makes perfect sense. It's the most cost-effective way to run a data center. And so, if you put strap a nuclear reactor to the side of it, then even better, because you're not suffering from horrible transmission losses. And so, it's a really convenient way to output data.
Lex Huntsman [00:31:37] And there is gas production as well in there. But when you go back and forth and look at like, "All right, why am I making the gas?" It's just to make heat somewhere else. But if I can get the electricity for a ridiculously low price, then why would I use the gas to make the heat? Because the electricity so cheap, I can just heat with electricity. And I think this synonymous problem has been happening everywhere. There's a lot of green chemistry processes happening like in refining metals and metallurgical processes and greater, but like 25% of global carbon emissions are steel and concrete. So, steel and concrete could both be made green with nuclear energy.
Lex Huntsman [00:32:41] Concrete, like to reduce lime, emits a bunch of CO2. Well, you could take that CO2 and then run it through a Sabatier reaction and make natural gas with it and then use that natural gas to then fire the concrete kiln in sort of like a combined cycle to make a really low carbon concrete. You'd need to run that Sabatier reactor most-efficiently. It'd be best to do it on a solid oxide electrolyzer platform with a Sabatier catalyst put on the anode of the cell, and you'd need a lot of DC current. And where do you get all that DC current? Nuclear reactors. So, it's just such an elegant solution for whatever process you'd want to run to have like a DC system. And also, DC parallels really well. AC is much harder to parallel. So, if you want to build a really big array, paralleling out a bunch of DC reactors, that's a really compelling proposition.
Charlie Cole [00:33:50] Yeah.
Brent Freeze [00:33:51] If I could just add real quick, there is ongoing research and development going on in ABB, Hitachi, and Siemens for undersea transformers for various applications, deep sea and whatnot. I'm not saying it's a commercial, off-the-shelf product just yet, but there are resources there, as well as commercial, almost, not commodity, but available cables that can go to hundreds of kilovolts, DC or AC to transmit over miles. So, those are largely solved problems, but it is an important step sourcing any vendor network of materials for something like this. If you want to go the AC route and transmit long distances, there are resources out there. And so, there are three different examples.
Brent Freeze [00:34:37] But again, if Lex decides not to do that and he wants to go DC direct, you can go through the cable and take the loss. You're going to lose half or something like that in the transmission by AC. You know, there's different tradeoffs here that he's accounted for. Or, bring the data center to him or bring the decarbonization center... There's a lot of really fascinating industrial applications that Mark was writing about 40 years ago. And just in this case, he wasn't writing about them being hundreds of meters under the sea, but it's still the same process.
Charlie Cole [00:35:15] That sort of relates well to, I think, my next question, which is what are the challenges that have come about with undersea design? I imagine there are some corrosion issues or something with the salts in the water. I mean, the underwater transformers are kind of new to me. That sounds really cool and exciting. Are there any specific challenges to working underwater that you guys have been running into, or has it been pretty smooth sailing? No pun intended.
Lex Huntsman [00:35:40] Thanks, that was a good one. So, as far as corrosion issues are concerned, actually, NACE has done such a great job of documenting out corrosion and all the possible ways you can get it that those aren't really challenges so much as like, "Okay, what coating do we apply here? What specific blend of alloy do we apply here to protect this thing?" So, our platform design is double-jacketed for a secondary containment. The core primary containment is in the beryllium shield, and the secondary containment is in a 5000 Series aluminum, which is very corrosion resistant to saltwater. And then, you throw another coating on top of that, and you have a really nice setup. And also, something that you can go down there with the mini sub, like an ROV, and just ultrasound your secondary containment to make sure that it's perfectly contained.
Lex Huntsman [00:36:44] I think that the more significant challenge to going into the ocean is a lot of people in the venture capital tech world don't even understand that's an entire community of well-established infrastructure because that's all in the oil and gas space. It's like, if you want a ship to go out and drop something that's thousands and thousands of pounds and then like anchor it to the sea floor and like connect it up electrically and do all that work, like you call Oceaneering. There's a company, there's actually... And there's Transocean. There's like four companies out there that do that already. And they don't care if it's BP writing the check or if it's Solid Atomic writing the check or Southern Energy. They'll go out and do the job. I think that's one issue that we've run into.
Lex Huntsman [00:37:44] Another is just like general unknown concerns. Once again, a lot of people I talk to, when I talk about this technology and putting it in the ocean, they kind of immediately go to like, "Oh, but X, Y, and Z concern. If you put it in international water... Security." I'm like, who has the equipment to access that? It's a very narrow sliver that has that kind of access. You know, you put this thing a thousand feet down and it's very secure. So, that's limited. "Oh, well, what about securing an international asset?" Well, it's technically not an international assets. It's technically still coupled to the country that it originated from.
Lex Huntsman [00:38:36] And, "Well, what about potential pollution in the seawater?" I'm like, "Well, I know from personal experience that the United States Navy has been operating hundreds of ocean-based nuclear reactors for like six decades now, and they haven't really had any problems because they've designed them really well." The Navy Nuclear Reactor Program in the United States, that's the original program that made the commercialization of nuclear power a thing. And I don't think a lot of people really pay tribute to that. What Admiral Rickover and his organization did is that the Navy really proved nuclear reactors are the best in the ocean.
Lex Huntsman [00:39:23] They took designs and turned them over to the private sector, the commercial sector. And companies like Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox and GE, they took those designs and they were like, "Oh, great. We don't want to think about it too hard. Scale it up a thousand times and ship it." And we have now also seen the results of that thinking. And the result is bad reactor designs. "Oh, the plant's too large, so let's just put the pressurizer below the level of the reactor." Three Mile Island. "Oops." Small modular reactors in the ocean, it's the O.G. of reactors.
Brent Freeze [00:40:07] One of my first jobs as an intern, when I was a co-op student at Cornell, was at General Electric's power plant manufacturing facility in Schenectady, New York, on nuclear steam turbines, the low-pressure section for a facility that is now operating. And so, I just wanted to add, having dealt with the old timers back then... This is like mid, early-'90s, like the O.J. Simpson-era, you know, white Bronco... That's how long ago this was... Working for a guy named Bill Addis, who I think is still at General Electric. He's a wonderful manager. And I learned a lot about production of these items. I just wanted to add that GE and their engineers and everyone has a lot of respect for the origins of where this comes from. But yeah, there was a learning process over the past decades about how to make things safer and how to do things better. And they have an amazing track record, too, overall.
Brent Freeze [00:41:05] I also wanted to add that going into the ocean, in the deep ocean, actually lightens up or solves or mitigates a lot of problems of land-based, like Lex had just mentioned. But also, it doesn't absolve you of certain things. So for example, sourcing HALEU fuel, that's a challenge. That's a challenge for us, for Lex, I should say, in terms of Solid Atomic. But it's also a challenge for other people trying to compete in this space, getting access to that 19.5% or even just 10% enriched fuel that is commercially available, but you need a lot of it. And we would like to be able to have access to that to actually go run even test reactors. It's not a simple thing to go and get it. So maybe, Lex, you could comment a little bit about those challenges. I'm sure you've had others on this podcast talk about it.
Charlie Cole [00:42:01] Personally, I was just up at a conference at MIT and HALEU was number one on a lot of these companies' dockets. There was someone there on behalf of the DOE talking about the US supply. It's not the system of production that it needs to be, especially in a post-Russia fuel era. But anyways, yeah, Lex, go ahead and talk about HALEU.
Lex Huntsman [00:42:24] Yeah. I mean, the main thing when it comes to HALEU is, effectively, whoever is going to get the HALEU in the nuclear fuel community is going to be the first person to raise a billion dollars and to then send it to the license company producing HALEU already so that they can put in a dedicated line of centrifuges for it. And that's probably the biggest challenge. And that's not that big of a challenge, but it is one where everybody's already like spent all their money designing their reactor, paying the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's engineers $300 an hour to vet out their designs, then to have them come back and be like, "No." So, that's kind of like a big challenge, getting HALEU, for sure.
Lex Huntsman [00:43:33] The other big challenge is for this reactor technology, to go into manufacturing and full on production, you need to build a fab. And when I say fab, that's more like a semiconductor industry term. So, I spent some time in the semiconductor industry in my career, and fabs are, effectively the original... It's 3D printing before 3D printing was a thing, making semiconductors. And so, these reactor cores are effectively made using additive manufacturing. And so, that is a facility that... There's a lot of tooling out there that already exists for what we're doing. In fact, we made a couple of key design decisions that would make the tooling really easy to source, especially even on the second market. Because you might be surprised how much used or barely used semiconductor manufacturing equipment is on the second market. And so, that's a lot of tooling to source and put together and get up and operational and that's a decent amount of money as well.
Lex Huntsman [00:44:48] So really, no matter what, startup costs for nuclear and energy are high. But the benefit is really when you go back to look at the bottom line. Like for instance, NuScale Energy, who I'm about to talk crap about... They spent like $2 billion getting a 60-year-old nuclear reactor design approved by the NRC.
Charlie Cole [00:45:19] I just heard the CTO give a speech about it. It was $700 million in seven years.
Lex Huntsman [00:45:24] Right. Okay, $700 million. I just saw a publication that said they were close to $2 billion raised or something.
Charlie Cole [00:45:31] Yeah. Notably, this was for a design approval, not for a license to operate, so.
Lex Huntsman [00:45:35] Yeah, right. Just for a design approval, right? I mean, and their reactor is effectively... It's like a 60-year-old design. It's like an aircraft carrier reactor, effectively, just low-enriched. And so, to see that from a regulatory point of view from the United States, it's quite frankly... It's pathetic. When the United States was electrified, when AC was strung up all over this country, the Department of Energy didn't even exist. They didn't exist until the '70s. And so, it's kind of like "Hmm." That's me being a little conservative right now. But the thing is, to get to these advanced reactor programs, it is about startup costs. And really, investors are going to have to bet on their horses, so to speak.
Lex Huntsman [00:46:35] But circulating Carnot cycle reactors... There's no way around it. They're just $5,000 a kilowatt, which is five times more expensive than fossil energy. It's actually more than five times more expensive than fossil energy. But solid-state reactors, like PIDEC technology, it's coming down to like $1,000 to less than $1,000 a kilowatt amortized over like a 30-year core life. I mean, you want to talk about competitive economics and what is green and what is not green? Well, $5,000 might be more green as far as money is concerned, but it's not more green as far as impact is concerned per kilowatt. The PIDEC technology out there, it is the most environmentally friendly nuclear reactor technology there is. And it's so affordable, that when you're talking about combating climate change, it's just kind of like a slam dunk, home run, sort of whatever your sports goal term is.
Charlie Cole [00:47:45] Sure, sure.
Brent Freeze [00:47:48] If I can just add on to that, Carnot cycle's been researched for hundreds of years by many tens of thousands of engineers and scientists. We're kind of at the upper limit of what's going to happen with that. You can talk about superheated steam and supercritical turbines and very exotic materials, but at the end of the day, best case scenario, you're getting maybe 50%, 40%, practically speaking. And in practice, it's much less. Whereas, if you look at PIDEC, it starts off at around the 40 to 60% range. It starts there, and it begins to go higher.
Brent Freeze [00:48:25] And we've seen some theoretical materials that go much, much higher than than 60%. And there's evidence to suggest that there's very little limit when it comes to a quantum efficiency limit as compared to a Carnot limit. There is a limit; it's not going to get you above 100%, of course, but you can start to approach that second tier that is impossible with heating. And so, it's not so much doing away with nuclear, it's doing away with the boiling of the water and the steam plant and focusing on more. And when you do that, things get much more compact. You start to see the economics of scaling up.
Charlie Cole [00:49:04] Right. Okay, so then, next question, prototyping. Where are you guys at in terms of building? How's the transition from paper reactor to an actually built system going? Where are you guys at with it?
Lex Huntsman [00:49:20] So I mean, we've been working for the last two to three months now just getting the reactor on paper and taking that published paper, AIAA paper, really taking that and saying like, "Oh, yeah, here are a couple of things that needed to be added in," getting those in and building that all out. So now, we're at a point where we have a design where we're like, "All right, this needs a little bit more refinement, but we have a pretty good idea of what we're going to do now. And so, at this point, we're in fundraising to build the prototype and get the plans finalized and get that done. So, we're really just getting started.
Charlie Cole [00:50:09] Cool. Yeah, very exciting. And then related, I know, Lex, you mentioned this earlier, but obviously, licensing is sort of the question for all of these advanced nuclear projects. I know you said it's just sort of like the early design stages, getting all the paper reactor stuff written down and all those calculations. Is there any sort of licensing strategy, regulatory strategy? I know said it'd obviously be underwater, but it would still, I guess, be licensed by the country it's built in? Or, what's sort of the thinking there when it comes to the regulatory process?
Lex Huntsman [00:50:46] As far as the regulatory process goes, there's okay, the license to build it, the design approval. That's the big one for everybody, getting their design approved. And then there's getting the approval to operate as a commercial power reactor. And that's the hardest one. So the NRC... I mean, I talked to them a couple of years ago. I met with all of them about building this advanced reactor technology. And they were like, "Oh, yeah, here's how our approval process works to get your design approved and marked by the NRC as safe." But then, if you want to operate this as a commercial power reactor, that license is like really hard to get. They were like, practically bragging to me about how difficult of a license it is to get. And I'm just like, "That's not something to brag about.".
Lex Huntsman [00:51:49] Then I was like, "Well, what if I put this reactor 12.1 miles offshore with a submarine power cable running back to land?" And they were like, "Oh yeah, then you don't need that license. You could just plug it in and run it." I was like, "Woo-hoo! Score!"
Charlie Cole [00:52:06] Is that just because the emergency planning zone would be smaller than that? How was that framed?
Lex Huntsman [00:52:11] No, it's just outside of the international border.
Charlie Cole [00:52:16] Oh, wow.
Lex Huntsman [00:52:16] So, outside of the American international border, the NRC has no jurisdiction, and they're only paid to care about their jurisdiction. So it's like, if you get your reactor approved as safe by them. and get your Special Material Handling License, and those kind of minor licenses to actually assemble these things, those are relatively simple licenses to get. And with a PIDEC reactor, a solid-state reactor, being that you don't have tons of moving parts and coolant and it's a solid design immersed in water, basically immersed in a giant bathtub of water, there's no pumps to analyze for failure because that's all redundant, right? You're controlling just very few control rods, and rod control is extremely well-understood in how to do it safely. And those are really simple designs to analyze. So basically, the NRC can analyze rod control and write an entire volume about rod control for the reactor, and then they're done. Like then, "All done. Rod control analyzed. We're good to go."
Brent Freeze [00:53:33] There is still paperwork. There are other regulators to satisfy and to operate this in a very safe and conscientious manner. But Lex does seem to be on to something here where it may simplify the process or streamline the process to some extent, given the operating environment.
Charlie Cole [00:53:53] Does the IAEA have any jurisdiction on international waters? Is there like a governing body?
Brent Freeze [00:54:03] We're still researching the exact details of who has jurisdiction, but that would be my assumption going into this is that the IAEA would have global jurisdiction to start with, subsequent to further talks with them. Lex, I don't mean to step on what were saying, but the answer, I think, is yes.
Lex Huntsman [00:54:19] Yeah, yeah. It's very muddy water, so to speak, though, as far as... Because nobody's ever really done it. It hasn't really been talked about. And that's actually the best place to be if you're trying to do something that's highly-regulated. Like, I remember I did UL approval for solid oxide fuel cell systems in another life. I was in charge of doing tons of test engineering and getting that done. And the UL, their pamphlet... I say pamphlet... That's their guidebook for solid oxide approval for UL approval on a solid oxide fuel cell system... It's like thinner than a children's magazine. Like, it is very, very loosely defined. And I effectively helped the UL develop some more standards to put in there of things to test.
Lex Huntsman [00:55:22] But if you go to the UL and you're like, "Oh, I've got a new toaster design to go into a residential kitchen," they're like, "Oh, here's the Encyclopedia Toaster." They have this very well-defined, very bureaucratic, cumbersome process for Encyclopedia Toaster. You know, there are tradeoffs to that. Fortunately, toasters aren't burning people's houses down anymore. But also, there's not really any toaster innovation happening. They're stuck. They're the way they are. And that is a big bummer when it comes to new technology, because when you have that kind freeze up in the tech chain...
Lex Huntsman [00:56:12] You know, the semiconductor industry has not really had that much of that. They went out and developed their own standards. They created SEMI to write standards for their own industry. And SEMI still regulates the semiconductor industry, and it's bought into by Samsung and Intel and TSMC. They've all come together and said, "All right, these are what the standards are." But those standards haven't shackled innovation in the semiconductor space, which is why we are where we're at in electronics. In that space, there's been so much innovation, it's just unbelievable. Where, the nuclear space has not had that same benefit. We are all out there touting 60-year-old nuclear reactor designs and things that were conceptualized in the '50s. Basically, our generation is trying to like dig these things out of the dusty library and brush off the books and say, "Let's bring this back."
Brent Freeze [00:57:23] If I may add a little extra information. I worked in SEMI a bit when I was at Astronics in the test part of the industry. One of the things I noticed was how other groups could come in and help co-write standards. And so, for example, automotive and semiconductor go back, I think, to the origins of semiconductor. Maybe the other way around, but they helped talk about what temperature range is, for example, and how to test and what to look for. And it works, because they're actually using that in an application. And I think that there are sister agencies and sister industries out there. You know, we're not in a vacuum, like space. You know, air and space, there's pretty much one agency, really, focused on that, primarily, and everyone looks to them for guidance.
Brent Freeze [00:58:08] In this case, offshore wind is having a whole number of things they have to deal with with cabling, not to mention the pylons and whatnot. And they're also subject to weather; we aren't. But there's a lot to learn from this other green technology that is in parallel with what Lex is trying to do. So it's always good, I think, to engage these other sources of commentary and regulation and just to make sure that you have that connection and that you're getting a benefit from that. It certainly helps. The automotive industry has grown volumes because of semiconductor and vice versa. They help each other. I think that there's similar synergies available here. I suspect it.
Charlie Cole [00:58:52] Gotcha, cool. Yeah, so I think I'll end on sort of giving you a big crescendo question moment of what are the next steps? What is the future for Solid Atomic? I know we talked a little about fundraising and prototyping and things, but like, just sort of in the moment, what is the vision, both short-term, middle-term and long-term for Solid Atomic?
Lex Huntsman [00:59:10] For me, I really just want to 10x humanity's energy output. Look at global energy output on our world in data going back to the 1800s. There's this very clear pattern where energy just is going boom, exponential, right? We are growing as fast as we can. And doing that on fossil fuels, of course, has been an ecological disaster. But we also can't just stop, and we're not going to. Effectively, energy keeps millions of people alive every day. It makes our lives better. There's a published statistic that something like the amount of energy we use in the Western world is the pre-industrial equivalent of having 52 personal servants per person.
Lex Huntsman [01:00:10] And there is a huge swath of the population out there that doesn't have energy infrastructure whatsoever. They've got no access to energy. That's the fundamental baseline to have an industrial economy or an Information Age economy. You cannot have either of those things without having energy. So, by making a platform that's, basically, unbelievably affordable, modular, portable, easy to install... You know, you just put these on a ship and tow them to whoever wants to install them and electrify their coastline. Not to mention the fact that if you look at Google Maps at night on Google Earth, most of the lights are on the coasts. Like, that is the vast majority of the energy production. You've got Palo Verde in Arizona, the nuclear plant, one of the largest ones in the United States, and they ship most of their energy to Los Angeles. So, that's like 300 miles. So, we're talking about like, "No, let's just transmit the energy like 14 miles to get to where it's needed.".
Lex Huntsman [01:01:20] And so, that's kind of like for me, the long term. That's the big vision. Because like I mentioned earlier, I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and thinking about warp drive and anti-matter production and things like that for space. And then once again, I took a class at the AIAA a couple of years ago, and effectively, the end all be all of space propulsion is anti-matter. And so, how are you going to get antimatter? Well, you either have to make it or you have to mine it. Well, how do you mine it? Well, there may be some anti-matter belts out there... We don't know... Where we could, like, collect it. Otherwise, you have to make it. And how are you going to make anti-matter? Well, you need to make a lot of energy to make anti-matter. What's the best way to make a lot of energy? Nuclear power. So, that's kind of for me, the vision.
Charlie Cole [01:02:17] Cool. Very exciting. Yeah, well, I'll say thanks again to Brent and Lex for coming on and chatting a little bit about Solid Atomic. It's been great learning a lot about your guys' process. It seems really exciting and a cool path forward.
Lex Huntsman [01:02:31] Thank you very much, Charlie. We really appreciate you.
Brent Freeze [01:02:34] Thank you. Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.