CORVALLIS, Ore. - Construction has begun at Oregon State University on a $4.8 million facility to test a new nuclear energy technology that could be safer, more efficient and produce less waste than existing approaches.

It's a viable and versatile energy concept for the future, researchers say. As needed, it could produce electricity, hydrogen to power automobiles, steam to heat a building complex, or provide a cheaper way to desalinate seawater.

The nuclear power industry is already undergoing a global renaissance with such technologies as "passive safety" and small modular reactors. They use traditional water-cooled approaches in innovative designs, some of which were developed and tested in recent years by OSU nuclear engineers.

But the new approach is a "super-hot" type of nuclear reactor cooled by helium gas, not water, and it would operate at temperatures above 2,000 degrees - about three times as hot as existing reactors. The basic concept of this reactor technology has been known for some time, but advances in material science and the unusual range of applications for such reactors now make them much more attractive.

Like any existing nuclear reactor, the high-temperature nuclear reactors could produce electricity - about 35-50 percent more efficiently than existing approaches. But they also create about half as much radioactive waste, by the nature of their design cannot melt down, and like all nuclear technologies produce no greenhouse gas emissions.

They could be cost-effectively built as small modular reactors, and produce super-heated steam that works well for powering large chemical companies or building complexes. As demand grows for fresh water in arid regions, they could offer a more cost-effective way to desalinate sea water.

And a promising potential is to produce hydrogen that could power the automobiles of the future, using efficient hydrogen fuel cells that leave only electricity and water as their byproducts. There are still obstacles to overcome in hydrogen transportation and storage, but a high-temperature nuclear reactor could directly split water, or H20, into hydrogen and oxygen, without emitting greenhouse gases.

"If they can make the cars, we could use this technology to make the hydrogen," said Brian Woods, an associate professor of nuclear engineering and director of this project. "One of the biggest attractions of the high-temperature reactors is their versatility, they could be used in so many ways.

"Like any new technology, it will take some time for this to gain acceptance," Woods said. "But by the middle of this century I could easily see high-temperature nuclear reactors becoming a major player in energy production around the world."

The test facility now being built at OSU, like some of its previous counterparts in passive safety and small modular reactors, will be used to test high-temperature reactors for safety, and simulate multiple types of accidents. There will be no use of nuclear fuel, with the high temperatures produced by electrical heaters.

"Something that works at a very high temperature might sound more risky, but in fact this type of nuclear reactor technology would be the safest of all," Woods said. "Everything in the system is designed to withstand extremely high temperatures, and in the event of any system failure, it would simply shut off and slowly cool down."

The test facility being constructed in the OSU Radiation Center is about six feet wide and 18 feet tall, and will simulate the reactor vessel. In this technology, helium gas is used as the coolant to transfer heat through a steam generator. The system uses special stainless steel and other alloys to handle the extreme heat, and was built by Harris Thermal, Inc., in Newberg, Ore.

Field tests are scheduled to begin in April and continue until summer, 2014. The work is being supported by grants from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The new facility and testing programs will also provide opportunities for OSU graduate assistants and even undergraduate students to gain experience working with some of the newest nuclear power technology, educators said. Research of this type is a key part of a new program just announced, called the Oregon State University Advantage, which boosts educational programs and research with real-world applications.

Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.


Brian Woods, 541-737-6335