Tuesday, May 5, 2009

VA Tech, Company Aim For Safer Nuclear Energy

Wow...an experimental nuclear facility in SW Virginia! Coincidence?

The university and ADNA Corp. want to improve efficiency and cut down on waste.

Virginia Tech is teaming with a company with Southwest Virginia ties on a project that could have far-reaching consequences in the field of nuclear energy.

The university and the Los Alamos, N.M.-based ADNA Corp. are expected to announce a memorandum of understanding today to construct a pilot facility to test technology to produce safer, less-costly and more-efficient nuclear energy.

The new design combines technology old and new -- but all proven to work -- including molten salt reactors tested in the 1960s and projects by ADNA founder and Roanoke native Charles Bowman that integrated accelerator technology into nuclear reactors in the 1990s.

"The components exist," Tech physics professor Bruce Vogelaar said. "What needs to happen is the integration of the systems and the demonstration that things work as anticipated. It's not a question of whether the technology, in principle, will work. The question is, 'Does it work as well as we anticipate?' "

If it does, the result will be nuclear power plants that produce more energy with less waste and don't result in the separation of plutonium from uranium during the process. Plutonium is a nuclear power byproduct that can be used to produce weapons. The production of it through the process of creating nuclear energy has been a point of contention in nuclear proliferation monitoring for years.

After a long career in nuclear science, Bowman retired in 1997 and founded ADNA -- short for Accelerator Driven Neutron Applications. A 1956 graduate of Tech who got his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1961, he splits his time between Los Alamos and Franklin County, where his family farm and some ADNA facilities are located.

The work between Tech and ADNA is the next step in research the company did with Duke and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It will involve soliciting federal grants, and Vogelaar said he is optimistic that stimulus money for energy innovation could be a source of funding. Tech is contributing $225,000 in seed money.

Bowman began working with Vogelaar about three years ago. The Tech professor was a collaborator on a couple of experiments involving ADNA and Duke that measured neutron production from graphite. But the memorandum of understanding is the first official collaboration between Bowman and his alma mater.

There are several sites in Virginia, New Mexico, Tennessee and Nevada that qualify as candidates for the location of the pilot plant, Vogelaar said.

Bowman said the design phase of the demonstration facility could take about two years and the entire project about seven years.

"Virginia Tech is an excellent partner in this because this technology has moved to, pretty much, to an engineering phase," Bowman said. "So what we have to do is bring engineering to bear on the design of the demonstration facility. ... The science at this point is more in the area of refinement."


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