Zeno Power says it has successfully completed its first demonstration of a new type of radioisotope heat source that could be used to generate off-grid power in settings ranging from the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the moon.
The demonstration — performed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. — took advantage of the energy provided by the radioactive decay of strontium-90. Zeno said its tests confirmed that the company’s technology can increase the specific power of its heat source compared with previously available strontium-90 heat sources.
Zeno uses radioisotope heat sources as the building blocks for its power-generating systems, which are designed to convert constant thermal energy into electricity. Strontium-90, which is typically created as a byproduct of nuclear fission, is an abundant fuel for such systems — but existing strontium-based power systems tend to be bulky. Zeno’s design could generate more power with less bulk, opening the way for a wider range of applications.
The work at PNNL involved radioactive and non-radioactive activities, including chemical processing and fuel fabrication, materials handling and heat source characterization. The test data will support further development of heat sources.
Lindsey Boles, Zeno’s vice president of engineering, hailed the demonstration as “a historic moment” in the development of commercial radioisotope power sources.
“In only five years, Zeno Power went from its founding to fabrication of nuclear hardware, which is notably fast for the nuclear industry,” Boles said in a news release. “We are now a clear leader and vanguard in delivering advanced nuclear technologies for space and maritime applications.”
David Reeploeg, vice president for federal programs at the Tri-Cities Development Council, said Zeno’s technology could address the nuclear waste issue as well the need for off-grid power.
“By converting legacy Sr-90 into a long-lasting source of clean energy, Zeno has the potential to play a major role in the cleanup-to-clean-energy vision here in the Tri-Cities,” Reeploeg said. “At TRIDEC, we’re proud to support Zeno’s efforts that we believe will benefit our local communities while supporting national security goals and the broader clean energy transition,”
Zeno Power is a spin-out from Vanderbilt University that has offices in Washington, D.C., and in Seattle. The startup has been awarded more than $40 million in government contracts to date, and plans to have its technology ready for commercial, scientific and national security applications by 2025.
Zeno has received $30 million from the Department of Defense and private investors to build a radioisotope-powered satelites. And this summer, Zeno was awarded a $15 million NASA Tipping Point contract to work on a radioisotope power source that would use americium-241 as fuel.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, based in Kent, Wash., is one of Zeno’s partners on the NASA-backed effort, known as Project Harmonia. If Zeno sticks to its proposed schedule, the Harmonia power system could be demonstrated on the lunar surface in 2027.
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