Finnish SMR targets district heating market

27 June 2023

Steady Energy aims to build the world's first district heating plant featuring its LDR-50 small modular reactor (SMR) by 2030. The company - which has been spun out from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland - has raised EUR2.0 million (USD2.2 million) in seed funding led by VTT, Yes VC and Lifeline Ventures.

A schematic of the LDR-50 reactor design (Image: VTT)

Steady Energy said it will use the funds raised for research and development work to demonstrate the functionality of the plant by building a full-scale mockup powered by electric heat.

The LDR-50 district heating SMR - with a thermal output of 50 MW - has been in development at VTT since 2020. Designed to operate at around 150°C and below 10 bar (145 psi), Steady Energy says its "operating conditions are less demanding compared with those of traditional reactors, simplifying the technical solutions needed to meet the high safety standards of the nuclear industry".

The LDR-50 reactor module is made of two nested pressure vessels, with their intermediate space partially filled with water. When heat removal through the primary heat exchangers is compromised, water in the intermediate space begins to boil, forming an efficient passive heat transfer route into the reactor pool, the company said. The system does not rely on electricity or any mechanical moving parts, which could fail and prevent the cooling function.

"The pressure required by the LDR-50 reactor is comparable to the pressure that of a household espresso machine," said Steady Energy CEO Tommi Nyman. "It operates at a lower pressure than a district heating network. This ensures that in case of a malfunction which leads to a leak, the leak is contained within the heating plant, without endangering people or the environment."

Steady Energy said it will "plan its business models according to the needs of the customer" and is ready to deliver heating plants directly to customers. The unit size of LDR-50 is 50 MWt, which is sufficient for heating a small city, it noted. A single heating plant can have multiple reactors. The heating plant could even be used as a desalination plant to produce fresh water in areas of the world suffering from water shortage, or it can be modified to produce steam for industrial purposes.

The company aims to decarbonise the energy-intensive heating industry, starting with residential and district heating.

"Decarbonising residential heating in Europe alone is a market with significant growth potential in the hundreds of billions of euros," according to Steady Energy. "Throughout Europe, there are approximately 3500 district heating networks which serve 60 million people, largely powered by fossil fuels. Successful, large-scale decarbonisation of district heating can significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions."

"75% of district heating systems in the EU are currently powered by fossil fuel," Nyman noted. "The situation is even worse in China. Nuclear energy is already a major source of low-carbon electricity, and small modular reactors represent a pathway to expand the use of the technology to other energy sectors in addition to heating.

"On top of being safer than traditional reactors, SMRs are more affordable. We're setting up a demonstration plant for district heating purposes ideally in Finland, but our long-term plan is to have several plants operating around the world, producing carbon-neutral heat to homes, offices and for various industrial applications. We will bring to market the world's best nuclear energy technology optimised for the heating sector."

Nyman added: "To preserve our planet and ensure generations to come have a healthy planet, all combustion-based heating must come to an end. Alongside renewable energy, nuclear energy provides a steady source of energy and heat that meets the needs of modern society and helps us in our fight against climate change."

The project has been part of VTT LaunchPad, a science-based spin-off incubator, where VTT researchers and technology are brought together with the best business minds and investors to renew industries. VTT LaunchPad supports incubator teams to develop VTT-owned intellectual property rights into fundable spin-off companies.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News