Los Alamos spin-off to commercialise space reactors

04 November 2020

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has agreed to license Kilopower space reactor technology to New Mexico company Space Nuclear Power Corporation (SpaceNukes), which aims to commercialise the technology for use in space in the next few years.

Simulation of a possible Kilopower installation on Mars (Image: LANL/NASA)

Kilopower is a small, lightweight fission power system developed at the US Department of Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) laboratory in partnership with NASA. The system was successfully demonstrated in the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) experiment, which was conducted at the NNSA's Nevada National Security Site from November 2017 to March 2018. KRUSTY used high-enriched uranium powering a heatpipe system and Stirling engine to generate electricity.

SpaceNukes offers low-kilowatt reactors to power deep space missions, middle-range reactors in the tens of kilowatts to power a habitat on the Moon or Mars, and larger reactors that could make enough propellant for a rocket to return to Earth after a stay on Mars. The company is pursuing opportunities with NASA for a lunar surface reactor and has presented its ideas to the US Air Force and Space Force for reactor concepts for cislunar space.

Patrick McClure was project lead for Kilopower at Los Alamos and is now a partner in SpaceNukes. "By creating our own company, we're hoping to be able to reach potential new sponsors who will want to take this technology to the next level and put it into space," he said.

McClure is listed alongside Dave Poston, who designed the reactor at Los Alamos, as one of the inventors on the patent that forms the basis of the licensing agreement. "This licensing agreement demonstrates how tech-transfer should work: the government and national laboratories invest in technologies that are unproven and advance them far enough to make them commercially viable," Poston, who is now also a partner in SpaceNukes, said.

Commercialisation of technology is a key mission of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Jerome Garcia, acting deputy division leader for the Laboratory's Feynman Center for Innovation said, describing the agreement as a "win" for SpaceNukes, Los Alamos, and the state of New Mexico.

"We believe our team, through NASA's private enterprise initiatives, can deliver abundant reliable power for space missions faster and at a much lower cost," said Poston.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News