2 Seattle Startups Fight to Transform Next Generation Space Travel

The phrase “nuclear power” conjures up images of big smoking towers or Tony Stark’s arc reactor from the cult Iron Man films. But two Seattle startups are developing nuclear technology small enough to be taken and used, and they hope that, thanks in part to support from the Department of Defense, it will power the next generation of spacecraft.

Seattle-based Avalanche Energy and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation received undisclosed amounts of funding in May from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Division to further develop two distinct approaches to small-scale nuclear power.

Avalanche is pushing the boundaries of nuclear fusion, while Ultra Safe aims to revolutionize nuclear radioisotope batteries like those that power rovers. Both companies are expected to deliver a functional prototype spacecraft to the Pentagon by 2027.

“Nuclear power is an interesting area because traditionally it has been largely under the control of the government,” said the US Air Force major. Ryan Weed, Nuclear Propulsion and Energy Program Manager, Defense Innovation Division. The division, a Pentagon outpost in Silicon Valley, works exclusively with private sector companies to adapt new technologies for military use.

After six decades of material science research, nuclear fuel has become relatively safe and is being used by the private sector. The climate crisis has also pushed public opinion towards the acceptance of nuclear energy as a viable replacement for fossil fuels. Huge advances in computer simulation have made the commercial development of nuclear power more feasible, says Chris Hansen, a fusion researcher who heads the laboratory at the University of Washington.

Washington State has been involved in nuclear research since the World War II Hanford site, which produced most of the plutonium for the US. His morally complex history aside, Hanford undoubtedly contributed to the development of a “culture of nuclear knowledge” in the state. said Scott Montgomery, professor at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Today, the state is a hub for commercial nuclear start-ups, especially companies trying to create small-scale nuclear fusion. Unlike fission, which generates energy by breaking down heavy radioactive metals such as uranium, fusion occurs when two smaller atomic nuclei collide to form a larger nucleus of another element, releasing energy in the process.

Avalanche co-founder Brian Riordan likes to think of the merger as an attempt to stick together two Velcro-covered magnetic balls.

“The Velcro works for a very short distance, but if you could get them close enough and the Velcro was strong, they would stick,” Riordan said.

Fusion is difficult to achieve because, like Velcro magnets, positively charged ions naturally repel each other. It is even more difficult to pack it in a small container. Case in point: Over 35 countries have spent years and billions of dollars building Iter…

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