Notably, oil giant Shell was among the investor panel, represented by Richard Smith of Shell's GameChanger Team, which is "responsible for finding, filtering and funding revolutionary technology and business models that are related to the energy industry," according to a web page for the DOE event, called the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. The other investors came from VCs Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates, and Clean Energy Venture Group.
Some industry watchers believe that the oil and gas industry will help fund and develop alternative reactors like MSRs, not only as a future source of energy for the public, but also because new and smaller nuclear reactors (MSRs can be made in affordable small sizes) could provide clean and effective heat that hydrocarbon companies would use in their own industrial processes. Oil and gas companies today rely on CO2-emitting fossil fuels to provide that high temperature "process heat."
Other high temperature manufacturing industries like steel and cement could also benefit.
Molten salt reactors run at much higher temperatures than conventional solid-fuel reactors, which makes them more efficient. They put a radioactive element - uranium or thorium - into a liquid, which is a molten salt. Molten salts flow like water but have a much higher boiling point, which is good when you want to keep the liquid circulating. They are highly effective at absorbing and exchanging heat, which is what nuclear plants do - they tap heat from nuclear reactions to drive turbines.
MSR supporters say they are meltdown-proof because in the event of a malfunction the fuel drains harmlessly into a tank and the nuclear reactions stops. In conventional nuclear, although control rods can stop fission reactions, decay heat can build into a meltdown if cooling systems fail, as happened at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. MSRs also function at normal atmospheric pressure, rather than at the high pressure of many conventional reactors.
Transatomic has referred to its reactor in the past as a "Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor" (WAMSR), although the ARPA-E contest refers to it by the more pedestrian moniker of "uranium molten salt reactor."
Some MSR developers, like Flibe Energy of Huntsville, Ala., say that MSRs are best optimized by using liquid thorium fuel instead of liquid uranium.
Transatomic's Wilcox says the company is still "fuel agnostic," but that it is deploying first with uranium. "The reactor construction is simpler for us, there is an existing supply chain for uranium, and a uranium design lets us burn spent fuel which makes everyone happy," he told me via email. He said that a uranium model would serve as "a stepping stone" to a thorium version.
Transatomic is a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Massie and Dewan are PhD students. Its advisers include Richard Lester, who is head of MIT's department of nuclear science and engineering, and who is also the school's "Japan Steel Industry Professor" (are Japanese steel makers interested in one of these MSRs?).
ARPA-E is a DOE group that encourages development of advanced energy technologies.
Here's a YouTube video of Massie and Dewan waving their "WAMSR" at a TEDx talk in late 2011:
Photo is a screen grab from a YouTube video of a TEDx event not associated with this week's ARPA-E Summit.
Note: This post corrects an earlier version that stated fission continues after an emergency in conventional reactors. In conventional reactors, control rods stop fission, but decay heat continues to build if the reactor is not properly cooled. Updated around 5:35 a.m. PT, March 2.
There's more than one way to harness an atom, on SmartPlanet: