In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Rachel Slaybaugh began studying the Boltzmann Transport Equation — “a single equation that describes where all of the neutrons are in a nuclear system,” Slaybaugh explains. “Anything in a nuclear system starts with where all of the neutrons are, so it lets you figure out everything else.”
Working with the equation can be challenging, so Slaybaugh developed expertise in creating algorithms and software to solve the equation faster and more efficiently, which ultimately can be applied to designing and modeling new nuclear technologies.
“Truly predictive modeling will end up making it a lot more feasible, affordable and practical to ask questions about what’s going to happen in new reactor design scenarios,” Slaybaugh says. “I also have this serious concern about best practices and quality: You want to make sure that the codes you are using in nuclear systems work.”
Advanced nuclear is the umbrella term used to describe novel research on smaller reactor designs that incorporate alternative nuclear fuels and cooling systems. Some advanced designs reuse existing nuclear waste as fuel; or use fuel that does not require enrichment, which reduces security concerns associated with nuclear energy.
“The big thing is that the government is making national lab resources available to private companies in a way that it wasn’t before,” Slaybaugh says. “If you are a nuclear startup, you can only go so far before you need to do testing, and you are not going to build a nuclear test facility, because that is hard and expensive. But now you could partner with a national lab to use their experimental resources. I’ve been talking about how to set up a pathway from universities for this kind of research.”
Over the past year, Third Way, a supporter of Slaybaugh’s nuclear innovation bootcamp, published a number of reports and white papers defining the advanced nuclear industry. They found 48 projects and startup companies working on advanced nuclear energy technologies, worth over $1.3 billion, all over the U.S. and Canada.