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Chemistry professor receives the NSF's highest honor for an outstanding researcher under the age of 35.
Many efforts to smooth out the variability of renewable energy sources — such as wind and solar power — have focused on batteries, which could fill gaps lasting hours or days.
But MIT’s Charles Forsberg has come up with a much more ambitious idea: He proposes marrying a nuclear powerplant with another energy system, which he argues could add up to much more than the sum of its parts.
While nuclear plants are good at producing steady power at relatively low cost, their output cannot rapidly be ramped up and down.
One solution, Forsberg suggests, is to find a way to divert excess power from a nuclear plant, making it a “dispatchable” source of electricity — one that can easily be ramped up and down to balance the disparities between production and demand. The paper outlines three concepts, which Forsberg says could have potential in the coming decades. The last of these ideas would locate a nuclear plant near a deposit of oil shale — a type of deposit, technically known as kerogen, that has not been used to date as a source of petroleum.
At first glance, that might sound like a “dirty” solution, enabling the use of more carbon-emitting fuel. Today, the heating of the rock is usually accomplished by burning fossil fuels, making the process less efficient. The resource that could be unlocked is enormous, he says: “Some of these deposits would yield a million barrels per acre. Steven Aumeier, director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies at the Idaho National Laboratory, says, “Many times the most formative game-changing approaches are not single new technologies, but rather novel ways of combining technologies. Forsberg, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, describes the proposals in a paper published in the November issue of the journal Energy Policy.


Meanwhile, renewable energy sources are also good at producing power at low operating cost, but their output is unpredictable.
They involve pairing a nuclear plant with an artificial geothermal storage system, a hydrogen production plant, or a shale-oil recovery operation. Heated steam from a nuclear plant, in enclosed pipes, heats the shale; the resulting oil can be pumped out by conventional means. But Forsberg suggests that it’s quite the opposite: “When you heat it up, it decomposes into a very nice light crude oil, and natural gas, and char,” he explains. That’s where the excess heat from a nuclear plant comes in: By coupling the plant’s steam output with a shale-oil well, the oil can be recovered without generating extra emissions. Department of Energy, the Idaho National Laboratory Institute for Nuclear Energy Science and Technology, and the French nuclear company Areva. While the true alternatives to fossil fuel include electric vehicles, renewable energy projects and decreasing the overall carbon footprint, they still need a lot of effort to become the main energy source of the world.
But now, with the need to address climate change, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and secure greater energy independence, creative new ideas are at a premium.
Fossil fuel plants can easily be switched on or off as needed, but have higher operating costs and produce greenhouse gas emissions. The char — the tarlike residue that needs to be refined out from heavy crude oils — stays underground, he says.
The process also does not need regular heat input: The nuclear plant can operate at a steady rate, providing electricity to the grid when needed, and heating oil shale at times of low electricity demand.
For the time being, we can increase our reliance on nuclear power to help cut the emissions.


This enables the nuclear plant to replace the burning of fossil fuels in producing electricity, further reducing the release of greenhouse gas. Nuclear power plants are very expensive and somewhat dangerous to maintain, but the electricity production is incredibly cheap. The metal in use will be a Zirconium based alloy and since it is all one continuous piece of metal, the risk of failure is decreased considerably in day-to-day operations of the nuclear power plant. The new Zirconium alloy allows better heat transfer in the thermodynamic cycle since it can operate at 360 C which is 1000 C  cooler than the temperature at which ceramic rods have to be heated. The company hopes to incorporate this new fuel technology into the mainstream industry by 2020.
It also claims that according to its own surveys, these rods will result in extra 60 million $ yield per annum for a medium-sized 1,100 MW nuclear plant.
The new tech does come with its unique danger as well since the metal alloy will melt quickly than the current ceramic fuel cells. A total meltdown of the reactor like in Fukushima that put millions of lives and acres of space in the danger of radiation would be a lot easier to happen with these fuel rods.
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