Nuclear microreactors will make it possible to electrify large transport vehicles
In depth - June 15, 2021

Nuclear microreactors will make it possible to electrify large transport vehicles

The large, long-distance 18-wheel transport trucks that travel the roads for long periods of time consume a great deal of fuel with fossil hydrocarbons that produce a lot of polluting emissions. Replacing these vehicles with electric trucks, a project which is already under way, could revolutionize the transport industry by eliminating emissions and contributing to the environment.

The obstacle is that a truck of these characteristics consumes 5 to 10 times more electricity than an electric car, and thus it should have access to an abundant and accessible energy source along the entire road network.

For this reason, although the technology and design exist, electric transport trucks are not yet viable without a sustainable solution of recharging rest stops.

Electric truck recharging. Photo: Adobe Stock
Electric truck recharging. Photo: Adobe Stock

Microreactors

The concept of small-sized nuclear reactors is not new. There have been small reactors for some time now, generating electric energy in remote areas [the Arctic, military bases, space ships (see the monograph Nuclear Power & Space Exploration)] for years without having to recharge. These designs are the result of over 20 years of research at the United States Department of Energy (DOE), with mature and proven technologies that guarantee nuclear safety.

The next step are microreactors. Engineers at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in Illinois have designed a micro reactor that could be installed at rest stops along the roads to produce the high amounts of electricity that electric 18-wheel vehicles require.

Microreactors can produce the high amount of electricity required by 18-wheel vehicles

These microreactors are known as MiFi-DC (MicroFission Direct Current). They can recharge transport trucks at thousands of rest stops around the contry. They are the size of 2 home water heaters, and are connected to an energy storage system.

The Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois (Photo: ANL)
The Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois (Photo: ANL)

Microreactors not only reduce complexity and costs. They also present two very important advantages:

  1. A flexible system: There is a stable electric supply which is adjusted according to the demand. When the charge point is empty the reactor produces energy in the form of heat that is transferred and stored in an annexed storage site with inert fluid for the transference of heat. When the charge point is filled with vehicles, the system accesses the hot fluid to produce steam, generate electricity and recharge their batteries.
  2. A safe design: The microreactor's design uses a special type of nuclear fuel that keeps all the radioactive material isolated from any outside contact. This fuel is composed of tri-structural isotropic pellets (TRISO), developed after 60 years of research at the DOE national laboratories. The pellets contain low enriched uranium covered by several layers of carbon and ceramic. These protective layers guarantee the safety of the reactor.

Microreactors have a flexible system and a safe design

Proyecto en marcha

According to Derek Kultgen, senior engineer at the Nuclear and Science and Engineering at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), a microreactor can operate for over ten years, which means that charging costs for electric trucks would be much cheaper than for a diesel truck.

A microreactor can operate for over ten years, which makes it a lot cheaper to charge an electric vehicle than a diesel vehicle.

The ANL team indicated that this project could fill the current gap in the recharge infrastructure for electric long-haul vehicles, the 18-wheelers, although there is still a lot of work to do.

"We want to go further beyond in the analysis of this reactor", ensured Nicolas Stauff, the senior nuclear engineer that had already designed microreactors for some startups and for the DOE. Over the next year, Stauff will be analyzing the factors that need to be taken into account regarding the size of the reactor nucleus and the duration of the operation. He will also explore the performance of the reactor nucleus with tools that provide high-fidelity simulations of multiple physical effects.

Sources: NucNet and Argonne National Laboratory