Friday, February 4, 2011

Nukes touted at ‘Science Café’

INL researches futuristic energy systems

Express Staff Writer

Steven E. Aumeier, director of the Idaho National Laboratory’s Energy Systems and Technologies Division, was the guest researcher at a “Science Café’ public gathering Wednesday night in Ketchum. Aumeier said the United States needs to explore all energy options to meet its future needs. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho is exploring the possibility of using heat from nuclear reactors to produce new synthetic fuels.

Conceptual "hybrid energy systems," now being studied at INL, were a main topic of discussion Wednesday night at a Science Café public event held at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum. The guest researcher at the event was Steven E. Aumeier, director of INL's Energy Systems and Technologies Division.

"In my opinion, we're now in a situation where we can't throw any energy source out," Aumeier said during a discussion about various energy sources for the future.

Aumeier explained that research and development is now underway at INL for using nuclear reactor heat for the high temperatures typically needed to produce synthetic fuels from plant matter and carbon. The reactors would also produce electricity.

"We have a couple-million-dollar project with a federal agency looking at prototype design," Aumeier said.

Aumeier said the concept is still in the R&D phase, but he would personally support building a prototype demonstration facility at INL.

In its 60-year history, the Department of Energy's laboratory, located in the desert region west of Idaho Falls, has built and operated 52 nuclear reactors, mostly for R&D for government and commercial nuclear energy purposes. Only two reactors are now operating.

In an interview Thursday, INL spokeswoman Nicole Stricker said the laboratory has no immediate plans to build a new reactor at the site.

"We're not pursuing building the whole kit and kaboodle," Stricker said. "It's still conceptual. That's like putting the horse before the cart.

"There's no need to have that piece now because there's just a lot of research to do without it. Basically, we're looking at how are these things working together. The idea is that if you build a hybrid plant, you could use the heat from the reactor. Right now, [excess] reactor heat is being thrown away."

The Science Café was sponsored by the Discovery Center of Idaho, Idaho Public Television, Micron Foundation, Boise State University and INL. The program featured discussion about various energy sources, systems and distribution for future energy needs. The event included a premier showing of part three of a NOVA four-part series titled "Marking Stuff Cleaner."

The film presented information on the latest research and testing for electrical vehicles, hydrogen-powered cars, synthetic fuels, storage batteries, biomass and using trash to produce energy.

Ron Pisaneschi, director of content for Idaho Public Television, said in an interview that Science Café events are being held throughout the state to "engage the public" in the discussion about energy needs and to encourage students to pursue careers in science and technology.

"There's a lot of new things going on and kids are sometimes afraid of it," Pisaneschi said. "Our role is really just to bring attention to it. There's a lot of new stuff being developed that a lot of people don't know about."

Terry Smith:

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