Local start-up Yellowstone Energy secures nearly $2.6 million DOE grant

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

One of the inaugural start-ups in Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) “Innovation Crossroads” program just had a big win.

Yellowstone Energy, spotlighted in this recent article, was one of 10 recipients sharing up to $24 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that was announced this week. In Yellowstone’s case, it will receive almost $2.6 million from DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program to further advance its nuclear reactor technology.

Yellowstone was co-founded by Matt Ellis and Sam Shaner who met as doctoral classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT. Their goal is to develop an advanced nuclear reactor with the potential for faster and lower-cost deployment, at the same time, optimizing safety in order to provide a clean source of baseload electricity.

”We are excited to be chosen for an award under the ARPA-E MEITNER program,” the Co-Founders told us. “This ARPA-E award will allow us to focus on a key enabling component that has the potential to make advanced nuclear reactor designs safer and more efficient.”

Those words were reiterated in many respects in the DOE announcement.

“The Yellowstone Energy team seeks to develop a new reactor control technology to enhance passive safety and reduce costs for its molten salt reactor and other designs,” DOE’s announcement said. “Materials embedded in the control rods will vaporize at elevated temperatures, producing a vapor that captures neutrons and slows reaction rates, even in the absence of external controls. The team will use simulation tools to determine the effectiveness of the control device and conduct a techno-economic analysis at the plant level to determine cost effectiveness.”

Ellis and Shaner were selected for ORNL’s “Innovation Crossroads” program in early 2017 and came to the lab last May to continue the development of their technology. They and two other start-ups selected for the first cohort began the second and last year of the two-year program recently, just as cohort two arrived as noted in this article.

The 10 grant recipients were selected as part of a new ARPA-E program named “Modeling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration” (MEITNER) that is designed to identify and develop innovative technologies that enable designs for lower cost, safer, advanced nuclear reactors. That’s clearly in Yellowstone Energy’s wheelhouse.

“Nuclear energy is an essential component of the U.S. energy mix, and by teaming up with the private sector to reduce costs and improve safety, we are keeping America ahead of the curve in advanced reactor design and technology,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. “These next-generation ARPA‑E technologies help us maintain our competitive, technological edge globally, while improving the resilience of the grid and helping provide reliable, baseload electricity to each and every American.”

The announcement explained that ARPA-E developed the MEITNER funding opportunity in close coordination with DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and the selected teams will have access to DOE modeling and simulation resources as they develop their concepts. That’s a clear specialty at ORNL. Project teams will also coordinate regularly with a DOE-supported resource team of experts from across the Department and DOE’s National Laboratories.

To see the complete list of recipients, click here.

The “Innovation Crossroads” initiative is part of a DOE effort across three labs to help bridge the gap in funding for early stage energy technologies and better ensure the likelihood of success. In a recent article, Tom Rogers, ORNL’s Director of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development, described the importance of the effort.

“Creating successful energy start-ups is a real challenge,” he said, noting that early stage venture capital available for the sector declined by 85 percent between 2007 and 2014. The trend has not reversed itself, so DOE decided to proactively address the matter.

“We’re leveraging the world-class resources at the national labs to help build a bridge for early stage companies to fine tune their technologies, develop solid business models, and become more investment ready,” Rogers explains. That’s where the venture capital money is available at the later stages.

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