Although nuclear phenomena have been understood only over the course of the last century or so, the applications of nuclear technology have been widespread. They include the following:
Medical diagnosis and therapy
Energy production for electricity generation, district heating, process heat, propulsion systems, and desalinization
Sterilizing medical equipment
Scientific research ranging from tracers to sample dating
Propulsion and station energy for spacecraft
Controlling insect infestations
Nondestructive testing and examination
These applications are diverse, but most of them were developed many decades ago. Although there have been both incremental and significant advances, the fundamental applications of nuclear technology have not expanded to new spheres.
Over this same period there have been great advances in the application of science. For example, in recent decades there have been extraordinary advances in the application of materials sciences, including the development of nanomaterials, materials with greatly enhanced properties, novel
fabrication techniques, and more. At the same time, bioengineering has emerged as a powerful vehicle for many advances in medicine, food, and energy production. Computational capacities have expanded greatly in ways that enable the understanding, design, fabrication, and control of systems in ways that were not previously conceivably.
Given that great advances in one technology often arise from the application of advances in others, the question arises: Are there practical applications of nuclear phenomena for the benefit of humankind that are now feasible, but that have not been previously exploited or perhaps even been contemplated? The focus here is less on exploring potential future applications that already have had established programs (e.g., fusion, fast reactors, transmutation of waste) than on identifying new, innovative applications that may now become practical due to advances in enabling technologies.
• Is there a practical application of nuclear phenomena for the benefit of humankind that has not previously been exploited?
• What advances, if any, are necessary in order to enable that application? What advantages for the achievement of the function does nuclear technology provide over other alternatives? What risks?
• How can we galvanize research and development to explore and exploit these promising applications?
• How can we attract and retain the best of the coming generation to address these opportunities?
Constable G, Somerville B. A century of innovation: twenty engineering achievements that transformed our lives. Joseph Henry Press: Washington, DC, 2003.
Because of the popularity of this topic, two groups explored this subject. Please be sure to review the other write-up, which immediately follows this one.
• Jesse H. Ausubel, The Rockefeller University
• Joshua E. Daw, Idaho National Laboratory
• Rachel Feltman, New York University
• John F. Holzrichter, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Hertz Foundation (retired consultant)
• Jae W. Kwon, University of Missouri–Columbia
• Samuel S. Mao, University of California, Berkeley
• Beth-Anne Schuelke-Leech, The Ohio State University
• Mercedes V. Talley, W. M. Keck Foundation
• Jianzhong Wu, University of California, Riverside
IDR TEAM SUMMARY—GROUP 7A
Rachel Feltman, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar New York University
IDR Team 7A was asked to identify a new and practical application of nuclear phenomena for the benefit of humankind. Despite a lingering fear of the technology, nuclear science has many applications that contribute to humanity’s health and comfort. But with the study of nuclear physics no more than about a century old, it can only be assumed that the greatest applications are yet to come. Some of these new applications could be just around the corner, but the vast majority are still far off from the early stages of development.
While taking a “pie in the sky” view of the problem—that is, brainstorming on problems that humanity needs to solve, and then working backward to find some way of assigning theoretical nuclear solutions to them—Team 7A focused on industries that already use nuclear technology and hypothesized on new and different applications of the science. By systematically reviewing dozens of nuclear devices already used or currently in development, the team was able to connect early research in these fields to possible future industrial application.
Are We Stuck?
Nuclear technology, the team posited, was a premature discovery. The theoretical advancements of nuclear technology in the 1920s and 1930s
were “normal,” but World War II caused a push into weapons at an unnatural rate. After a burst of technology over the course of 5 years or so, the team agreed, it took several decades for any more progress to be made. What does this mean for innovation? When fascination with nuclear technology was high, our understanding of it was actually quite low. As a result, many potential applications of nuclear technology—like Project Pluto, which aimed to design a nuclear-powered ramjet engine in the 1960s—were proposed and thrown out before anyone had the means to produce them practically. And other applications in that era were too “exuberant,” like the Russian program called Nuclear Explosions for National Economy, which detonated over 100 nuclear devices to clear mountains in the way of interstate highways and loosen natural gas for extraction. After a few postwar decades of similar nuclear applications, the team felt, the world had responded with a backlash of fear and sobriety, especially as the medical and environmental implications of nuclear waste were fully understood. Now, the team agreed, with that sobriety still in mind, we need to break out from the tired perception that nuclear technology is primarily suited for making weapons, and for making the same old kind of power plant.
What Can Nuclear Materials Do?
With giant post-it notes at the ready, the team undertook the Herculean task of outlining the entire nuclear industry point-by-point. Failing an invention appearing on the conference room’s table, they agreed, it was better to take some old ideas and reinvigorate them. First, the group discussed the properties that make applications of nuclear particles so valuable: most obviously, nuclear reactions contain lots of energy. This lends it to applications in the energy sector as well as for use as a weapon. Additionally, radiation rays and particles are remarkably good for signaling, both in the human body and in exploring beneath the surface of the Earth. Intrinsically, nuclear materials are a source of very high temperatures as well.
These properties have made nuclear materials valuable in several areas of industry, which the team outlined in part:
• Heat generation.
• Power plants.
• Tracing and imaging in medicine, especially for the diagnosis of cancer and other diseases, as well as some applications in treatment.
• Imaging below the surface of the Earth.
• Structure measurement.
• Deliberate mutagenesis, the microbiological technique by which DNA mutations are induced by exposure to radiation, allowing scientists to observe unique properties of mutant proteins, genes, strains of bacteria, and so on. Mutagenesis is also used by cancer researchers to understand the mechanistic pathways of the disease by observing the mutation of specific genes.
• Transmutation or the conversion of one element or isotope into another. This particular application actually makes our harnessing of nuclear energy less dangerous: radioactive waste, actinide elements such as the isotopes of plutonium, can be irradiated and made to undergo nuclear fission. The waste loses these original isotopes, replaced with fission products that have shorter half-lives and will therefore degrade to nonradioactive elements much more quickly.
• Semiconductor doping, where impurities are deliberately introduced into an intrinsic, or very pure, semiconductor. This process allows for the modification of the semiconductor’s electrical properties.
• Explosive devices, which can be applied as bombs in the military sector as well as for construction or mining purposes.
• Nuclear batteries.
• Food preservation through irradiation.
By discussing current research in all of these fields, the group came to focus on several possible future applications.
Waste disposal, mantle exploration
First, the team discussed an old idea with a new application. It’s been theorized that an old proposed method of disposing of nuclear waste—that is, putting waste inside a titanium shell, drilling a borehole, and taking advantage of the waste’s heat and weight to make it drop into the earth—might also allow us to create images of the deep crust of the upper mantle. These payloads could reach the mantle in a year or so, providing the perfect opportunity to collect data.
Another old idea was presented with promising new research to support it. The production of hydrogen as fuel from nuclear heat has long been a goal, which is why people want high-temperature reactors. Hydrogen is the dream of the sustainable energy sector, but you’d need to produce a lot of it to replace conventional fuel. It’s feasible, but you need those high temperatures. Recent research, which was presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December, showed that using aluminum as a catalyst can initiate a hydrogen-producing reaction at 200 degrees Celsius. At that threshold, the present generation of reactors could produce lots of hydrogen.
The team also suggested that big data analysis could be used to find even more catalysts that allow for high rates of hydrogen production at current nuclear reactor temperatures.
One team member drew a graph demonstrating the current distribution of nuclear energy supplies and their power. It showed that in the future, we could move from having tens of large GW power plants to billions of tiny nW batteries.
The group further discussed the feasibility of a smaller, more efficient nuclear battery, where radioactive particles interact with semiconductors—essentially producing electricity in the same way that solar panels do. Countless nuclear batteries are expected in the future in numerous applications and the group discussed production of nuclear batteries.
This, along with the following discussion of combined heat and power (CHP), led to an interesting revelation: that the next step of nuclear technology must lie in the small- and mid-range of energy production.
Combined heat and power
One team member suggested an elaborate way of combining heat and power. CHP plants already exist, but a novel design could make them more resilient and universally useful. Instead of boiling water to drive the turbine of the power generator, similarly to nuclear batteries, CHP might employ solid-state generators with no moving parts, and while it would be smaller and have less output than current modular reactors, the lack of moving parts
would make it more suited for use in developing countries and remote areas, as less maintenance and supervision would be necessary.
A team member described a concept called “arctic sun.” He pointed out that progress in high-temperature materials and in efficient, low-cost solar cells might make possible a means to remove energy from a nuclear powered source via the radiated optical and infrared power. The topic began in 1963 with primitive photocells and has been used from time to time in low-power, low-efficiency space power supplies. However, with modern fission reactor materials, allowing reactors to reach temperatures of 1,400 to 1,500 degrees C, and employing modern solar cells reaching 35 percent or more, this technology is ready for reexamination as a solution for mid-level power applications, such as efficient, very reliable 0.1- to 3-MW power sources.
The industry, the team concluded with great help from the graph in the final presentation of their discussion, has been obsessed with one model for a while—large-scale nuclear reactors—trying to produce the Cadillac over and over again. But the group drew a chart that plotted the energy production of large-scale nuclear reactors, showing how massive the difference truly is between those methods and other fuels, such as coal and solar energy. Why not aim for the middle? And on a smaller scale, the team agreed, mistakes would be much smaller too—if something went wrong, the situation would be infinitely more containable than from a large reactor. These four new applications—nuclear batteries, hydrogen production, imaging and exploration of the Earth’s mantle, and solid-state CHP reactors—represent areas of the nuclear technology sector that are ready and able to grow. These are old ideas, yes, but with the potential to finally be used in new ways.
• Yousry Y. Azmy, North Carolina State University
• William A. Garner, International Atomic Energy Agency
• Kate Horowitz, Johns Hopkins University
• William H. Newell, Association for Interdisciplinary Studies
• Neal Stewart, University of Tennessee
• Pallavi Tiwari, Case Western Reserve University
• Chadwick L. Wright, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
IDR TEAM SUMMARY—GROUP 7B
Kate Horowitz, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar Johns Hopkins University
IDR Team 7B was asked to look both outside of the box and beyond the wealth of existing technologies to envision an entirely novel and meaningful use of nuclear phenomena for the benefit of humankind. Undaunted by its ambitious assignment, the IDR Team rallied to emerge from this year’s National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) conference with a number of impressive and practical innovations.
Current applications of nuclear phenomena include generating power, medical diagnosis and therapy, sterilizing medical equipment, agricultural pest control, preserving food, and many others. To begin moving beyond what has already been done, the IDR Team employed a two-pronged approach, looking first at nuclear science’s capabilities (What can it do?), and then examining existing global issues for possible solutions (What do we need it to do?).
What Can Nuclear Phenomena Do?
One of Team 7B’s first orders of business was to create a list of properties or “special features” unique to nuclear objects and phenomena. As outlined by one IDR Team member, nuclear reactions have an extraordinarily high energy density, are small and fast, occur in very large numbers, can penetrate materials at various depths, can be used to identify materials through passive or active interrogation, and can affect targets microscopically at a local level. The list informed Team 7B’s explorations and has the potential to frame nuclear innovation for years to come.
What Do We Need It to Do?
With these powerful tools in hand, the IDR Team turned to contemplate a planet in crisis. Areas of humanitarian interest included climate change, the effects of overpopulation, food safety, and water shortages, all of which determine both public health and quality of life for Earth’s 7 bil-
lion inhabitants. During the course of the conference the team considered a multitude of suggestions, from the practical to the impossible, but two concepts gained special traction. Both ideas have applications for agriculture in the United States and the world, and—more crucially—both ideas offer nuclear solutions for multiple major problems.
Water is one of the few things essential for human survival, and yet the confluence of human expansion across the globe with catastrophic climate change is driving a water shortage that will prove devastating in the near future. Fresh, potable water is a nonrenewable resource that must be conserved for direct human and animal consumption. Unfortunately, nonpotable water (in the form of lakes, streams, groundwater, and gray water) is riddled with pathogens and therefore unsafe for irrigation and other uses, which means that many large farms are irrigated with precious drinking water.
The alternative is no better. The number 1 source of foodborne pathogens on fruits and vegetables is irrigation water. Bacteria and viruses such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and Staphylococcus aureus are inadvertently sprayed onto crops in irrigation water and find their way into human bodies, where they can become deadly.
To combat both sides of the problem, the IDR Team proposed irradiating nonpotable water to sterilize it and eliminate the risks of covering food crops with pathogens. Using nonpotable water, a previously dangerous source, eliminates the need for farmers to drawdown the local supply of fresh drinking water, and “zapping the bugs” or microbes ensures that their crops will remain safe for human consumption.
The IDR Team’s second big idea makes unlikely use of existing nuclear technology: the power plant, or, more specifically, its by-products. Nuclear fission generates an enormous amount of excess heat, which power plants channel into nearby bodies of water. Team 7B conceived of capturing this heat and using it to accelerate the breakdown of organic matter, commonly known as compost.
Food and other organic materials comprise an enormous portion of the waste sent to landfills and incinerators each year. In 2011 alone, the United
States generated more than 36 million tons of food waste, most of which is currently occupying space in garbage dumps. As global population expands, so do our trash piles, but Earth cannot support or sustain the current rate of human waste production and disposal.
To address this issue, the IDR Team suggested constructing municipal composting areas near nuclear power plants. The compost sites could be added to any of the 99 active light-water reactor plants in the United States, or easily added to the blueprint of the plants currently under construction. The compost piles would sit atop slabs of concrete, into which power plants could release their excess heat, which would, in turn, provide a constant and hospitable environment for the bacteria that help break down organic matter. The process would allow cities to dispose of food waste and cut down on landfill bulk. In addition, the newly decomposed organic matter could be sold or otherwise distributed to local farms as a natural soil amendment.
Greener, cheaper, safer
The team considered many other ideas, all of which were focused on creating technology that is environmentally friendly and cost-effective and improves human safety, or all three. Team members discussed the possibility of mobile irradiation. A small, portable irradiator could bring immediate relief to disaster areas or developing countries in need of drinking water and sterilized medical equipment and blood for transfusions.
Botanical suggestions included using nuclear radiation to break down the tough celluloid wall of plants such as Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) for easier, more cost-effective biofuel production; mutating certain plants to improve their natural carbon absorption capacity; and developing plants as a renewable and relatively portable extractors for dangerous nuclear contamination.
One IDR Team member suggested using nuclear radiation to produce targeted genetic mutations in plants and animals, a concept that has potential applications in medical therapy, invasive plant control, and pest insect sterilization. Other ideas included using nuclear isotopes to produce very small, incredibly powerful nanobatteries; and even using a highly targeted nuclear explosion to divert or dissipate the energy of threatening weather systems such as typhoons and hurricanes.