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I’ve got nuclear power on the brain this week.

The workings of nuclear power plants have always fascinated me. They’re massive, technically complicated, and feel a little bit magic (splitting the atom—what a concept). But I’ve reached new levels of obsession recently, because I’ve spent the past week or so digging into advanced nuclear technology.

Advanced nuclear is a mushy category that basically includes anything different from the commercial reactors operating now, since those basically all follow the same general formula. And there’s a whole world of possibilities out there. 

I was mostly focused on the version that’s being developed by Kairos Power for a story (which was published today, check it out if you haven’t!). But I went down some rabbit holes on other potential options for future nuclear plants too. So for the newsletter this week, let’s take a peek at the menu of options for advanced nuclear technology today.

The basics

Before we get into the advanced stuff, let’s recap the basics.

Nuclear power plants generate electricity via fission reactions, where atoms split apart, releasing energy as heat and radiation. Neutrons released during these splits collide with other atoms and split them, creating a chain reaction.

In nuclear power plants today, there are basically two absolutely essential pieces. First, the fuel, which is what feeds the reactions. (Pretty obvious why this one is important.) Second, it’s vital that the chain reactions happen in a controlled manner, or you can get into nuclear meltdown territory. So the other essential piece of a nuclear plant is the cooling system, which keeps the whole thing from getting too hot and causing problems. (There’s also the moderator and a million other pieces, but let’s stick with two so you’re not reading this newsletter all day.)

In the vast majority of reactors on the grid today, these two components follow the same general formula: the fuel is enriched uranium that’s packed into ceramic pellets, loaded into metal pipes, and arranged into the reactor’s core. And the cooling system pumps pressurized water around the reactor to keep the temperature controlled.

But for a whole host of reasons, companies are starting to work on making changes to this tried-and-true formula. There are roughly 70 companies in the US working on designs for advanced nuclear reactors, with six or seven far enough along to be working with regulators, says Jessica Lovering, cofounder and co-executive director at the Good Energy Collective, a policy research organization that advocates for the use of nuclear energy.

Many of these so-called advanced technologies were invented and even demonstrated over 50 years ago, before the industry converged on the standard water-cooled plant designs. But now there’s renewed interest in getting alternative nuclear reactors up and running. New designs could help improve safety, efficiency, and even cost.

Coolant

Alternative coolants can improve on safety over water-based designs, since they don’t always need to be kept at high pressures. Many can also reach higher temperatures, which can allow reactors to run more efficiently.

Molten salt is one leading contender for alternative coolants, used in designs from Kairos Power, Terrestrial Energy, and Moltex Energy. These designs can use less fuel and produce waste that’s easier to manage. 

Other companies are looking to liquid metals, including sodium and lead. There are a few sodium-cooled reactors operating today, mainly in Russia, and the country is also at the forefront in developing lead-cooled reactors. Metal-cooled reactors share many of the potential safety benefits of molten-salt designs. Helium and other gases can also be used to reach higher temperatures than water-cooled systems. X-energy is designing a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor using helium. 

Fuel

Most reactors that use an alternative coolant also use an alternative fuel.

TRISO, or tri-structural isotropic particle fuel, is one of the most popular options. TRISO particles contain uranium, enclosed in ceramic and carbon-based layers. This keeps the fuel contained, keeping all the products of fission reactions inside and allowing the fuel to resist corrosion and melting. Kairos and X-energy both plan to use TRISO fuel in their reactors.

Other reactors use HALEU: high-assay low-enriched uranium. Most nuclear fuel used in commercial reactors contains between 3% and 5% uranium-235. HALEU, on the other hand, contains between 5% and 20% uranium-235, allowing reactors to get more power in a smaller space.

Size

I know I said I’d keep this to two things, but

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: The next generation of nuclear reactors is getting more advanced. Here’s how.
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/01/18/1086753/advanced-nuclear-power/
Published Date: Thu, 18 Jan 2024 11:00:00 +0000

Did you miss our previous article…
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Tech

This grim but revolutionary DNA technology is changing how we respond to mass disasters

2RH3G6B

Seven days

No matter who he called—his mother, his father, his brother, his cousins—the phone would just go to voicemail. Cell service was out around Maui as devastating wildfires swept through the Hawaiian island. But as Raven Imperial kept hoping for someone to answer, he couldn’t keep a terrifying thought from sneaking into his mind: What if his family members had perished in the blaze? What if all of them were gone?

Hours passed; then days. All Raven knew at that point was this: there had been a wildfire on August 8, 2023, in Lahaina, where his multigenerational, tight-knit family lived. But from where he was currently based in Northern California, Raven was in the dark. Had his family evacuated? Were they hurt? He watched from afar as horrifying video clips of Front Street burning circulated online.

2RH3G6B 1
Much of the area around Lahaina’s Pioneer Mill Smokestack was totally destroyed by wildfire.ALAMY

The list of missing residents meanwhile climbed into the hundreds.

Raven remembers how frightened he felt: “I thought I had lost them.”

Raven had spent his youth in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom, cream-colored home on Kopili Street that had long housed not just his immediate family but also around 10 to 12 renters, since home prices were so high on Maui. When he and his brother, Raphael Jr., were kids, their dad put up a basketball hoop outside where they’d shoot hoops with neighbors. Raphael Jr.’s high school sweetheart, Christine Mariano, later moved in, and when the couple had a son in 2021, they raised him there too.

From the initial news reports and posts, it seemed as if the fire had destroyed the Imperials’ entire neighborhood near the Pioneer Mill Smokestack—a 225-foot-high structure left over from the days of Maui’s sugar plantations, which Raven’s grandfather had worked on as an immigrant from the Philippines in the mid-1900s.

Then, finally, on August 11, a call to Raven’s brother went through. He’d managed to get a cell signal while standing on the beach.

“Is everyone okay?” Raven asked.

“We’re just trying to find Dad,” Raphael Jr. told his brother.

Raven Imperial sitting in the grass
From his current home in Northern California, Raven Imperial spent days not knowing what had happened to his family in Maui.WINNI WINTERMEYER

In the three days following the fire, the rest of the family members had slowly found their way back to each other. Raven would learn that most of his immediate family had been separated for 72 hours: Raphael Jr. had been marooned in Kaanapali, 4 miles north of Lahaina; Christine had been stuck in Wailuku, more than 20 miles away; both young parents had been separated from their son, who escaped with Christine’s parents. Raven’s mother, Evelyn, had also been in Kaanapali, though not where Raphael Jr. had been.

But no one was in contact with Rafael Sr. Evelyn had left their home around noon on the day of the fire and headed to work. That was the last time she had seen him. The last time they had spoken was when she called him just after 3 p.m. and asked: “Are you working?” He replied “No,” before the phone abruptly cut off.

“Everybody was found,” Raven says. “Except for my father.”

Within the week, Raven boarded a plane and flew back to Maui. He would keep looking for him, he told himself, for as long as it took.

That same week, Kim Gin was also on a plane to Maui. It would take half a day to get there from Alabama, where she had moved after retiring from the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office in California a year earlier. But Gin, now an independent consultant on death investigations, knew she had something to offer the response

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By: Erika Hayasaki
Title: This grim but revolutionary DNA technology is changing how we respond to mass disasters
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/05/16/1092484/rapid-dna-analysis-ande-mass-disaster-victim-identification-maui/
Published Date: Thu, 16 May 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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How cuddly robots could change dementia care

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This article first appeared in The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Thursday, and read articles like this first, sign up here 

Last week, I scoured the internet in search of a robotic dog. I wanted a belated birthday present for my aunt, who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that having a companion animal can stave off some of the loneliness, anxiety, and agitation that come with Alzheimer’s. My aunt would love a real dog, but she can’t have one.

That’s how I discovered the Golden Pup from Joy for All. It cocks its head. It sports a jaunty red bandana. It barks when you talk. It wags when you touch it. It has a realistic heartbeat. And it’s just one of the many, many robots designed for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

This week on The Checkup, join me as I go down a rabbit hole. Let’s look at the prospect of  using robots to change dementia care.

Golden pup robot with red kerchief

As robots go, Golden Pup is decidedly low tech. It retails for $140. For around $6,000 you can opt for Paro, a fluffy robotic baby seal developed in Japan, which can sense touch, light, sound, temperature, and posture. Its manufacturer says it develops its own character, remembering behaviors that led its owner to give it attention.  

Golden Pup and Paro are available now. But researchers are working on much more sophisticated robots for people with cognitive disorders—devices that leverage AI to converse and play games. Researchers from Indiana University Bloomington are tweaking a commercially available robot system called QT to serve people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The researchers’ two-foot-tall robot looks a little like a toddler in an astronaut suit. Its round white head holds a screen that displays two eyebrows, two eyes, and a mouth that together form a variety of expressions. The robot engages people in conversation, asking AI-generated questions to keep them talking.

The AI model they’re using isn’t perfect, and neither are the robot’s responses. In one awkward conversation, a study participant told the robot that she has a sister. “I’m sorry to hear that,” the robot responded. “How are you doing?”

But as large language models improve—which is happening already—so will the quality of the conversations. When the QT robot made that awkward comment, it was running Open AI’s GPT-3, which was released in 2020. The latest version of that model, GPT-4o, which was released this week, is faster and provides for more seamless conversations. You can interrupt the conversation, and the model will adjust.

The idea of using robots to keep dementia patients engaged and connected isn’t always an easy sell. Some people see it as an abdication of our social responsibilities. And then there are privacy concerns. The best robotic companions are personalized. They collect information about people’s lives, learn their likes and dislikes, and figure out when to approach them. That kind of data collection can be unnerving, not just for patients but also for medical staff. Lillian Hung, creator of the Innovation in Dementia care and Aging (IDEA) lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, told one reporter about an incident that happened during a focus group at a care facility. She and her colleagues popped out for lunch. When they returned, they found that staff had unplugged the robot and placed a bag over its head. “They were worried it was secretly recording them,” she said.

On the other hand, robots have some advantages over humans in talking to people with dementia. Their attention doesn’t flag. They don’t get annoyed or angry when they have to repeat themselves. They can’t get stressed.

What’s more, there are increasing numbers of people with dementia, and too few people to care for them. According to the latest report from the Alzheimer’s Association, we’re going to need more than a million additional care workers to meet the needs of people living with dementia between 2021 and 2031. That is the largest gap between labor supply and demand for any single occupation in the United States.

Have you been in an understaffed or poorly staffed memory care facility? I have. Patients are often sedated to make them

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By: Cassandra Willyard
Title: How cuddly robots could change dementia care
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/05/17/1092604/how-cuddly-robots-could-change-dementia-care/
Published Date: Fri, 17 May 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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Tech

The Download: cuddly robots to help dementia, and what Daedalus taught us

This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

How cuddly robots could change dementia care

Companion animals can stave off some of the loneliness, anxiety, and agitation that come with Alzheimer’s disease, according to studies. Sadly, people with Alzheimer’s aren’t always equipped to look after pets, which can require a lot of care and attention.

Enter cuddly robots. The most famous are Golden Pup, a robotic golden retriever toy that cocks its head, barks and wags its tail, and Paro the seal, which can sense touch, light, sound, temperature, and posture. As robots go they’re decidedly low tech, but they can provide comfort and entertainment to people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Now researchers are working on much more sophisticated robots for people with cognitive disorders—devices that leverage AI to converse and play games—that could change the future of dementia care. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly health and biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

What tech learned from Daedalus

Today’s climate-change kraken may have been unleashed by human activity, but reversing course and taming nature’s growing fury seems beyond human means, a quest only mythical heroes could fulfill.

Yet the dream of human-powered flight—of rising over the Mediterranean fueled merely by the strength of mortal limbs—was also the stuff of myths for thousands of years. Until 1988.

That year, in October, MIT Technology Review published the aeronautical engineer John Langford’s account of his mission to retrace the legendary flight of Daedalus, described in an ancient Greek myth. Read about how he got on.

—Bill Gourgey

The story is from the current print issue of MIT Technology Review, which is on the fascinating theme of Build. If you don’t already, subscribe now to receive future copies once they land.

Get ready for EmTech Digital

AI is everywhere these days. If you want to learn about how Google plans to develop and deploy AI, come and hear from its vice president of AI, Jay Yagnik, at our flagship AI conference, EmTech Digital. We’ll hear from OpenAI about its video generation model Sora too, and Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, will also join MIT Technology Review’s executive editor Amy Nordrum for an exclusive interview on stage.

It’ll be held at the MIT campus and streamed live online next week on May 22-23. Readers of The Download get 30% off tickets with the code DOWNLOADD24—register here for more information. See you there! 

Thermal batteries are hot property

Thermal batteries could be a key part of cleaning up heavy industry and cutting emissions. Casey Crownhart, our in-house battery expert, held a subscriber-only online Roundtables event yesterday digging into why they’re such a big deal. If you missed it, we’ve got you covered—you can watch a recording of how it unfolded here.

To keep ahead of future Roundtables events, make sure you subscribe to MIT Technology Review. Subscriptions start from as little as $8 a month.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 OpenAI has struck a deal with Reddit 
Shortly after Google agreed to give the AI firm access to its content. (WSJ $)
The forum’s vocal community are unlikely to be thrilled by the decision. (The Verge)
Reddit’s shares rocketed after news of the deal broke. (FT $)
We could run out of data to train AI language programs. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Tesla’s European gigafactory is going to get even bigger
But it still needs German environmental authorities’ permission. (Wired $)

3 Help! AI stole my voice
Voice actors are suing a startup for creating digital clones without their permission. (NYT $)
The lawsuit is seeking to represent other voiceover artists, too. (Hollywood Reporter $)

4 The days of twitter.com are over
The platform’s urls had retained its old moniker. But no more. (The Verge)

5 The aviation industry is desperate for greener fuels
The future of their businesses depends on it. (FT $)
A new report has warned there’s no realistic or scalable alternative. (The Guardian)
Everything you need to know about the wild world of alternative jet fuels. (MIT Technology Review)

6 The time for a superconducting supercomputer is now
We need to overhaul how we compute. Superconductors could be the answer. (IEEE Spectrum)
What’s next for the world’s fastest supercomputers. (MIT Technology Review)

7 How AI destroyed a once-vibrant online art community
DeviantArt used to be a hotbed of creativity. Now it’s full of bots. (Slate

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: cuddly robots to help dementia, and what Daedalus taught us
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/05/17/1092631/the-download-cuddly-robots-to-help-dementia-and-what-daedalus-taught-us/
Published Date: Fri, 17 May 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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