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创业公司发起核电革命

作者:未知 来源:未知 2014-07-30 我要评论( )

Startup nuclear energy companies augur safer, cheaper atomic power

创业公司发起核电革命

Nothing captures how fashionable the startup has become quite like crowdfunding. The craze for raising contributions via websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo is helping to launch companies from scooter manufacturers to lightbulb vendors to filmmakers.

没有什么比众筹更能说明创业的火爆了。很多人疯狂地通过Kickstarter和Indiegogo等网站资助别人搞创业,接受资助的企业有中既有做脚踏车的,也有做电灯泡的,甚至还有拍电影的。

Now, even nuclear fusion is game.

现在,就连研究核聚变的都上了这条船。

Yes, the Holy Grail of cheap, clean, safe, plentiful, low-carbon energy that has remained 40 years in the future since scientists proposed it over half a century ago has entered the crowdsourcing era. International government projects like ITER in France and the National Ignition Facility in California may have spent billions of dollars in pursuit of the technology, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a little grassroots action, too.

核能由于具有廉价、清洁、安全、低碳、用之不竭的特点而被喻为能源中的“圣杯”。自从半个多世纪前,科学家们提出利用核能的设想以来,有40多年的时间里,核能在我们眼中似乎都是未来才能享受到的福利。如今这种“高大上”的能源也终于进入了众包时代。虽然有些核能项目动辄要花费几十亿美元,比如法国的国际热核实验反应堆(ITER)和美国加州的美国国家点火装置(National Ignition Facility),但是这并不意味着在核能领域就完全没有草根阶层可以施展拳脚的空间。

LPP Fusion, a tiny company based in Middlesex, N.J., launched in May an Indiegogo campaign to raise $200,000—loose change in this business—that it believes will help it reach a major fusion development milestone in a year and commercialize fusion reactors by 2020.

美国新泽西州米德尔塞克斯市的一家叫LPP Fusion的小公司今年五月在Indiegogo上发起了一项募集20万美金的活动。虽然20万美金在这个行业里微乎其微,但这家公司相信,这笔钱能帮助它在一年之内完成核聚变领域的一项具有里程碑意义的研究。这样,到2020年,它的研究成果就可以转化为核聚变反应堆。

LPP (it stands for “Lawrenceville Plasma Physics“) is representative of a new class of companies emerging to address the world’s energy crisis: Nuclear startups. Dozens of small new reactor companies are either chasing the elusive fusion dream or pursuing fission designs that trump those on the market today. All are promising to deliver a knock-out blow to the carbon-intensive fossil fuels that bedevil the world with environmental impact and volatile geopolitics and economics. Many of these innovative firms are positioning their reactors not just for electricity, but also to provide clean heat for high temperature industrial processes and for water desalination.

LPP公司(全名意为“劳伦斯维尔等离子物理公司”)代表了一群致力于解决全球能源问题的创业公司——即核能创业公司。现在有好几十家规模较小的新型反应堆公司要么在继续研究晦涩的聚变问题,要么在绞尽脑汁地设计优于市场现有方案的裂变反应堆。所有这些公司最终都想来一个“一鸣惊人”,彻底取代给人类造成了深重的环境影响和地缘政治冲突的化石能源。很多创业公司的新型反应堆不仅致力于提供电力,还致力于为各种高温工业流程提供清洁的热能,以及用于海水淡化等造福人类的事业。

While LPP might be the only crowdfunded member of the group, it is determined like its young peers to shake up the staid nuclear industry. Reactor designs have not fundamentally changed since utilities first connected fission machines to the grid in the 1950s, marking a conservatism that has mired nuclear in the era of black-and-white television while colorful possibilities abound. The startups aim to brighten the palette.

尽管LPP可能是核能创业公司中唯一一个靠众筹来拉资金的公司,但它也像它的小兄弟们一样,立志要把死气沉沉的核能行业搅得风生水起。自从上世纪50年代,科学家们第一次把裂变反应堆接入到输电网络时起,直到现在,核反应堆的设计都没有任何根本性的改良。这种保守主义做法就像在黑白电视时代的末期,尽管支持彩色显像的技术已经四处开花,但厂商仍然抱着黑白电视拒绝进步一样。今天的这些核能创业公司就是要让核能板块“亮”起来。

For LPP, that would mean not only delivering fusion—melding atoms together rather than fission’s waste-creating process of splitting them apart—but it would also eliminate the time-honored need for costly turbines and generators. Nuclear power, including most fusion concepts, functions mechanically the same way fossil fuel plants do by creating heat to produce steam to drive a turbine. LPP is working on a type of fusion called “aneutronic” that emits charged particles for electricity.

对于LPP公司来说,这意味着它不仅仅要研究出可控核聚变方案(而不是产生有害废物的核裂变反应),还要取消这个过程中历来对于汽轮机和发电机的需求——核能(包括大多数核聚变方案)的基本原理与化石燃料发电厂的原理是一致的,都是先产生热能,然后产生蒸汽,然后驱动汽轮机发电。而LPP公司研究的一种核聚变形式又叫做“无中子核聚变”,可以释放带电粒子来发电。

“The nuclear industry is stuck using the same method for making electricity that utilities have used since the days of Thomas Edison—generate heat to make steam to drive a turbine and generator,” says Eric Lerner, president of LPP Fusion. “We can change all that. We can convert energy directly into electricity and slash costs.”

LPP Fusion公司总裁埃里克•勒那说:“核能行业的发电方法还停留在爱迪生那个时代——通过发热产生蒸汽来驱动汽轮机和发电机。而我们可以改变这一点,我们可以把能源直接转变为电能,同时大量削减成本。”

First, he’ll need the $200,000 he seeks on Indiegogo (he has until July 5 to raise it), which would buy him some fancy new beryllium electrodes that would withstand rigors far better than the copper variety that LPP has been using. He hopes to install them by the end of this year in his experimental fusion reactor, which Lerner operates at the Friendly Storage premises in Middlesex, a place otherwise full of surplus boxes and furniture.

首先,勒那需要在Indiegogo上募集到20万美元,用来购买比LPP正在使用的铜电极更能经受极端情况考验的铍电极。勒那希望在年底前将铍电极安装在LPP那台试验性的聚变反应堆上,这个反应堆设置在米德尔塞克斯市的一处库房里,那个地方原本堆满了箱子和家具。

Lerner is boldly confident that the beryllium would by the middle of next year enable his lab to overcome the problem that has vexed fusion projects forever: It would harness more energy out of its reactor than what goes into it. Additional financing might then rush in. LPP will need $50 million in total, virtually nothing next to the nearly $18 billion that ITER has budgeted for only the next 10 years of an expected 30 years of construction and development of a 20-story “tokamak” facility.

勒那相信,在铍电极的帮助下,到明年中旬,他的实验室将克服一个长久以来一直困扰着核聚变研究的难题,让我们从核聚变反应堆中获得的能源超过我们投入的用于点燃反应堆的能源。如果试验成功的话,届时可能会有大量资金涌入。LPP的研究总共要花费5000万美金,听起来倒是不少,但相比之下ITER的核聚变项目预计需要30年的建设时间,光是头10年的预算就高达180亿美元,还要建筑一个20层楼“托卡马克”装置。这样看来,LPP的5000万美金简直太便宜了。

With the financing, Lerner believes that by 2020 he could license the mass-production of small $300,000-to-$500,000 fusion machines—each the size of a one-car garage—with a capacity of 5 megawatts, enough to power 3,000 houses.

勒那相信,凭借这笔资金,到2020年的时候,他的公司将能够量产单价在30万到50万美元之间的小型核聚变发电机。每台这种发电机的尺寸只有一个停车位那么大,发电量达到500万瓦特,足够支持3000个家庭的用电量。

If only he had the wherewithal of rival fusion startup Tri-Alpha Energy, which has rounded up over $140 million from Goldman Sachs, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Russian state-owned company Rusnano, among others. Like LPP, Irvine, Calif.-based Tri-Alpha hopes to develop an aneutronic machine that delivers electricity without using turbines.

可惜LPP的后盾远远不及竞争对手Tri-Alpha能源公司。这家公司已经从高盛(Goldman Sachs)、微软(Microsoft)共同创始人保罗•艾伦、俄罗斯国有企业Rusnano等投资人处融到了1.4亿美元资金。像LPP一样,这家位于加州尔湾市的核能创业公司也希望开发出一台无中子核聚变发电机,从而不需要借助汽轮机也能发电。

ITER and NIF, the government groups, are taking a more “conventional” fusion approach, aspiring to drive turbines with heat released by fusing isotopes of hydrogen. (In contrast, an aneutronic process tends to fuse standard hydrogen and boron.) So, too, are a number of startups that believe they can crack fusion long before the big science projects do by developing smaller machines (NIF’s facility is 3 football fields long and 10 stories tall) and deploying different technologies.

ITER和NIF这两大政府机构则采取了更加“传统”的核聚变方案,也就是通过融合氢的同位素氘和氚和释放热量,从而驱动汽轮机发电。(相比之下,无中子核聚变倾向于将标准的氢与硼进行融合)。此外还有一大批创业公司相信,他们可以比这些举倾国之力的大科学项目提前研究出可控核聚变技术,并且开发出小型的核聚变发电机(NIF的核聚变设施有3个足球场那么大,10层楼高)。

“We liken it to the Human Genome Project or SpaceX, where large government programs were ultimately outrun by more nimble and more practical innovation in the private sector,” notes Nathan Gilliland, CEO of General Fusion near Vancouver, Canada. General Fusion has raised $32 million from sources including the Canadian oil company Cenovus and Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive.

总部位于加拿大温哥华附近的通用聚变(General Fusion)公司的CEO南森•吉利兰德指出:“我们可以把它与人类基因组计划或太空探索技术公司(Space X)做一下比较,因为在后两者的领域中,大型政府性项目最终也是被私人领域的更灵活、更实用的创新超越了。”通用聚变公司从加拿大石油公司Cenovus和亚马逊(Amazon)CEO杰夫•贝佐斯等投资人那里融得3200万美元资金。

As intriguing as fusion is, there is probably more startup activity in fission, where novel approaches promise great improvements over the industry’s addiction to fissioning solid uranium fuel rods then cooling and moderating them with water.

虽然核聚变的前景非常诱人,但更多的创业公司可能活跃在核裂变领域,他们研究的一些新方法比行业现有的对铀燃料棒进行裂变然后用水冷却、稳定的方法要先进得多。

A host of startups are experimenting with different approaches including the use of liquid fuel, the use of solid fuel with different shapes (such as bricks or pebbles), and the use of alternative coolants and moderators such as salts and gases. Many of the designs draw on ideas that politics suppressed decades ago. Some, like Bill Gates-chaired TerraPower in Bellevue, Wash., are designing “fast reactors” that don’t moderate neutrons. Some envision using the element thorium instead of uranium.

很多公司正在围绕新型的核裂变方法展开试验,比如使用液态燃料,或是使用不同形状的固态燃料(如砖型或卵型),以及使用盐或气体作为冷却剂与缓和剂等等。许多设计都吸收了几十年前不被政府允许的理念。比如由比尔•盖茨任董事长的泰拉能源公司(TerraPower)正在设计一种不需要对中子进行缓和的“快速反应堆”。有些公司则设想利用钍元素来代替铀作为裂变燃料。

Between them, they portend leaps in safety, cut way down on nuclear waste, use “waste” as fuel, minimize weapons proliferation risks, slash costs and tremendously boost efficiencies. Many fit the “small modular” form that enables mass production and affordable incremental power. (Oregon startup NuScale Power recently secured $217 million in federal funds to develop a small but comparatively conventional reactor.)

很多创业公司的方案在提高核裂变安全性、大大减少核废料、变“废物”为燃料、最大程度降低武器化风险、降低成本和提高效率方面都具有广阔的前景。许多方案都具有“小型模块化”的特征,能够满足量产和经济性发电的需要。(俄勒冈州的创业公司NuScale能源公司最近获得了2.17亿美元的联邦基金,用于研发一种小型的、但相对传统的核反应堆。)

“There is a growing market pull for innovation in the nuclear space, so you’re beginning to see a blossoming of startup companies doing different things in nuclear,” says Simon Irish, CEO of startup Terrestrial Energy, Mississauga, Canada, which is developing a “molten salt” reactor (MSR) based on liquid fuel.

加拿大米西索加市创业公司Terrestrial Energy的CEO西蒙•艾里什指出:“市场对核能领域创新的拉动力越来越强。所以我们开始看到,很多在核能领域从事不同研究的创业公司如雨后春笋般涌现出来。”艾里什的公司正在研发一种基于液态燃料的“熔盐”反应堆(MSA)。

In the U.S., Russ Wilcox, CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based MSR developer Transatomic Power, implores the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to broaden its focus beyond conventional reactor safety, which he says “freezes progress.”

在美国,总部位于马萨诸塞州剑桥市的MSR开发公司Transatomic Power首席执行官拉斯•威尔克斯正在请求美国核管理委员会(the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)放宽对传统核反应域安全的限制,称这种限制“冻结了进步”。

Many observers believe that countries other than the U.S., such as Canada and China, will deploy first. Beijing is funding innovative Chinese fission projects, with collaboration from the U.S. DOE. Meanwhile, Western companies seek funds. Like Cenovus at General Fusion, more oil companies might pony up, because they want clean heat to process petroleum. As Fortune reported last month, a lack of industry funding appears to have slowed progress in DOE’s mission to develop an advanced reactor.

许多观察人士认为,除了美国之外,加拿大和中国等国有望成为第一批部署新型核能技术的国家。中国政府正在美国能源部的协助下大力投资新型核裂变项目。同时像Cenovus公司在通用聚变公司所扮演的角色一样,更多石油公司可能会投资核能项目,因为他们也需要清洁的热能来进行石油加工。正如《财富》杂志上月报道的那样,由于缺乏行业投资的缘故,美国能源部开发一个先进的核反应堆的计划似乎已经放缓。

LPP Fusion doesn’t seem to be worried. For the young company, the next financing stage could simply be a matter of warming up the crowd.

LPP的核聚变研究则似乎不用担心钱的事。这家年轻公司的下一轮融资可能很容易就点燃大众的热情。

重点词汇学习:

vendor ['vendɔ:]
n. 卖主;小贩;[贸易] 自动售货机

fusion ['fju:ʒən]
n. 融合;熔化;熔接;融合物

desalination [di:,sæli'neiʃən]
n. 脱盐作用;减少盐分

turbine ['tə:bain, -bin]
n. [动力] 涡轮;[动力] 涡轮机

envision [in'viʒən]
vt. 想象;预想

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