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The science behind the GERA engine

Learn about the basic science behind our revolutionary new power generation technology.

Our technical papers section presents the advanced science behind our technology to the scientific community.

Chemical and nuclear energy

Chemical energy and nuclear energy exist in the binding energy of matter. Chemical energy exists in the binding of electrons in molecules. Nuclear energy exists in the binding of nucleons in atoms.

Exothermic nuclear reactions release a million times more energy per gram than exothermic chemical reactions.

Atom Molecule

Atoms and molecules

What are atoms?

Atoms are the building blocks of matter. They are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons:

  • Electrons are tiny particles that have a negative charge. Joseph John Thomson discovered the electron in 1897.
  • Protons have a positive charge and a mass that is 1,836 times the electron mass. Ernest Rutherford discovered the proton in 1911.
  • Neutrons have no charge and a mass that is 1,839 times the electron mass, which is slightly larger than the proton mass. James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932.

Protons and neutrons reside in the central part of the atom, which is called the nucleus. Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus in 1911. Protons and neutrons are both referred to as nucleons. The nucleus contains a majority of the mass of an atom. Electrons reside in an electron cloud surrounding the nucleus.

The number of protons in the nucleus, which is called the atomic number, defines a type of atom called an element. The periodic table organizes the elements by atomic number. Around 1869, Dimitri Mendeleev organized the standard periodic table in use today. An elements position in the periodic table helps to identify its properties and how it interacts with other elements.

Carbon is the element with an atomic number of 6, which means that it has 6 protons in the nucleus. The shorthand notation or chemical symbol for carbon is C. Every element has a chemical symbol. Most carbon atoms have 6 neutrons in the nucleus. In the carbon atom illustration above, 6 electrons surround the positively charged nucleus in different shells. Niels Bohr introduced this planetary atomic picture in 1913.

The number of neutrons and electrons further characterize an element:

  • Isotopes refer to elements with different number of neutrons. The chart of the nuclides organizes atoms by the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus. The term nuclide refers to an atom characterized by the number of nucleons in the nucleus. For identification, isotopes are commonly written by their chemical symbol followed by the total number of nucleons in the nucleus. For example, C with 6 neutrons in the nucleus has a total of 12 nucleons and is commonly written C-12.
  • Ions refer to elements with different number of electrons. Roman numerals are used to represent the charge of an element. For example, C II refers to a carbon atom with 5 electrons and a positive charge.

The standard model describes the building blocks of matter in greater detail. It describes the constituents of an atom and the forces that hold them together. For more information on the atomic frontier, visit the SLAC and CERN web sites.

What are molecules?

Atoms are the building blocks of molecules. Molecules are formed when two or more atoms are connected by chemical bonds.

Electromagnetic interaction governs the motion of negatively charged electrons and positively charged nuclei in matter, on the electron-Volt scale for those familiar with the standard model. It is responsible for the cohesion of atoms in a molecule and describes the nature of the chemical bond.

Structural formulas show the geometric assembly of atoms in a molecule. In the methane molecule illustration above, both the structural formula and the Lewis structure are given. Gilbert N. Lewis introduced the Lewis structure in 1916.

Hydrogen is an atom with 1 proton (atomic number 1) and 1 electron. The chemical symbol for hydrogen is H. Methane is a molecule that contains 4 H atoms and 1 C atom. Each H atom forms a chemical bond with the C atom. The Lewis structure clearly shows the 4 electrons from the H atom and the 4 electrons in the outer shell of the C atom.

Atom Molecule

Energy

What is nucleaer energy?

Nuclear energy exists in the binding energy of the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom. The mass of an actual nucleus is always less than the sum of the individual nucleon masses in the nucleus. According to Albert Einstein’s celebrated formula E=mc2, which expresses the equivalence of mass and energy, this mass difference is a measure of the binding energy.

Nuclear reactions describe a change between the reactants (initial particles) and products (final particles). If the mass of the reactants is greater than the mass of the products, this mass difference is equivalent to the energy given to the environment and the nuclear reaction is called exothermic. If the mass of the reactants is less than the mass of the products, the mass difference is equivalent to the energy taken from the environment and the nuclear reaction is called endothermic.

There are two types of nuclear reactions:

  • Fusion reactions release nuclear energy when two atoms are fused or combined together. Hans Bethe proposed nuclear fusion as the energy source in stars in 1938.
  • Fission reactions release nuclear energy when an atom is split apart. Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission in 1938.

A nucleus that can undergo nuclear fission after absorbing a neutron with almost zero kinetic energy is called a fissile nuclide. In the nuclear fission illustration above, a neutron and a fissile nuclide yield 3 neutrons and 2 fission fragments.

U-235 is a fissile nuclide with 92 protons (uranium) and 143 neutrons. It is a naturally occurring atom. Experiments show that the nuclear fission of U-235 releases about 207 million electron-Volts (MeV) or 85.0 × 106 thousand Joules per gram of U-235 (kJ/g). An average of 2.43 neutrons are produced per fission. The fission fragments are not identical and they tend to populate many of the atoms in the chart of the nuclides. The kinetic energy of the fission fragments contains 80% of the nuclear energy.

What is chemical energy?

Chemical energy exists in the chemical bonds that connect atoms in a molecule. Chemical reactions describe the change between the reactants (initial molecules) and the products (final molecules). If the chemical bond energy in the reactants is greater than the chemical bond energy in the products, this energy difference is released to the environment and the chemical reaction is called exothermic. Chemical reactions that absorb energy from the environment are called endothermic.

Combustion is a chemical reaction with oxygen. Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, the recognized father of modern chemistry, discovered the role that oxygen plays in combustion around 1772-1778. Fossil fuel combustion accounts for more than 80% of the global energy supply. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2010 the global fossil fuel energy demand was 464 × 1015 thousand Joules (kJ).

Fossil fuels are mostly hydrocarbons, which are molecules formed from hydrogen and carbon atoms. For example, methane, which is the main component of natural gas, is a hydrocarbon. Fossil fuel combustion produces carbon dioxide and water molecules. In the combustion illustration above, 1 methane (CH4) molecule and 2 molecular oxygen (O2) molecules react to yield 1 carbon dioxide (CO2) molecule and 2 water (H2O) molecules. Let’s examine this chemical reaction in greater detail.

In the combustion of methane, the reactants include 1 molecule of CH4 and 2 molecules of O2. The products include 1 molecule of CO2 and 2 molecules of H2O. Notice that the total number of atoms in the system has not changed; they have just been rearranged into different molecules. Experiments show that this chemical reaction is exothermic and releases 890 thousand Joules per mole (kJ/mol) or 55.6 thousand Joules per gram of methane (kJ/g). In this system, the chemical bond energy in the reactants is converted into kinetic energy (heat) in the products.

With this information it is possible to estimate the amount of CO2 produced per year from fossil fuel combustion. Answer: (0.049 g/ kJ) × (464 × 1015 kJ) = 22.9 billion metric tons of CO2. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2010 the actual amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere was 31.2 billion metric tons.

GERA engine

GERA engines are internal engines, whereby nuclear energy is released in the working fluid and directly converted into useful work.

GERA engines are inherently stable.

GERA engine

Nuclear powered internal engines

GERA engine at a glance

Thermodynamics is a physical science, where the principles of thermodynamics are based on observations of physical phenomena. A thermodynamic cycle is a series of processes whose initial and final states are identical. A power cycle is a thermodynamic cycle that produces useful work. A working fluid is the substance that circulates through the device undergoing a power cycle.

Systems that perform power cycles are commonly called engines and are categorized as either external engines or internal engines depending on whether the working fluid releases energy or is heated by an external source, respectively.

GERA engines are internal engines, whereby nuclear energy is released in the working fluid and directly converted into useful work. Internal engines are the most reliable and widely used power source in the world. We have simply discovered a way to adapt the common internal engine to run on a fuel that releases nuclear energy. Now, any internal engine designed to convert chemical energy into useful work can be adapted to convert nuclear energy into useful work.

Wankel engine

The Wankel engine, named after Felix H. Wankel, is a type of rotary engine that operates in an Otto cycle, named after Nikolas A. Otto. The Wankel engine is noted for having a high power system density, which is defined as the ratio of the engine core volume (or combustion volume) to the total engine volume.

The GERA engine illustration above is a Wankel engine adapted to convert nuclear energy into useful work. The triangular-shaped rotor replaces the piston in a reciprocating engine and executes a continuous unidirectional motion that directly transmits power to an output shaft. The stationary rotor housing is a two-lobe epitrochoid formed by tracing a point attached to a circle of radius r rolling around the outside of a fixed circle of radius R, where the point is a distance h from the center of the exterior circle.

We adapted the common Wankel engine to run on a fuel that releases nuclear energy by introducing an ellipsoidal flank cavity and other design features to minimize the loss of neutrons from the system.

Is it safe?

The GERA engine structural integrity is maintained using standard internal engine design and operation practices.

The GERA engine is inherently stable. The dynamic engine core in a GERA engine experiences a decrease in the energy production capability as the rotor moves away from the top dead center position. The increase in engine core volume produces a decrease in the fuel density and an increase in the loss of neutrons from the system.

Nanofuel

Nanofuels are chemical compositions that are suitable for use in a GERA engine.

Nanofuel can be created from fresh fuel or from light-water reactor (LWR) spent nuclear fuel (SNF) in a proliferation resistant manner.

Nanofuels are inherently stable.

GERA SNF Refinery

Complex fuel composition

Nanofuel at a glance

Nanofuel is the fuel used in the GERA engine. The prefix nano is added to emphasize the general presence of molecules and complex clusters that have dimensions on the nanometer scale and introduce quantum statistical phenomena that affect engine performance. The prefix is also a tribute to Richard P. Feynman's famous paper, which launched the field of nanotechnology, “There's plenty of room at the bottom.”

Nanofuel is comprised of six general ingredients, including: fissile fuel, passive agent, moderator, fertile fuel, transuranic elements, and fission products. The fissile fuel, passive agent, and moderator are essential nanofuel ingredients. Nanofuel can be created from fresh fuel or from light-water reactor (LWR) spent nuclear fuel (SNF) in a proliferation resistant manner.

Nanofuel from LWR SNF

As part of GERA’s mission to develop and deploy power generation technology that has minimal environmental impact, our initial nanofuel targets the transuranic elements in existing LWR SNF. Transuranic elements have an atomic number greater than 92 (for uranium) and contain the primary long-term dose rate contributors in nuclear waste. Consuming the long-lived radioactive material from past, present, and future commercial nuclear power plants eliminates the need for long-term, high-cost, and very unpopular geological nuclear waste repositories.

Is it safe?

Nanofuels are safe for use in a GERA engine. The three essential ingredients ensure the nanofuel is inherently stable. It naturally experiences a decrease in the energy production capability as the temperature increases.

GERAPOWERTM plant

The GERA engine can be directly coupled to a rotating shaft, which reduces the number of components in a power plant and drastically reduces cost.

GERAPOWERTM plants are obviously safe.

GERAPOWER plant

Economical and environmentally friendly power plant

GERAPOWERTM plant at a glance

The GERA engine can be directly coupled to a rotating shaft. This direct coupling significantly reduces the number of components in a power plant and drastically reduces cost.

For internal engines that release nuclear energy, several simple power plant configurations provide environmental benefits and achieve system efficiencies greater than 70%. The fuel system can be operated in a closed thermodynamic cycle, which isolates the working fluid in the power plant from the surrounding environment, and allows for complete fuel utilization, continuous refueling, and easy fission product extraction. A supercharging system or turbine increases the engine power and efficiency. Supercharging systems use compressors or pumps or blowers to increases the inlet working fluid density. Turbines produce additional useful work by extracting energy from the exhaust.

A power plant configuration involving mechanical supercharging and turbocompounding is illustrated above. Mechanical supercharging uses a compressor powered by the drive shaft to increase the inlet working fluid density. Turbocompounding uses a turbine connected to the drive shaft to increase the overall system power and efficiency. The red loop represents a closed recycling fuel system that is suitable for nuclear material. This configuration simplifies the system components in contact with nuclear material.

Is it safety? Obviously

Obvious safety was introduced by Edward Teller to describe power plant safety features that are obvious to the general public. The GERAPOWERTM plant has three important obvious safety features.

First, due to the compact size, the entire power plant can be placed underground and heavily fortified against natural disasters and sabotage. Andrei D. Sakharov was a strong advocate of locating nuclear power systems underground.

Second, the power plant operates autonomously and is shielded from all types of human error. The engine operating speed and orificing strongly affect the power output and permit rapid load following. Similar to a backup generator, the power plant can automatically start and stop as needed.

Third, the power plant contains an ultra-low nuclear material inventory. The amount of nuclear material present in power plant is more that a hundred times less than existing commercial nuclear power plants.