Startup inks deal to recycle nuclear waste to power satellites

By Tony Bertuca / January 26, 2024 at 5:00 AM

Zeno Power, which in May was awarded a $30 million Air Force contract to build a satellite powered by nuclear waste, has announced a new deal with the Energy Department by which it will obtain radioactive material needed to fuel its “novel” power system.

In an announcement today, DOE said it recently transported a “radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) containing strontium-90” from the Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management “to a commercial nuclear facility out of state, where Zeno will recycle the material to power its novel radioisotope power systems (RPS).”

“The technology in these power systems is capable of converting heat generated by the decay of radioisotopes into a durable, reliable source of electricity in remote and challenging environments,” DOE said.

The public-private partnership with Zeno, DOE said, “has reduced the amount of legacy radioactive material on the site” so the company can “recycle the material into a source of clean energy.”

OREM Manager Jay Mullis called the arrangements a “win-win” that removes “a significant source of radioactivity at a savings to taxpayers, while also supporting nuclear innovation.”

Zeno co-Founder and CEO Tyler Bernstein said in a company press release that the “innovative partnership will transform a waste product and taxpayer liability into a clean energy asset that will advance national security and scientific missions.”

“We’ve now demonstrated the core building block of our technology and secured our initial fuel supply chain -- positioning us as the clear leader to commercialize RPS technology by 2026,” he said.

The Air Force contract Zeno was awarded in May was to build a radioisotope-powered satellite by 2025. In October, Zeno also announced it has been awarded a $7.5 million defense contract to build and demonstrate an RPS 2025 that is “capable of providing resilient, distributed power on the seabed.”

The company is also developing RPS technology with NASA and other lunar industry companies.

Zeno, in its statement, said RPSs are “compact devices that convert heat from radioisotopes into a persistent and reliable supply of clean energy.”

Though strontium-90 has been used in RPSs before, Zeno says that past systems have been “heavy, constraining their use to limited terrestrial applications.”

“Zeno’s key innovation is a novel design that increases the specific power of Sr-90 heat sources, enabling broad use of its RPSs in space and terrestrially,” the company said.