Oklo Engineers Design “Aurora” Powerhouse That Powers Homes for Decades Without Refueling

Oklo Engineers Design “Aurora” Powerhouse That Powers Homes for Decades Without Refueling

When was the last time a power plant was praised for its aesthetics?

Oklo’s design for the Aurora, an advanced fission clean energy powerhouse that includes solar panels doubling as a canvas for local art, was recently featured by Architectural Digest.

“The small footprint of the technology gave the company the opportunity to devise an unexpected A-frame design for the structure, which looks more like a ski chalet than a power plant,” the magazine wrote in a March 2020 feature. “The triangle shape also gives the structure strength to support the interior crane and has favorable heat-transfer characteristics, which can help performance.”

Based in Sunnyvale, California, Oklo is an advanced fission company developing clean energy plants to provide communities with affordable, reliable, clean power. The startup is also rethinking the scale at which fission power plants are currently deployed. Instead of a facility taking up acres of land and serving an entire region, the compact Aurora is meant to power about 1,000 homes.

The technology is initially targeted at rural isolated communities that rely on diesel or oil to power their grid. The first Aurora powerhouse, which just had its combined license application accepted by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will be built at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, America’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development.

“We’re aiming to serve places where there is a lot of energy poverty, smaller communities that can’t bring in electricity from larger grids and don’t have optimal conditions for wind or solar power,” says Oklo reactor engineer McKay Graff. “Our motto is ‘Make Reactors People Want.’”

“Advanced fission reactors can be much smaller than the light-water reactors used in the United States and are based on a proven technology that’s been around for decades,” he adds. “There are a lot of aspects that make these reactors inherently safe.”

Underscoring the safety of the reactor, Oklo envisions that their “ski chalet” building can also be something a community can be proud of.

Powering a Clean Energy Future

Oklo’s Aurora advanced fission powerhouse is designed to provide communities with affordable and reliable clean energy. (Artist’s rendering of Northern Lights courtesy of Oklo)

The advanced fission technology behind Oklo’s Aurora powerhouse is based on years of research, development, and demonstration done at the U.S. national labs and universities. The power plant uses metal fuel to produce heat, an advanced fuel type which is well demonstrated with decades of experimental data. Heat pipes carry the heat to a heat exchanger, and a power conversion cycle converts the heat into electricity.

Some unique benefits of the Aurora include:

  • The ability to save 1,000,000 tons of carbon emissions over the fossil fuel alternative during its operation.
  • Producing clean energy for decades without needing to refuel.
  • Operating without needing cooling water.
  • The demonstrated natural shutdown behavior of the metal fuel.
  • The use of a fission spectrum which can recycle fuel and ultimately convert nuclear waste into clean energy.

Oklo has partnered with the Gensler architectural firm for the Aurora rendering, and artist Forest Stearns on the concept artwork displayed on the solar panels, to achieve the Aurora’s signature iconic look. The company also featured solar panels using technology by Sistine Solar, which makes custom skins for panels, to showcase community artwork on the Aurora’s A-frame.

FeatureScript: Customizing CAD for the Advanced Fission Industry

To design its advanced fission power plants, Oklo chose Onshape, the only cloud-native product development platform that combines robust CAD tools with built-in data management and real-time collaboration. (Screenshot courtesy of Oklo)

Because of the strict regulations in the nuclear power industry, Graff notes that the product development process doesn’t often involve building many full-scale physical prototypes. Instead, frequent design iterations are driven by simulation software.

The Oklo team is using FeatureScript, Onshape’s open-source programming language, to automate frequent updates in their CAD models based on the latest simulation test results. FeatureScript allows engineers to create industry-specific or even company-specific CAD features to eliminate repetitive tasks and speed up the design process.

“Our software generates a lot of the dimensions based on optimization simulations and that pushes right into Onshape,” says Graff. “We’ve created custom Onshape features that take all this data and automatically generate a new CAD model. When I first saw how it works, I was blown away. We are literally redesigning thousands of components and it just takes a few seconds.”

“I imagine using FeatureScript like we’re building a car engine and we say that we want the car to go at this speed and be this heavy and have this power output, and then Onshape builds the engine for us,” he adds. “We can now take our simulations and put it straight into our new designs. There’s no way we could have done that in any other CAD system.”

“We can now iterate designs as fast as these simulations can go,” notes Graff. “Sometimes these simulations take days, but now we don’t have to add on a few more days trying to redesign the whole thing.”

Can Advanced Fission Technology Help Alleviate Climate Change?

The Aurora nuclear powerhouse’s A-frame roof is ideal for housing solar panels, which will also showcase artwork from community artists. (Image courtesy of Oklo)

Oklo estimates that each Aurora can save one million tons of carbon emissions compared to the fossil fuel alternatives during its operation.

During Oklo’s June announcement of the historic combined license application acceptance, CEO and co-founder Jacob DeWitte stressed that advanced reactors have strong environmental benefits

“Advanced reactors are an important tool for climate change, and we are proud to be the first to submit a full license application and the first to have it accepted,” he said.

The company expects that its first Aurora powerhouse in Idaho will be operational in the early 2020s.

Darren Garnick

Darren is PTC’s Content Director for Onshape, focusing on engineering and design news, trends and customer stories. He is an Emmy-nominated multimedia journalist, filmmaker and business writer with extensive experience covering technology and innovation for high-tech companies. Darren has been a contributor to Fast Company, PBS, CNN, The Atlantic, Slate, Outside Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, the Boston Herald and The Boston Globe. Darren holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking, adventure travel, seeing different MLB ballparks, and finding kitschy roadside attractions.

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