Innovator develops long-life power units
PhosEnergy wins funding to advance unique energy technology Metal Tech News – May 4, 2022
Last updated 5/3/2022 at 1:47pm
A small Australia-based energy technology company is hot on the trail of building a prototype of a long-lived power generation system that could open the path to extended space travel, as well as a reliable and low-cost source of electricity for remote defense sites.
But the revolutionary GenX units – which can provide power for decades without a continuous fuel source nor any human intervention or maintenance – is just one of several barrier-breaking technologies that PhosEnergy Ltd. is currently developing.
Funding for prototype
PhosEnergy recently won a A$2.4 million grant from the Australian government to build the GenX power generation units invented by two of the principles of the tech developer.
Australia's Cooperative Research Centres Projects grant will underpin a A$6 million development program drawing on specialist skills from PhosEnergy's partners at the University of South Australia, the University of Adelaide, and the University of Western Australia, as well as significant contributions from industry partners Duromer and DEWC Systems.
PhosEnergy describes GenX as a beta-voltaic power generator, meaning it converts energy from beta radiation emissions into power without the need for an external fuel supply – the 'fuel' being inherent energy in the beta emitter. In recent proof of concept experiments, GenX's unique semiconductor-metal electrode configuration has been shown to effectively harvest power from the semiconductor layer when excited.
The program is aimed at establishing a highly efficient and economically-robust manufacturing process for GenX that involve building numerous units to be used in field tests estimated to begin in less than three years, the company said.
A demonstration unit is currently under construction with a prototype unit planned to follow, which will be tested in a space equivalent environment to allow commercial demonstration, according to PhosEnergy.
Noting that the GenX energy units uniquely combine undisclosed metals, semiconductors, and beta-radiation to produce constant direct current (DC) power over extended periods, PhosEnergy describes the innovation as a smart, lightweight electrode system with an 'on board' beta radiation energy source that provides reliable power over decades without external fuel requirement. This reliable, long-life, and fuel-free power supply is ideally suited for space vehicles and other energy needs where solar is ineffectual.
Likened to a sandwich, the GenX electrode structure consists of an undisclosed semiconductor embedded between two metal layers; the GenX unit provides a strong electric field that enables excited electrons to be harvested, thereby creating a usable electric current, according to PhosEnergy.
The physics principles underpinning GenX Units are like that of traditional photovoltaic cells; however, the use of beta radiation has significant advantages over sunlight, the company notes on its website. The advantages include:
• Being 100s to 1000s of times more energetic, per particle, than UV photons.
• A beta source can be loaded into the power generating unit with no impact on size or weight.
• Beta sources emit energy continuously, and for extended periods (many years).
• Energy can be deployed at the site where the power is required.
The radioactive isotopes that "fuel" the system are safe. GenX units are designed so that no radiation emanates from the power-generating device.
The isotopes used by GenX units are byproducts from a range of industrial processes, giving an energy value to material typically considered a 'waste' liability.
Invented by PhosEnergy Managing Director Bryn Jones and Chief Scientist Julian Kelly, Ph. D., the GenX technology is a collaborative project being led by the company's general manager, Scott Edwards, Ph. D.
The rapidly growing space industry and increasingly sophisticated remote defense sites are creating enormous demand for long-life, fuel-free power sources.
"The market for power generation in space is already estimated to be worth $2.8 billion a year and is forecast to continue double-digit growth for the foreseeable future on the back of commercial and government space programs' focus on extended missions, lunar occupation and resource recovery," according to Jones. "Demand from the defense industry is also soaring as more power-hungry technology is installed in remote locations. Secured integrated communications and sensor developments are driving the requirement for a portable and autonomous long-term power source."
"GenX is technology targeted to meet the critical and rapidly growing power needs of the space and defense industries," Jones told a reporter recently. "Both these industries need smart power generation capability which can continue to supply energy across long time frames in remote locations where there are no other options for power. GenX ticks all these boxes," he said.
The innovators at PhosEnergy aim to complete a prototype design for a one- to five-watt GenX generator by late 2023.
"There are very few, if any, competitors to GenX," Jones added. "We stand to unlock what is a truly huge opportunity on a global scale."
But GenX power generation technology is not PhosEnergy's first rodeo.
The company's researchers developed a method for extracting uranium generated in manufacturing phosphate fertilizer.
More than 140 million metric tons of phosphate is processed annually worldwide with major production in five countries, including China. About 20 million pounds of contained U3O8 (triuranium octoxide) – including about 6 million lb in the United States – are not currently recovered, noted the company.
After evaluating the technology for more than seven years, PhosEnergy commissioned a prefeasibility study completed by Hatch in 2015 for a facility that could produce U3O8 at a rate of an estimated 400,000 lb per year for 25-plus years at operating costs within the lowest quartile (low $20/lb U3O8) of all uranium production worldwide.
The company attracted Cameco, one of the world's leading miners of uranium, originally as a 25% partner that committed to spend A$23 million on the venture.
The PhosEnergy process reportedly was originally developed by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and moved forward with major funding from Cameco. The technology was folded into Australian public company Uranium Equities but demerged in August 2013, with Uranium Equities retaining its traditional uranium mining assets and PhosEnergy going private.
Uranium Equities retains a 10% interest in PhosEnergy, which currently holds 27% of the rights to the uranium technology, with 73% held by Cameco.
The extraction technology draws on the fact that sedimentary phosphate deposits generally contain uranium in concentrations of up to 100 parts per million U3O8, such that 300 billion metric tons of known phosphate resources could contain upwards of 25 million metric tons of recoverable U3O8, dwarfing known conventional resources.
Years of testing included operating a one-million-metric-ton-per-year demonstration plant in the United States for 500 days.
The extraction process also offers an opportunity to co-produce significant amounts of vanadium with little additional processing, according to PhosEnergy.
In 2016, low uranium prices led PhosEnergy and Cameco to table the project to conserve capital. In 2021, the company said rising uranium prices could present new opportunities to market this technology.
The innovators at PhosEnergy have also developed other technologies, including a method for converting industrial carbon dioxide emissions into methanol.