Ep 05: Rachel Slaybaugh - Program Director, ARPA-E
Q - Early Research Reactor Experience
Bret Kugelmass: How did you get into the nuclear space?
Rachel Slaybaugh: Rachel Slaybaugh knew she wanted to be an engineer while she was in school at Penn State and applied for a research opportunity as a freshman. She got matched up with a research reactor on-campus and learned all about nuclear energy. Slaybaugh attended an American Nuclear Society (ANS) student conference at UC-Berkeley, where she learned about the existing, baseload, large-scale, emissions free electricity source: nuclear energy. Research reactors are real reactors that are smaller, usually on a scale of 1 MW of thermal energy. The purpose of these reactors is to produce neutrons for research purposes. Neutrons are small particles that are neutral and are strategically useful for investigating a lot of things, but are not easy to produce. Undergraduate and graduate students run the 25 research reactors in the U.S. alongside university staff. Research reactors are designed in a way that is less complex and more safe. Slaybaugh started at educational outreach at Penn State’s reactor and went on to be a reactor operator.
5:23 Q - Numerical Methods in Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: How did you end up becoming a professor at UC-Berkeley?
Rachel Slaybaugh: As an undergraduate, Rachel Slaybaugh became interested in numerical methods and computational science. She went on a couple of internships to Oak Ridge National Lab to work on computational science. Slaybaugh went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where she spent five years working on numerical methods. She had the Rickover Fellowship, allowing Slaybaugh to spend a summer at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, leading to an full-time position after graduation. In any nuclear system, you need to know where all the neutrons are. Neutrons interact with materials in special ways, since there is no electromagnetic interaction. Neutrons cause fission and can also cause materials change by making atoms into different atoms. The Boltzmann transport equation generically describes neutral particle interactions combined with the probabilities of neutrons interacting with materials.
9:21 Q - Nuclear Innovation Boot Camp
Bret Kugelmass: Who uses the model that shows how neutrons behave?
Rachel Slaybaugh: Rachel Slaybaugh’s work as a university professor at UC-Berkeley mostly looks at the software and algorithms at a research level. These may be picked up by laboratories doing other research, which eventually may get picked up by industry. The Nuclear Innovation Boot Camp is a two week program which brings students from around the world together to learn about entrepreneurship topics combined with nuclear. These students do group design projects over a two week period. Students get paired with mentors and at the end, there is a pitch competition in which students have five minutes to tell everyone about their project. Projects have included data analytics management, educational tools, a licensing consultancy agency, and reprocessing ideas. Slaybaugh got involved with the startup of Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), working with colleagues at UC-Berkeley to help nuclear innovation succeed. She researched how to make a nuclear incubator, leading her to create a boot camp to start training the workforce and shifting the mindset of people so they would be ready for an incubator.
15:50 Q - ARPA-E’s MEITNER Program
Bret Kugelmass: How did you get so many people to sign up for the Nuclear Innovation Boot Camp?
Rachel Slaybaugh: The Nuclear Innovation Boot Camp was a need the market didn’t know it had and people were thrilled to hear about it and curious to learn about innovation in nuclear. The program just finished its second year and Slaybaugh is now working to hire someone full-time to run the program. Rachel Slaybaugh is currently a professor at UC-Berkeley and recently became a program director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E). This energy program is a small office inside of the Department of Energy (DOE) whose mission is making the U.S. a leader in energy technology with a focus on economics and energy security. Moonshots are wacky ideas that might fundamentally shift a market or shift the learning curve of a technology space. Because it is so high risk, there is no incentive for industry to invest it in because it is too technically or financially uncertain. ARPA-E has invested around $1.5 billion over eight years and generated nearly $2 billion in follow-on investment in approximately 50 companies. Some ideas turn out to be super useful, but a lot of them aren’t. There is no one else who can invest in them to find out which ones are amazing and which ones shouldn’t be pursued further. ARPA-E has not yet had a nuclear program, in part because their programs are small and focused. ARPA-E’s MEITNER (Modeling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration) program was recently introduced. The focus is on enabling technologies. ARPA-E’s MEITNER (Moedling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration) program focuses on how to make advanced reactors a reality. People have looked a lot at the core and neutronics, but the question is how to make those things exist in reality by building them quickly, predictably, cheaply and operated with very low staffing. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is starting to ask questions internally about barriers to innovation in nuclear and some regulations are in place to support that. If the nuclear industry can be proactive in setting the technology standards thoughtfully, so people can do development into a thoughtful regime instead of trying to backfit and manage these technologies. There is so much room in the computation and analytics space and nuclear doesn’t know how it will handle itself yet. The NRC doesn’t have a model or regulatory framework for predictive simulation or confirmatory simulation as a mechanism for proving things. Data analytics are farther out and thoughtfully supplementing experiments with modeling and simulation is more near-term.
26:34 Q - Innovation in Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: What are some things you’d like to see brought forth as applications for the ARPA-E nuclear directive?
Rachel Slaybaugh: ARPA-E is enabling technology, such as data analytics, sensors, robotics, high temperature materials, and corrosion, among others. The focus of the program is putting each of these technologies in the context of an entire plant in a way that is meaningful and impactful. ARPA-E has a big market that isn’t nuclear, typically engineers, and there are opportunities to get people who haven’t been thinking about these questions for a long time, bringing new perspectives and a diversity of thought. The continued success and growth of the GAIN (Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear) program has been tremendously impactful and is a very valuable program. It is difficult for private companies to access resources inside a national laboratory that have been developed by the government for the public good. In an industry in which there are market distortions or there are reasons why it is hard to do research independently, it allows resources that have been developed for the public good to be able to do good. Private companies can apply for vouchers through GAIN to get access to competing resources, experimental facilities, and expert time. This program makes all the expertise that has been cultivated inside the government available to create more in the private sector.