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Waste Not
Purdue Students Develop Device That Harnesses Energy from Nuclear Waste

Three Purdue students and a graduate have launched a startup called Atlas Energy Systems, that has found a way to turn nuclear waste into its own source of energy, according to The Purdue Exponent. The project that started in an apartment as a prototype held together with Scotch tape has gone on to win the Indiana Clean Energy Challenge.

"I became interested in clean energy, specifically nuclear power, after researching nuclear power plants and the amount of energy left in their waste products for a math project in high school," team member Ian Hamilton, a senior at the College of Engineering, told The Exponent.

The team — which also includes Kyle Harris, a senior in the Krannert School of Management; Josh Auger, a senior in the College of Engineering; and Kyle Pendergast, a 2014 graduate — has developed a device that takes spent nuclear waste and converts the radioactive decay into usable power. Instead of using a heat conversion process, which has limited efficiency, the process uses the kinetic energy of the decay particle to run an ion chamber and create electricity. The group turned the idea into a patent-pending device and created Atlas Energy Systems.

"Because clean energy is so broad and spans so many industries, a lot of the other teams wouldn't be direct competitors with our project developments," Auger said. "I suppose in the grand scheme of things, we are all striving for innovations that progress society and our energy consumption in different areas, so in reality, we aren't competitors; we're all just teammates collaborating together."

"Ian and I had a lot of late night talks about the 'what ifs' and engineering innovations we hoped to accomplish later on," Auger said. "When he presented this idea to me … it sparked an excitement, thinking of the possibilities and applications that a technology like this could apply to; how it could be a complete energy industry game-changer. That's how I ended up on this project and with this team."

The project slowly gained advisors from various fields, who provided professional consulting and constructive criticism, which ultimately led to the team starting their own company.

"We set a budget, made a department store run and constructed a DIY proof of concept in our spare apartment room. Even from such a low-fidelity construct, admittedly held together with a lot of Scotch tape, we saw a small but significant output," Auger said. "Now that we've worked on it for two years, I would say my real motivation is just the astounding amount of potential for change this technology could create; we could completely change the nuclear energy industry."

Their concept follows the circular economic principle of turning something that was considered waste into something useful; in this case, supplemental and sustainable energy. The device could potentially lead to lower energy costs and harness energy that previously went unused.

"Currently, there are 200,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel being held in dry storage casks with no purpose but to be stored while it decays down to a stable state,” Auger said. “There is an extremely energy-dense resource that currently has no use, and Atlas wants to take advantage of that gap. This would increase the stability and safety of spent fuel rods, increase output from the reactors, and do so at one-tenth of the cost of constructing a new reactor to get the same output."

Purdue recently changed the way it handles intellectual property of undergraduate students to encourage innovation. The new policy supports student work that could potentially be used as business plans after graduation.

"[Purdue president] Mitch Daniels has recently made it so that any idea or innovation that comes about through undergraduate course work or lab access is still completely owned by the student and Purdue cannot lay claim to any part of it,” Auger pointed out. “We actually set a precedent for entering Purdue already with our idea and then setting up an agreement that allows us to use Purdue resources and lab space to further our research and development, while still maintaining all of our intellectual property. Purdue's shift on entrepreneurial endeavors to encourage innovation has really been a blessing for us and the timing was just right."

Purdue isn’t the only college in the US that’s breeding sustainable innovations: Last month, UC San Diego undergraduates unveiled the first algae-based surfboard; UC Berkeley students won the Sprint Smartphone Encore Challenge with TouchCart, which transforms old smartphones into shopping assistants; and students from Savannah College of Art and Design and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute are among those recently named winners of the inaugural Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge.

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