Friday, March 15, 2013

MIT Scientists Develop Nuclear Waste Reactor

The biggest complaints about nuclear power are its safety and its waste.Two MIT Ph.D. students are developing a nuclear reactor that combats both of those concerns. Their Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR) runs on nuclear waste from other plants. Current nuclear waste takes hundreds of thousands of years to lose its radioactivity. The pair's new reactor would expend about 98% of the waste's remaining energy, which would reduce the decay time to only a few hundred years. Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie founded Transatomic in 2011, and are working on a prototype. They hope to have the working model ready by 2015, and have the new reactors operational by 2030. 
The technology actually dates to the 1950s. Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed the molten salt reactor, but light-water reactors became the preferred choice in the United States. Dewan and Massie have retooled the reactor so that it is "fuel agnostic," and can run on uranium or thorium. The nuclear waste is dissolved into a liquid, which can stay in a reactor longer and generate more energy. And there is plenty of nuclear waste laying around, waiting to be utilized. The world produces about 9,000 metric tons of nuclear waste per year. The U.S. accounts for 2,000 of those metric tons, which it stores in depositories like Yucca Mountain. Transatomic says it can take the roughly 270,000 metric tons of nuclear waste worldwide, and turn it into enough energy to power the entire world for 72 years, even accounting for increased demand. 

The WAMSR is also safer than conventional light-water reactors. There are two "loops" to the design. The primary loop contains the molten salt and nuclear waste. The molten salt mixture's high boiling point provides a fail-safe. If the mixture becomes too hot, it expands and keeps the fuel atoms too far away from each other to continue the reaction. And unlike light-water reactors, the mixture is under low pressure so there is less wear and tear on the machinery. A second loop filled with steam adjoins the primary loop. The steam is heated and spins a turbine, just like a conventional reactor. A WAMSR plant would also be safe if it lost power, which is what happened in Fukushima. The WAMSR has an electrical "freeze valve" at the bottom of the primary loop. The valve is a block of electronically frozen salt mixture. If the power goes out, the block melts and the molten salt pools into a container below, where it will cool into a solid in a few days.

The technology's still far off, but solutions like the WAMSR could help nuclear power make a resurgence. Transatomic and similar companies, like Flibe Energy, are just starting out, but they could have a big impact on world energy. We'll keep an eye out.

Tesla Motors: Ramping Up Production

It’s a make or break year for Tesla Motors (TSLA $35.30). The high-end electric car manufacturer is ramping up production on its Model S almost tenfold from 2012, to an expected 20,000 vehicles. The demand is there; the question is whether or not Tesla can keep up with production without hurting margins. We’re estimating that Tesla will post positive pretax margins this year (2%), a first. The company’s guidance suggests that gross margins will approach 25% by the end of the year, not counting the zero-emissions credits it receives from the government.

Right now, about three-quarters of sales are made in North America. Model S sales have been almost exclusively made in the U.S. so far. Elon Musk, the CEO, mentioned in the Q4 earnings release that only two Model S sedans were on the road in Europe at that point. Sales in Asia were almost non-existent. But Tesla plans to market more aggressively in those places this year. 

Tesla will be in a good position if it gets close to its 20,000 vehicle goal. We’re estimating $1.7 billion in revenue for the year, right around 17,000 cars sold. Musk also claimed that the negative review in the New York Times would cost Tesla $100 million this year. The effect remains to be seen, but it seems an exaggeration. The company could withstand a hiccup in production here or there since there isn’t much in the way of direct competition. Fisker, its chief rival, just had its founder step away, the latest in a series of mishaps. Electric cars from major manufacturers like the Nissan Leaf don’t offer comparable performance or luxury to the Model S. There is some competition with gas-powered luxury sedans, but for the most part sales are made to people who are already interested in driving an electric car. Since Tesla is relying on word-of-mouth, it’s got to keep its customers happy. Significant delays would lead to cancelled orders, and some potential buyers would put off buying a Tesla or lose interest altogether.

Shares are likely to post earnings this year. We estimate a $.17 EPS, but that’s achieved by adding back the stock-based compensation expense. Our calculations suggest income of about $30 million. Tesla’s official accounting will be closer to break-even. The stock price is high compared with earnings, and Fisker’s troubles show that there is plenty of risk in electric cars. Tesla will be in a much better spot if it can get through 2013 without any major trouble. The company’s crossover style Model X is due to start shipping early in 2014, and the car is already receiving reservations. Musk thinks the market for Model X will be about 70% that of the Model S.

Tesla doesn’t advertise its cars like traditional manufacturers. The company does have ads, but has gotten the word out principally through its Tesla Stores and word-of-mouth. Most of the Stores in North America are located in malls. This helps to lure in curious shoppers, and the centralized locations are convenient for people who live in the area. There are currently 25 Stores open in North America (24 in the U.S.), with four more opening in the coming months. There are more service centers opening up for customers that don’t live near a gallery. At the moment though, the network is sparse if you live in, say, Cleveland. The closest Store is in Toronto, the closest in the U.S. in Chicago. And the nearest service center would be two and a half hours away in Columbus. For now, the convenience really only applies to people in Southern California and New York/New Jersey. 

The company needs to develop a strategy to deal with bad press. John Broder’s New York Times piece is the most well-known example. He claimed the Model S’s battery struggled during cold temperatures. Musk responded with data logged during Broder’s test drive, and claimed the Times report was dishonest. At its core, it’s a he-said, he-said feud, and all it will do is invite others to investigate the battery’s performance. This post shows cold weather has a significant impact on battery life.

The battery itself has also come under attack recently, from Wall Street Journal opinionist Bjørn Lomborg. We’ll take what he says with a grain of salt, because he is a known green energy nemesis. He argues that electric cars, despite claiming zero emissions, actually leave a greater carbon footprint than gas vehicles. Research shows that it takes twice the amount of energy to manufacture an electric car than a gas-powered one. Most of this energy is spent mining lithium for the battery. Charging the car also uses electricity, which is still predominantly generated using fossil fuels. Tesla’s Supercharger stations are solar powered, but there are only nine of them in the United States. The company plans to install 100 by 2015. The company suggests keeping a Model S plugged in when not in use, because the battery depletes even if the car isn’t running. Unless owners can find a renewable energy source to keep their cars plugged into, the Model S becomes less environmentally-friendly than advertised. Lomborg says government incentives to electric car manufacturers and buyers don’t match the actual environmental savings. This technology is still fairly new though. Lomborg should realize that a true zero-emissions car won’t just appear out of the blue. It’s going to take some work. 

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