Texas Tech University

Breaking New Ground in Energy Research

Doug Hensley

April 14, 2023

Robert V. Duncan

Texas Tech professor Robert Duncan and his team will be part of a group exploring alternative nuclear energy possibilities.

The race is on to discover a new energy source that will be safe, affordable and accessible, and Texas Tech University is right in the middle of this cutting-edge research.

Robert V. Duncan, professor and president's distinguished chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and his team within the Center for Emerging Energy Sciences (CEES) lab recently received a grant to work with other teams at major research institutions in the United States in exploring alternative nuclear energy possibilities that promise to be safe and to produce no fuel-related nuclear waste.

“We are tasked with a very exciting assignment,” said Duncan, who also is the director of the CEES. “That is improving measurement science and material science to support all the other projects inside the program. We will be working very closely with the other principal investigators to make new, accurate measurements available to them and to work with them on new material characterization to help advance their efforts.”

Duncan's team was one of eight proposals across the country to be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program. In all, $10 million was awarded toward eight initiatives with just more than $1 million going to Texas Tech.

“ARPA-E is all about funding high-risk, high-reward energy technologies,” Evelyn N. Wang, ARPA-E director, said in a news release announcing the awardees. “The teams announced today are set out to answer the question, ‘Does this show promise, and if so, how? Or can we conclusively show that it does not?' While others have shied away from this space, ARPA-E wants to break through the knowledge impasse and deepen our understanding.”

Texas Tech was on a short list that included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and two projects from the University of Michigan. Also selected was a national laboratory in Berkeley, California, and two small businesses.

“I am very delighted that Rob and his team have been selected for this visionary new research program to improve future energy science,” said Sung-Won Lee, the department chair. “Through this innovative project, I believe Rob's research team will lay the foundation for further advancing the state-of-the-art Low-Energy Nuclear Reaction investigations.”

Only recently has work in alternative nuclear energy received so much attention and funding with groups pouring significant financial resources toward innovation in hopes of a breakthrough. In the past two years alone, more than $5 billion from venture capitalists and private equity has flowed toward this specific area of research.

“Too often, there is either no innovation or very little, or there has been incremental progress made in conventional nuclear energy,” Duncan said. “These projects are looking at new types of nuclear fusion or nuclear fusion and fission together, and if these sorts of things work, they could have an amazing impact on energy science.”

The end goal is to find a new source of energy that can be created in large quantities in a reasonably quick and economic manner without producing additional atmospheric carbon stress. Duncan said conventional nuclear energy has promise, but some emerging alternatives may offer additional options, based on early efforts.

“We've seen some exciting results in conventional fusion energy approaches recently, but if you're going to use this as a portable energy source, you're not going to be toting along three football fields full of more than a billion dollars' worth of lasers,” he said.

To understand what might one day be possible through ongoing research, CEES, separate from the new APRA-E research award, is proposing a light-element fission/fusion cycle that builds upon current lithium infrastructure to support electric vehicles. A typical electric passenger vehicle contains one 75-kilowatt-hour lithium battery. If that battery were recycled with just 11% of its lithium used in this proposed new fuel cycle, enough energy would be released to fully charge 185,000 equivalent electric vehicles without producing any fuel-related nuclear waste.

The implications and possibilities are enormous, but most of the ongoing research is in its infancy.

“What we're looking for is a way to produce that kind of energy with little or no nuclear waste,” he said, “and with built-in capabilities that make it intrinsically safe to use at a very small scale.”

Duncan said it is only a matter of time before a new alternative energy becomes a reality.

“It is going to have to be very high power and scalable so that it can meet the demands of the all-electric economy of the future,” he said. “That is critical to our well-being, to our environment and to our economy.”

Just as important, though, are the resources being brought to bear to resolve this energy challenge.

“We are seeing for the first time a green flag for innovation in alternative nuclear,” he said. “In the past, it was almost ruled off the table, but if you look at some of the recent private-equity investments, you are seeing genuinely new approaches. We have gone from what was almost a moratorium on innovation in alternative nuclear energy to suddenly open up to wonderful opportunities to innovate. T

“That gets the world's brightest minds excited and jumping on this, and when that happens, it's amazing how fast you can transform the economy and transform the environment. We have developed ultra-sensitive instrumentation and new materials that permit these novel approaches to be tested at a small scale under our university licenses, but now we need federally approved facilities where these new approaches can be tested and refined at a much larger scale.”

And Texas Tech has a seat at this table of transformation.

“I am very pleased that Texas Tech has an excellent opportunity to be an important part of the new national program in alternative nuclear technology,” Lee said. “I want to thank Rob for his leadership and vision in this research area.”