Molecular engineering major awarded 25k by Dept of Energy for nuclear startup

Three times a year, the National Science Foundation charts one of the world’s most extreme expeditions, organizing a crew of eight specially trained machine operators and technicians to trek one hundred thousand gallons of diesel fuel across Antarctica.

The adventure, called the South Pole Overland Traverse, spans 1,035 miles of frigid, crevasse-pocked wasteland connecting McMurdo Station and the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. Improbable as it may sound, it’s the most efficient way to refuel the United States’ most isolated science outpost.  

This complex and dangerous fuel trip is one example out of thousands that take place around the world each year to supply remote communities such as military bases and hospitals that rely on diesel power plants.

Alpha Nur, an energy startup created through the College New Venture Challenge (CNVC) at the University of Chicago, recently won $25,000 in the DOE-sponsored EnergyTech University Prize to provide these remote communities with a reliable, safer, and cheaper alternative—mobile micro nuclear reactors.

We recently sat down with fourth-year molecular engineering major and UChicago College student Mason Rodriguez Rand, the company’s co-founder, to discuss his and partner O’Sullivan’s idea.

Why nuclear energy?

First and foremost, we need to decarbonize. We as a species must transition away from fossil fuels, and our team believes the world can do that a lot faster with this technology. 

Secondly, there are a lot of situations where the current energy supply is either impractical or hugely expensive. In the case of remote Alaskan communities, isolated military bases, or mining operations, people are paying an exorbitant amount for energy because they have to truck in fuel from huge distances. In disaster relief zones, infrastructure can get knocked out and those supply lines can be cut off for months.

Why nuclear energy now? Primarily because of the urgency of climate change, but also because many people are starting to learn how safe modern nuclear technologies are.

Typically, people hear about nuclear reactors and picture big smokestacks, which are actually cooling towers. Those systems are mostly Generation II nuclear power plants constructed in the 50s or 60s, and we’ve come a long way since then.

Most of the significant nuclear reactor accidents you'll think of have resulted from a steam burst. Our systems, Generation IV reactors, do not face this risk. Because of that—even if there is some sort of failure, the reactor will not experience any sort of critical failure. Radioactive materials will not leak into the environment. They’re called walkaway safe because even in the worst-case scenario, the worst thing that happens is you lose electricity.

Another way to compare old vs. new technology is by looking at their safety radius. The safety radius of a large generation II nuclear reactor is around 10 or 20 miles. For a generation IV system, the safety radius can be as low as 400 feet.

We’re not alone in realizing the potential of this technology either; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already started taking license applications from other small reactor companies. There is a lot of interest across the military, the government, and the private sector.

What drew you to CNVC, the undergraduate startup accelerator run by the Polsky Center?

I’ve been interested in the CNVC since I started at UChicago. It always seemed like an appealing environment. I went to multiple info sessions during my first three years, and then when my fourth came around, I finally had enough time to dig into it.

This autumn, I spent all quarter looking for a team to join. I spoke with people at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) and other students in my classes to see if they'd be interested in putting together a project focused on bio-based electronics, which is a completely different field.

At first, the teams weren't coming together, and nothing was working out regarding the ideas. The deadline passed, and I didn't apply.

Then the next day, there was an opening. The program said they would extend the deadline by one day, and I was like, “I can't not do this, I'm going to regret this forever, I have to be in that environment.” I knew the skills and experiences I’d gain would be crucial.

Kevin O’Sullivan is one of my closest friends, and we've had this idea to build a nuclear reactor since our first year at UChicago. We know there's a market for it, and it’s important to get our vision to the forefront. So we agreed to get started.

You’ve researched bio-based electronics in PME Prof. Junhong Chen’s lab. What are they and what drew you to them?

Bio-based electronics involve a process where you extract materials from plants and turn them into various electronics parts like transistors. It addresses a looming question about how humanity can manufacture electronics more sustainably and, in my opinion, represents a beautiful melding of the natural and modern worlds. 

I first got involved with it through Professor Junhong Chen here at Pritzker Molecular Engineering. Prof. Chen’s lab is now working on creating bio-based field-effect transistors.

Prior to working in Prof. Chen’s lab, I was with another team trying to figure out a solution to the electronic waste issue in China. I was also simultaneously working at a sustainability-oriented startup called Rheaply. The combination of those experiences solidified my interest in electronic waste, and it’s something I’m also very interested in addressing.

How’s it been working with Prof. Chen?

Incredible. He has, I don't know, at least 12 major projects going on in his lab at any one time, and he’s running a startup called NanoAffix, which utilizes some of the technology from his lab. He's also the lead water strategist at Argonne National Laboratory.

Despite working three jobs, he always finds time to meet with me. He's an incredible mentor, and every other student I’ve spoken with has the warmest things to say about him. I admire him a great deal.

You’ve almost finished your major in molecular engineering. What made you decide to join the program?

I came to UChicago as a physics/econ major. My logic then was that physics and economics would give me a thorough understanding of how the world works and the tools to become a good engineer, which was always my goal.

As I went on, I found myself drawn to more engineering-centric activities. I was working in the Media Arts, Data, and Design Center (MADD) Center, I was doing a lot of 3D printing, and I was making devices and entering art shows with science pieces.

I also took MENG 20000, the emerging technologies course taught by Dean Matthew Tirrell and it was an incredible lecture. I kept talking to advisors and professors, and eventually Prof. Juan de Pablo, who said, “If you think physics and econ will make you a good engineer, and you like engineering, why not study engineering?” I thought that was a good argument.

Looking back, how was your experience at PME?

Great. PME has a terrific culture. I think it’s partly because of the difficulty of the program but everyone in the major is truly trying to help each other out—it’s this collective effort. There’s a real community here. We have made picnics together outside. We have socials through our SME club, and even in classes there’s this strong comradery.

Beyond launching a startup and finishing college, is there anything else that occupies your time?

Recently, I’ve been interested in language acquisition, which is a different approach compared to what you might do in a classroom. It focuses more on listening and learning language through context first before studying the rules governing grammar and syntax. I started prior to visiting China for a sustainability program, and I’ve kept up with it ever since. For about two and a half years, I’ve been waking up and reading a couple of articles in Mandarin. I hope to move on to more languages after college.