X Energy: nuclear fuel breakthrough?

X-Energy Technology Review. X-Energy is a private, next-generation nuclear company, founded in 2009, headquartered in Maryland, USA with c300-employees at the time of writing. Its reactor design is a high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor (HTGR), commercializing 80MWe of electricity from c200MWth of heat.

Progress and economics. A $2.4bn advanced demonstration project is being progressed in Washington State, for start-up in 2027, half of which will be funded by the DOE (the other main recipient is TerraPower). Ultimately, levelized costs of 6c/kWh are targeted (these are very competitive levelized costs).

X-Energy’s key innovation is using an inherently safe TRISO fuel. TRISO fuel comprises ‘TRI-structural ISO-tropic fuel” particles. Each of these particles is around 0.85mm wide, and contains a 15.5% enriched uranium core (HALEU), surrounded by a porous layer of graphite, then three further containment layers of dense carbon and ceramic, to make the particle “the most robust nuclear fuel on Earth”. It cannot melt or melt down. This enables a simplified reactor design, using 220,000 x 60mm ‘fuel pebbles’, each containing around 19,000 TRISO fuel particles.

What stands out about X Energy’s patents is that they are substantively all focused on manufacturing its TRISO fuel, and they score very highly on our usual patent framework. Specifically, our work reviews a concentrated library of patents focused on manufacturing TRISO particles from gels of enriched uranium oxides, which are then coated with protective layers, using chemical vapor deposition. Many of the patents specify precise reagents and reaction conditions, backed up with experimental data and detailed design drawings. Hence our X-Energy technology review suggests a moat around the core IP.

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