EnergyTech University Prize Success Story 

Introduction 

EnergyTech University Prize (Energy Tech UP) aims to cultivate the next generation of energy innovators while accelerating the transfer of energy technologies to market. This prize seeks to attract the talented students of today and help them develop into the engineers, policymakers, entrepreneurs, market analysts, and project developers of tomorrow. Energy Tech UP is sponsored by the Office of Technology Transitions (OTT) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as well as several other program offices. 

Cradle to Commerce (C2C) is a public-private program to accelerate equitable climate-tech entrepreneurship and speed the commercialization of groundbreaking climate technologies for the world. C2C is funded by DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund administered by the Office of Technology Transitions. 

Alpha Nur, a nuclear energy startup founded in 2021 by then University of Chicago seniors Kevin O’Sullivan and Mason Rodriguez Rand, is working to create a sustainable nuclear fuel recycling process. In 2022, this student-led company participated in the Office of Technology Transition’s (OTT) EnergyTech University Prize (EnergyTech UP) competition and won the Office of Nuclear Energy’s Technology Bonus Prize. Their winning pitch included a business plan for small modular nuclear reactors which highlighted how they can better serve underrepresented populations with clean, reliable, and affordable nuclear energy.

Participation in the competition gave them the opportunity to connect with industry experts and researchers across Department of Energy (DOE’s) National Labs to identify a major pain point: the shortage of fuel supply for these reactor technologies. Kevin pivoted Alpha Nur to focus on the nuclear fuel cycle in the Spring of 2023. He discussed his concept with teams at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and Argonne National Lab and continues to work at Alpha Nur full-time to further develop the company’s recycling technology for spent nuclear fuel. He has secured a Cooperative Research and Development Agreements(CRADA) funded by OTT’s Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF) with additional support from the University of Chicago and the 776 Foundation.  This funding stream also allowed him to hire additional team members. Work on this CRADA, a joint effort of INL and Alpha Nur, is already underway. 

We sat down with Kevin O’Sullivan, Founder and CEO of Alpha Nur, to learn more about the milestones his team has achieved since participating in the EnergyTech UP competition.

 

Q&A With Kevin O’Sullivan 

OTT: Where did the original idea for Alpha Nur come from?  

I have always loved nuclear science and engineering! I founded my high school’s nuclear science club when I was a sophomore and would invite professors and industry speakers to come talk to me and my classmates, so I’ve continued to follow progress in the industry since high school. I went to University of Chicago and while in my senior year, I founded Alpha Nur with my classmate Mason Rodriguez under the Booth School of Business’ College New Venture Challenge Program. Prior to our strategic pivot to fuel recycling, the original business plan centered on creating small modular nuclear reactors to serve energy-poor populations with carbon friendly power resources.  

OTT: How did you hear about EnergyTech UP? And how did participating in the EnergyTech UP competition impact the development of the business?  

I heard about EnergyTech UP through my college and submitted our original business plan around small modular reactors to the competition, but we have since pivoted the company. By participating in EnergyTech UP, we were able to get access to so many people across the Department of Energy’s Argonne-, Oak Ridge-, Idaho-, and Sandia National Labs, through a chain reaction started by EnergyTech UP’s Program Coordinator Joe Simon.  – During EnergyTech UP, we were generously awarded in-kind funding from Idaho National Laboratory to perform initial design and regulatory analysis.

The DOE National Lab scientists and staff are undoubtedly the best and brightest in nuclear energy globally. With their guidance, we identified that the biggest challenge in the industry wasn’t about reactor design, but the fuel supply for those reactor technologies. So, we pivoted to focus on this problem instead.

Kevin O’Sullivan at the DOE’s Cleanup to Clean Energy Event in July 2023.
Kevin O’Sullivan at the DOE’s Cleanup to Clean Energy Event in July 2023.

OTT: Can you tell us more about the problem you’re trying to solve? 

Typical nuclear reactors today need a low-grade nuclear fuel, but tomorrow’s nuclear reactors will need a low-enriched nuclear fuel called HALEU. In the US however, we’re unable to make that type of fuel and must rely on Russia for 100% of that supply chain. So, it’s a fundamental issue in this industry. Also, it’s not only an issue of national security to be able to make this fuel in the US, but it also represents over two-thirds of the carbon footprint of nuclear energy. So, being able to recycle and dilute higher enriched spent fuel for recycling, we can meet our national security objectives while also reducing nuclear fission’s carbon footprint by about 40% and total volumes of targeted spent nuclear fuel by about 97%. 

OTT: What milestones have you achieved since participating in the EnergyTech UP competition?

Since EnergyTech UP and graduation, Alexis Ohanian’s 776 Foundation has supported me and Alpha Nur through its climate fellowship with financial resources and guidance. The University of Chicago’s Resurgence cleantech accelerator has further fostered Alpha Nur’s ambition to commercialize next-generation nuclear breakthroughs.

I am now leading our team’s participation in the inaugural cohort of the TCF-funded Cradle to Commerce Program. My past engagements with premier scientists at Argonne National Lab and my ongoing engagements with top scientists at Idaho National Lab (INL) as well as accomplished program managers at DOE has taught me so much about the industry. Their advice has transformed Alpha Nur’s technological and business plans. With INL’s incomparable expertise, we are working on mapping the specific process to recycle targeted spent nuclear fuel and reduce nuclear power’s carbon footprint a further 40%. Alpha Nur is setting out to build American infrastructure to support our nuclear power. 

Alpha Nur Group Photo
Kevin O’Sullivan with DOE Deputy Secretary David Turk at an energy roundtable that was convened by the University of Chicago’s Resurgence cleantech accelerator and included reps from Argonne National Lab's Chain Reaction Innovations program.

OTT: As you reflect on your experience with EnergyTech UP, how has it impacted your personal career trajectory?  

Before EnergyTech UP, my trajectory was to get my Biology degree and go into medicine. But I was able to express my latent passion for nuclear science through EnergyTech UP and through this experience, realized that this was really what I wanted to dedicate my life to. I realized more acutely that nuclear technology ought to be made and there’s still lots of room for many companies to innovate in this sphere, so I totally shifted what I wanted to do because of EnergyTech UP

Kevin presenting Alpha Nur’s work at the Nuclear Energy Institute Used Fuel Management Conference in April 2023.
Kevin presenting Alpha Nur’s work at the Nuclear Energy Institute Used Fuel Management Conference in April 2023.

OTT: Looking forward, what’s next for you and Alpha Nur?

Alpha Nur will keep working with INL over the next year to develop and scale our process. We will also be fundraising early next year to grow the Alpha Nur team and accelerate our research efforts internally. Moreover, we are making strategic partnerships in the chemical and energy industries to access patient capital and industrial know-how. In terms of other TCF Programs of interest to Alpha Nur is the recently introduced TCF Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL)-funded Voucher program.  At Alpha Nur, we are also evaluating other competitions including the TCF BIL Solutions for Lasting, Viable Energy Infrastructure Technologies (SOLVE IT Prize) as well as the DOE Re-X Before Recycling Prize.

Alpha Nur is building partnerships with reactor developers and nuclear utilities and is on track for our recycling facility to be ready to fuel American power plants by 2033.Through it all, Alpha Nur is committed to ensuring that our efforts are in lockstep with non-proliferation objectives. To this end, we will deepen our relationship with pertinent stakeholders in the DOE Office of Science as well as the National Nuclear Security Administration. Our mission is to responsibly steward nuclear technology towards sustainably fueling America’s lowest carbon power source. 

EnergyTech University Prize is a competition sponsored by U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Technology Transitions (OTT) aiming to cultivate the next generation of innovators while accelerating the transfer of energy technologies to market.  Student teams compete for cash prizes by successfully identifying energy technologies, assessing their market potential, and creating a business plan for commercialization. To learn more, visit EnergyTech University Prize | Department of Energy

To learn more about Alpha Nur, please visit Alpha Nur.