Next-gen nuclear

Analyzing real-world data in virtual twins helps Kairos Power accelerate clean energy development

Dan Headrick
31 March 2021

3 min read

Microsoft cofounder-turned-sustainability-advocate Bill Gates recently called nuclear power the world’s best hope for generating enough net-zero-carbon power to meet global energy demand by the UN target date of 2050. Compass talked with Lou Martinez Sancho, executive vice president of Strategy & Innovation for Alameda, California-based Kairos Power, about the company’s work to commercialize a new generation of nuclear technology – fluoride salt-cooled high-temperature reactors – using rapid prototyping and iterations alongside virtual technology to accelerate the demonstration of real hardware.

Compass: KP-FHR advanced nuclear reactor technology entails completely novel design-build models. Please talk about the scale and scope of innovation required for that kind of undertaking.

Lou Martinez Sancho: We have observed that the conventional nuclear development cycle is very long and slow, and very capital intensive. The conventional cycle is ‘plan, design, build, test,’ which is common for other industries. But what is very difficult in nuclear is that you create kind of an endless cycle between ‘plan-design, plan-design,’ and at the end we have a lot of paper-designed reactors. In the industry we call them ‘paper reactors,’ because we have never built them.

So, at Kairos we asked, ‘How can we move forward from that plan-and-design cycle into really building?’ When we begin construction and manufacturing, that is where the real problems become visible, allowing us to solve problems while building solutions.

We learn from testing on pieces of hardware that we have designed and built, and introduce those learnings in the next iteration. This is a huge disruption in the nuclear industry. We are mirroring SpaceX, as we have looked closely at how they improved and accelerated their development phase.

Kairos Power’s technology includes never-before attempted features that demand rapid feedback testing and experimental evidence, proving they work as expected. How do you use virtual modeling in that process?

LMS: Fail fast so you learn fast. That’s the philosophy of rapid learning.

We are in a game-changing situation on the innovation side, and those [virtual] tools have improved tremendously in recent years. We find value in virtual models when coupled with physical hardware. If you want to avoid that cycle of ‘plan and design,’ our approach of leveraging multiple design-build-test cycles with nuclear and non-nuclear systems allow us to link real data into the virtual models. Linking real-world demonstrations with virtual models allows us to develop physical systems that are parallel with their digital counterparts.

In my experience, if there is not a strong connection between the building you are doing and its virtual or digital counterpart, you don’t get the benefit of either.

Top image: The Engineering Test Unit Demonstration Experiment (ETUDE) test stand in Kairos Power’s Alameda Rapid Analysis, Prototyping and Iterative Design Laboratory (R-Lab) validates integral hydrodynamics performance and pebble fuel recirculation methods. (Image © Kairos Power)
The Engineering Test Unit Demonstration Experiment (ETUDE) test stand in Kairos Power’s Alameda Rapid Analysis, Prototyping and Iterative Design Laboratory (R-Lab) validates integral hydrodynamics performance and pebble fuel recirculation methods. (Image © Kairos Power)

What about shifting market factors? How does that enter into the rapid iteration process?

LMS: The data virtual twins receive from our physical systems allow us to shorten the design duration, the qualifications, the reviews, the manufacturing and operating costs, and they support the licensing. And, of course, it helps us to understand the market requirements.

"For me, virtual twins and simulations are the perfect tools for leveraging the most out of rapid iterations and rapid prototyping.”

Right now, we are seeing a huge growth in renewable energy as the movement towards a more distributed and decarbonized energy system continues gaining traction. Therefore, small modular reactors – and the KP-FHR – will fit neatly with intermittent renewable energy systems. The fact that we are utilizing a rapid iterative approach allows us to keep introducing requirements into the design. For me, virtual twins and simulations are the perfect tools for leveraging the most out of rapid iterations and rapid prototyping.

LMS: Data is an asset, and it is for any company. But for us even more so because a key part of Kairos Power’s future success is our ability to learn, retain and transfer knowledge efficiently and effectively. The only way to do that is by building a learning organization, and that’s why data is critical for us. SpaceX generates terabytes of data a day. That’s why they were able to develop their programs in such a disruptive way.

Right now, we are constructing very big pieces of hardware. What we are able to learn from that construction phase, we can introduce into the next iteration.

That’s where we are currently. Everything is linked to the real hardware Kairos Power is building and manufacturing. It is very important to build things, and those [virtual] tools help us to be more agile and accelerate quickly. The real strength of virtual twins come from data provided by a physical build.

Lou Martinez Sancho, Executive Vice President, Strategy & Innovation for Kairos Power

For more than 20 years, Lou Martinez Sancho has led teams in various industries including biotech, energy, automotive, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC). Her goal at Kairos Power: To enable the world’s transition to clean energy with nuclear-generated power that is clean, affordable and safe.

Read more about how the energy and materials industry is aiming to reduce its carbon footprint

Sustainable construction

As environmental regulations and fees increase, technology helps builders respond

Nick Lerner
17 March 2021

4 min read

Stringent regulations enforced with stiff financial penalties and heightened stakeholder pressure are driving the construction industry to reduce its carbon emissions and waste materials. Compass spoke with Fabrice Bonnifet, director of Sustainable Development & QSE (Quality, Safety, Environment) Bouygues Group, about its transition to more environmentally sustainable construction methods.

COMPASS: Please describe Bouygues and its sustainable development goals.

FABRICE BONNIFET: In its construction business, Bouygues employs more than 58,000 people and generates annual sales of around €13.4 billion [US$16.25 billion]. The company spans the entire construction industry value chain, including land management, design, building, assembly, maintenance, deconstruction and reuse. We are in 60 countries, building transport and energy infrastructure; housing; social, educational and healthcare facilities; industrial installations; and iconic landmark buildings.

We have an ambitious climate strategy underway to reduce our carbon footprint by up to 50% during this decade. This is being achieved through a combination of innovations, including a 40% reduction in the carbon intensity of concrete, 30% of all European buildings being made of sustainable wood, and using 90% green vehicles by 2030.

We are also cutting waste by reusing building components after their first life, improving quality and making construction processes safer and more efficient.

How environmentally and economically sustainable is today’s construction industry?

FB: To achieve environmental sustainability targets, the current industry focus is on carbon reduction. Reducing the energy and carbon demands of making, refurbishing and operating buildings means the industry can thrive together with the environment. The urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, pollution and physical waste means that construction players must evolve to save not just their companies, but the whole planet.

New regulations are adopted every year for the construction industry. Are these helping the industry become more sustainable?

FB: Internationally, authorities are imposing carbon taxes that force the industry to take more responsibility for its materials usage and working practices. These penalize companies that do not innovate and will force them out of business. Other regulations and agreements encourage environmentally positive changes in building management, including intensifying and diversifying usage through sharing office space and resources – space, energy, water and parking – with wider communities. This leads to greater asset usage, fewer buildings being required, and enhanced social, environmental and economic benefits.

What are the main drivers for the industry to take these actions?

FB: Taxes and regulations mean that companies are likely to make less profit until they reduce their exploitation of natural resources and lower their carbon emissions, as well as those of the buildings and infrastructure that they create. Many jobs and businesses therefore need to be reinvented. This means new types of organizations are emerging that use less energy but provide a cleaner and, ultimately, more profitable world. We can’t continue to sacrifice our climate by consuming fossil fuels, so everyone must innovate together in a shared circular economy.

Concrete manufacturing is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases in the world. Can reliance on concrete be reduced?

FB: Concrete contributes more than 6% of our planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, it is a low-cost material, but a €100 [US$121] per ton tax is expected soon in Europe and elsewhere. This prospect is forcing the industry to innovate its materials science and usage. At Bouygues we are developing low-carbon concrete alternatives that divide concrete’s carbon footprint by two or three, and we are rapidly increasing wood construction for social housing to 25% over four years, because it stores rather than emits carbon.

How are virtualization and standardization affecting Bouygues?

FB: Virtualization, using an enterprise-wide platform, heralds a more integrated organizational approach that allows us to exercise in-house control over every aspect of our work. That means design, manufacture, transportation and assembly of building components can be optimized and standardized. [For example,] digital technology is enabling us to build factories that can manufacture 2,000 modular apartments per year that are quick, clean and easy to assemble at the worksite.

What else has Bouygues done to accelerate its environmental sustainability?

FB: As well as using wood and developing low-carbon building materials and assembly systems, we reduce the lifetime carbon emissions of buildings and structures and are endeavoring to cut these to zero. This is achieved through realistic simulation that fully reveals a building’s long-term environmental impact, then digitally engineering solutions such as improved insulation, airflow, energy usage and recycling strategies for enhanced sustainability.

We also digitally “bank” materials by keeping a database of components that have already been used in buildings. At the end of a structure’s life, these parts will be used again in other, future buildings.

Bouygues measures and monitors the progression of its sustainability, and employees are incentivized through bonuses related to carbon and waste reductions.

What technology does Bouygues deploy to advance sustainability, and what has it accomplished to date?

FB: Through a technology partnership, we are developing a unified, enterprise-wide business platform to digitally simulate, predict performance characteristics and thereby transform the design, engineering and operation of all our products, projects and processes. This provides the means for highly efficient low-carbon capabilities across all of Bouygues’ construction activities.

In Grenoble, France, we have delivered ABC (Autonomous Building for Citizens). It is the first low-carbon, autonomous social housing that generates and stores its own electricity, harvests rainfall and processes its waste into compost and biogas energy [gases produced by the breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen]. The results have been a 40% reduction in household waste, and more than 107% of electricity demand is covered by the buildings’ solar farm. The building cuts residents’ piped-in water consumption by 70% and recovers heat from recyclable wastewater.

The ABC project comprises 62 dwellings, with 20 communal halls, an educational showroom and vegetable gardens. (Image © Bouygues)

The project enhances social value and engagement for occupants through sharing building performance data and encouraging community actions. This helps occupants adapt to the changes that characterize urban society and learn how their new home works.

How can Bouygues extend these efforts to help entire cities to be more sustainable?

FB: Cities can become sustainable by producing their own energy, potable water and food from urban farms in new and refurbished buildings. We deploy high-performance, bioclimatic design technology that takes into account climate and environmental conditions to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. This means we can reimagine and build cities that decelerate climate change with hybrid buildings that generate their own energy.

Cities can also become more liveable, with easier, safer, soft transport such as walking and cycling, in addition to pollution-free buses and shared electric vehicles that are integrated with and charged by buildings.

What does the future of sustainable construction look like?

Fabrice Bonnifet, director of Sustainable Development & QSE (Quality, Safety, Environment), Bouygues Group

FB: We will increasingly see digitally developed modular construction that brings technically perfected, accurately made, low-carbon components cleanly to worksites for easy assembly. Innovative minds, enabled with digital technology that helps realize their visions, will deliver commercial and environmental sustainability to industry players that are prepared to embrace this crucial transformation.

What is Bouygues planning for the future?

FB: We are working toward a better future for humanity that reconciles business profit with sustainability. Ongoing research, development and virtualization are enabling rapid innovation of low-carbon construction materials and methods. This work is vital to safeguard our planet, because there is no vaccine for the climate.

Learn more about sustainability solutions for the construction industry.

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