A new kind of nuclear power
Small nuclear power plants are now one of the hottest themes of research and discussion in the energy sector.
– They have been topical for a long time in professional circles and – through a few municipal initiatives – have broken through into the public debate. They may well be the direction of future development, says Senior Scientist Ville Tulkki.
Small nuclear reactors have a power output of around 100 to 300 megawatts, which is around ten times smaller than normal reactors. They are designed to be manufactured as far as possible in factories and are scalable, i.e. they can have several reactors in parallel, depending on the amount of power needed. Floating reactors have also been developed, which can be towed to coastal towns to meet local needs.
Tulkki researches nuclear safety and nuclear fuel at VTT, but smaller power plants have gradually become more topical in recent years.
– They are not just a load of hot air. In China, where half a billion people rely on coalbased district heating, the decision has just been made to use small nuclear power plants instead. Russia, the United States, Britain and Canada are also intensively exploring the potential of such facilities.
With the technical challenges being solved; the key issue is now decision-making and general acceptability.
– Even traditional opponents of nuclear power are more positive: The time has perhaps come, due to climate change, Tulkki speculates.
Climate change is precisely what is motivating Tulkki and VTT – low-emission alternatives of all kinds are needed. If the mass production of small-scale power plants becomes a viable alternative, brand new, cleaner power sources can be obtained for heat production and shipping (which generates 2.5% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions).
VTT has always been strong in the traditional nuclear power sector and is bringing its expertise to assessing the future of small-scale power plants.
– They are no different in terms of the engineering or science. It's just about changing your mindset.
Tulkki has enjoyed working at VTT for the last nine years. He points out that the organisation has outstanding expertise and the right attitude.
– Here, you get the opportunity to explore in new directions, with the support of your superiors. VTT has hugely intelligent people who are enthusiastic about their specialisms. As a project manager, you also find that team members tend to work very independently when seeking solutions.
Internal boundaries have been abolished and more are coming down. In addition to traditional internal partnerships, Tulkki is seeking new cooperation, since small plants can include applications for heat production or process manufacturing, for example. The development of internal cooperation is always a good objective.
– The more we can combine our excellence in VTT's various fields, the better.
Top expertise is never just about work – plenty of passion is always involved.
– After all, I entered the energy sector to try to save the world, explains Tulkki, with a laugh.
VILLE TULKKI, 36
Senior Scientist, Project Manager
- Joined VTT in 2009
- Thesis: Modelling nuclear fuel behaviour and cladding viscoelastic response, VTT Science 109, www.vtt.fi/inf/pdf/ science/2015/S109.pdf
- Previous post: Research Assistant at the Helsinki University of Technology
Sunshine and enthusiasm
Elina Hakkarainen researches renewable energy at VTT. Hybrid concepts combining solar and bioenergy are close to her heart.
– One plus one equals to at least three in the case of hybrids. You also need to be interested in the bigger picture, in terms of what's going on in the world and, above all, what's coming next. My interest in the subject also spills over into my free time, Elina explains with a laugh.
Climate change is creating pressure in the industry: it is causing famine and refugee flows, as well as environmental damage. In addition, energy consumption is set to grow, creating the need for increasingly sustainable production and sharper cuts in emissions. Hakkarainen believes in people, even if watered-down climate policy decisions are not always a cause for celebration.
– For example, it's great how individuals and big cities in the US are leading the way in combatting climate change.
Much work needs to be done, but the trend is positive: solar panel prices have plunged, more electric cars are entering the market, and digitalisation and the platform economy are enabling new operating models.
– None of these alone can save the day, but they are good tools. We shouldn't blindly believe in individual technologies; development is the sum of several partial solutions. Many mature technologies are now available, the only question is how to use them.
VTT is Hakkarainen's first employer. She studied at Lappeenranta University of Technology. Her summer job at VTT involved analyses of solar energy solutions. She also completed her Master's thesis at VTT and became a permanent employee at the beginning of 2015.
– The best thing about working here is that you end the day feeling just as enthusiastic as when you started it, says a smiling Hakkarainen.
– You learn continuously at VTT and get to work with people who are smarter than you. When solving major challenges, you can always find researchers with a range of expertise; we should try to benefit even more from this diversity. The world is changing fast and we are solving some of the related problems on a challenge-driven basis.
Hakkarainen also has broad networks outside VTT. She cooperates with both small technology suppliers and large energy companies.
– Finland has strong expertise, which VTT can help to export: this know-how should be packaged into wholes and we should all be exported to the world as a single, big player. Hakkarainen also regularly travels outside Finland as part of her work.
– As a young researcher, I have already benefited from some amazing opportunities and industry networks. It's great to be able to discuss and prepare new issues with top international names in the field.
ELINA HAKKARAINEN, 28
- Joined VTT in 2014
- Subject of PhD dissertation (underway): Low-carbon solutions for heating via integration of solar thermal and bioenergy
A cryptocurrency veteran
The world is now buzzing about bitcoins and blockchains, even if ordinary people are perplexed by them. Visa Vallivaara, however, knows all there is to know about them.
– Blockchains are a completely new way of building trust, because they allow people who are unknown to each other to trade using money or virtual goods. The challenge of digitalisation is that things can be copied any number of times, but a blockchain ensures undeniable ownership. This is done through cryptography and huge computing power.
Vallivaara is a mathematician who focuses on cyber safety at VTT. His research areas include blockchains and bitcoin technology, as well as cryptography i.e. encryption methods.
– This is a very cross-disciplinary subject at VTT. A total of around 50 colleagues work in these fields. Cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, are one way of applying blockchain technology. Huge power is needed to extract bitcoins from the huge computer network.
– Because the entire bitcoin network consumes more electricity than the Danish state, it needs to become more energy-efficient, says Vallivaara.
Energy transfers, for example, could also be stored in blockchains. Vallivaara provides examples: "If you produce excess solar energy, you could sell it to passing drivers of electric cars, with no need for a bank to mediate. Blockchains could also create trust during nonhuman interactions between artificial intelligence."
Vallivaara has a rather exceptional background for a VTT employee. He is a maths teacher, but has also – VTT is investing heavily in communications, blogging and social media management, so that it can tell the world about its findings, says Visa Vallivaara. played cards at professional level, and represented Finland on the junior National Bridge Team during his studies.
– I didn't need a student loan during that period, explains Vallivaara, with a grin. He crossed paths with VTT when a trainee was being sought via the IRC channel for mathematicians.
– I came as a trainee and did one research project. It was also published in Texas, where I presented it.
Vallivaara developed an interest in bitcoins and cryptography as a student, and companies began to invite him to tell them more about the subject. He was asked to present his masters thesis, written for a mathematics institute, at a NATO conference in Tallinn.
– Mathematics is the key to many professions, says Vallivaara, with a modest smile.
He is now writing a doctoral dissertation on cryptography and will travel to a major blockchain event in New York in the spring. Following that, he will be a keynote speaker in Spain; the subject will be blockchains and IoT.
– I have enjoyed being at VTT. Here, you have interesting colleagues and get to see the world.
However, traveling is not what motivates Vallivaara.
– Yes, I want to make the world a better place. The pay may be better in the private sector, but I can have an impact on things from here. I have been given the opportunity to comment on EU directives under preparation. Last year, we reported to the Prime Minister's Office on how to apply technology to the social and health care reforms. The idea is to reward healthy lifestyles with a cryptocurrency which people can use to buy welfare services.
Vallivaara seems to be in a huge hurry. Where does he see himself in five years?
– Hopefully, I'll have a PhD. By then, I'll be investigating quantum computing, since it poses a threat to current encryption methods.
VISA VALLIVAARA, 31
Cybersecurity Research Scientist
- Joined VTT in 2013
- Latest research projects: The energy consumption of blockchains in IoT devices (doctoral dissertation) and the Evaluation system for the implementation of cryptographic methods (Defence Forces)
- Previous job: Oulu Steiner School