The VTT spin-out will build a heating plant powered by a small nuclear reactor, designed to produce heat efficiently, safely and carbon-neutrally, at considerably lower temperature and pressure than traditional nuclear reactors.
Steady Energy, a spin-out company from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, that aims to decarbonise the energy-intensive heating industry starting with residential and district heating, has raised EUR 2 million in seed funding led by VTT, Yes VC and Lifeline Ventures. Steady Energy aims to build the world’s first LDR-50 reactor-based heating plant by 2030. The company will use the raised funding for research and development work to demonstrate the functionality of the plant by building a 1:1 scale mockup powered by electric heat.
The LDR-50 district heating reactor is a small modular nuclear reactor which has been in development at VTT since 2020. LDR-50 is a type name for a reactor with a heat output of 50MW. Designed to operate at around 150 degrees Celsius and below 10 bar (145 psi), its operating conditions are less demanding compared to those of traditional reactors, simplifying the technical solutions needed to meet the high safety standards of the nuclear industry.
“The pressure required by the LDR-50 reactor is comparable to the pressure that of a household espresso machine. It operates at a lower pressure than a district heating network. This ensures that in case of a malfunction which leads to a leak, the leak is contained within the heating plant, without endangering people or the environment,” says Tommi Nyman, CEO of Steady Energy.
About 50% of all energy consumed by EU households goes toward heating homes. European annual district heat consumption is approximately 500 TWh, out of which about 300 TWh is produced by fossil fuels. Decarbonising residential heating in Europe alone is a market with significant growth potential in the hundreds of billions of euros. Throughout Europe, there are approximately 3,500 district heating networks which serve 60 million people, largely powered by fossil fuels. Successful, large-scale decarbonisation of district heating can significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“75% of district heating systems in the EU are currently powered by fossil fuel. The situation is even worse in China. Nuclear energy is already a major source of low-carbon electricity, and small modular reactors represent a pathway to expand the use of the technology to other energy sectors in addition to heating. On top of being safer than traditional reactors, SMRs are more affordable. We’re setting up a demonstration plant for district heating purposes ideally in Finland, but our long-term plan is to have several plants operating around the world, producing carbon-neutral heat to homes, offices and for various industrial applications. We will bring to market the world's best nuclear energy technology optimized for the heating sector,” continues Nyman.
The passive heat removal solution incorporated into the LDR-50 reactor has a major role in its safety. Passive systems make it possible to meet extremely high safety requirements with simplified technology.
The LDR-50 reactor module is made of two nested pressure vessels, with their intermediate space partially filled with water. When heat removal through the primary heat exchangers is compromised, water in the intermediate space begins to boil, forming an efficient passive heat transfer route into the reactor pool. The system does not rely on electricity or any mechanical moving parts, which could fail and prevent the cooling function. The innovation was awarded a patent in 2021.
“Nuclear power know-how, national energy policy and the world's leading district heating network provide the world's best starting point for Steady Energy to start its business specifically in Finland,” says Timo Ahopelto, Founding Partner at Lifeline Ventures.
“Europe and the United States have woken up to the fact that small reactors will become part of energy production already during this decade. We are talking about a very significant market globally”, says Jyri Engeström, Founder and Partner at Yes VC.
“At VTT, we’ve been turning hope into action for 80 years by driving scientific innovation to change the world and businesses for the better. Right now, humanity is facing its most challenging adversary, climate change. We are on a journey to explore tomorrow’s technologies and innovate cutting-edge solutions to build the carbon-neutral societies of the future. Steady Energy represents our commitment to our purpose and embodies the hope we want to bring to the world,” says Jussi Manninen, Executive Vice President of VTT.
Steady Energy will plan its business models according to the needs of the customer and is ready to deliver heating plants directly to customers. The unit size of LDR-50 is 50 megawatts, which is sufficient for heating a small city. A single heating plant can have multiple reactors. The heating plant could even be used as a desalination plant to produce fresh water in areas of the world suffering from water shortage, or it can be modified to produce steam for industrial purposes.
“To preserve our planet and ensure generations to come have a healthy planet, all combustion-based heating must come to an end. Alongside renewable energy, nuclear energy provides a steady source of energy and heat that meets the needs of modern society and helps us in our fight against climate change,” concludes Nyman.
The project has been part of VTT LaunchPad, a science-based spin-off incubator, where VTT researchers and technology are brought together with the best business minds and investors out there to renew industries. VTT LaunchPad supports incubator teams to develop VTT-owned IPR into fundable spin-off companies.
Photo above: CEO Tommi Nyman and CTO Hannes Haapalahti from Steady Energy.