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By C. Antonio Romero

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA, 15 JULY 2008 — Science fiction has long dreamed of compact, virtually inexhaustible power sources that man can harness to his dreams. This summer's Iron Man turned upon the development of an "arc reactor" no bigger than a human heart and safe enough to put in a man's chest, and the successful, if barely watchable, Sci-Fi Channel Stargate franchise has for years been powered by "Zero-Point Modules" (leftovers from Atlantis) hardly bigger than a Big Gulp. A lot closer to reality, however, is a uranium-powered "nuclear battery" with a Manhattan Project pedigree, no moving parts and a footprint not much bigger than a hot tub.

Otis Peterson is no Tony Stark, but his nuclear battery will surely beat Iron Man's arc reactor to market.

Currently being developed by Hyperion Power Generation (formerly Comstar), a spin-off of Los Alamos National Laboratories, the Hyperion Power Module (HPM) is the brainchild of Dr. Otis "Pete" Peterson, a long-time Los Alamos researcher with a CV full of nuclear energy and laser research, as well as counter-proliferation activities. He has based his design on a fuel, uranium hydride, which has no possibilities for use in nuclear proliferation.

The initial rector will be compact, self-regulating, self-contained, and sealed at the factory. On deployment, the unit is buried in the earth, where it generates heat for its useful lifetime of approximately five years (after which it must be returned to the factory for refueling). The heat is then used to generate steam for turbines or for whatever other purpose power is needed on site. There are no moving parts within the power source itself.

Hyperion Nuclear Battery, shown to scale

Ironically for a technology touted as green power, the original market envisioned for the HPM nuclear battery was remote sites where electricity and steam are needed to extract fuel from oil sands and shale. The low cost of power generation from the battery combines with higher prices for oil to make these previously neglected sources of oil economically viable.

The military applications are also obvious-- a few of these could power a sizeable forward operating base without limit (perhaps even including central heating or air conditioning for troops serving in extreme climates). If all goes according to plan, about 4,000 units of the initial design will be manufactured at a new U.S. site yet to be determined. No word as to who the early customers are, though inquiries are coming in from a wide variety of sectors.

Depending upon pricing and regulatory requirements, one could even imagine gated communities in remote areas outside American cities putting in a few members-only generators under their golf courses. The claim is that each one could power 20,000 typical American homes for extended periods.

It's a bit hard to take some of the enthusiastic waxing about Hyperion batteries saving the world:

...over 25% of the world's population does not have access to clean water. Hyperion can solve this appalling situation by providing the power to pump, clean, and process life's essential element, thereby turning the tide on disease, poverty and social unrest.

Point solutions like this, while invaluable where they're really needed, probably don't have a huge place in solving the global warming problem. And an exhortation to "Think: Big Battery!" seems a bit strained, given that, if this battery were to leak, it would be far nastier than a typical Duracell. But this is not to dismiss the significance of the technlogy, and possible applications of similar technology with greater scalability. One can't argue that the Big Battery isn't innovative, at a time when innovation in energy is what we desparately need.

Hyperion Power Generation

C. Antonio Romero is the Nouveau and Technology editor of He last wrote on Daniel Edwards Oprah Burial Mask with Puppies Sculpture.

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