Finland’s Steady Energy looks to SMR district heating

29 June 2023

Steady Energy – which has been spun out from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland – has raised €2m ($2.2m) in seed funding led by VTT, Yes VC and Lifeline Ventures. The company aims to build the world's first district heating plant based on its LDR-50 small modular reactor (SMR) by 2030. The new funding will be used for research and development work to demonstrate the functionality of the plant by building a 1:1 scale mock-up powered by electric heat.

The LDR-50 has been in development at VTT since 2020. The 50 MW reactor is designed to operate at around 150 degrees Celsius and below 10 bar (145 psi). Steady Energy says its operating conditions are less demanding than those of traditional reactors, simplifying the technical solutions needed to meet the high safety standards of the nuclear industry.

The project has been part of VTT LaunchPad, a science-based spin-off incubator, where VTT researchers and technology are brought together with business leaders and investors to renew industries. VTT LaunchPad supports incubator teams to develop VTT-owned intellectual property rights into fundable spin-off companies.

The LDR-50 reactor module comprises 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. According to Steady Energy, the passive heat removal solution incorporated into the LDR-50 reactor plays a major role in its safety. Passive systems make it possible to meet extremely high safety requirements with simplified technology.

Steady Energy sees considerable potential for using the LDR-50 for district heating in Europe. European annual district heat consumption is approximately 500 TWh, of which some 300 TWh is produced by fossil fuels. Decarbonising residential heating in Europe is viewed as a market with significant growth potential worth hundreds of billions of euros.

CEO Tommi Nyman says the pressure required by the LDR-50 reactor is comparable to 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.”

He notes that 75% of district heating systems in the EU are currently powered by fossil fuel. “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.”

He adds: “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 optimised for the heating sector.”

Steady Energy says it will plan its business models according to the needs of the customer and is ready to deliver heating plants directly to customers. The 50 MW LDR-50 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 a water shortage, or it can be modified to produce steam for industrial purposes.

“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.

Jussi Manninen, Executive Vice President of VTT says 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.”

Image: Cutaway of a district heating plant consisting of four LDR-50 reactor units (courtesy of LDR)

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