SILEX Laser Uranium Enrichment Technology

Overview

Silex invented and initially developed the ‘SILEX’ laser-based uranium enrichment technology in Sydney during the 1990’s. The technology was licensed exclusively in 2006 to GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment LLC (‘GLE’), a business venture currently comprising GE (51%), Hitachi (25%) and Cameco (24%). Silex and GLE jointly continue to commercialise the technology for potential deployment in the USA. The target markets are the global nuclear fuel markets for natural and enriched uranium, worth several billions of dollars annually.


Background

The SILEX technology was invented by Silex Systems scientists Dr Michael Goldsworthy and Dr Horst Struve in the mid 1990’s at Lucas Heights, Sydney. In order to facilitate the potential commercial deployment of the technology in the United States, an Agreement for Cooperation between the governments of the United States and Australia was signed in May 2000. In June 2001, the technology was officially Classified by the United States and Australian governments, bringing the SILEX technology commercialisation project formally under the strict nuclear safeguards, security and regulatory protocols of each country.

In 2006 the Company signed a Technology Commercialisation and License Agreement with General Electric Company (GE) to develop and commercialise the technology to enrich uranium for use in nuclear power reactors around the world. Since 2008, the project has been managed by GE subsidiary GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment LLC (GLE) – a joint venture business between GE (51% interest), Hitachi (25%) and Canadian uranium company Cameco Corporation (24%). 

In December 2019, Silex announced the signing of a binding Membership Interest Purchase Agreement (MIPA) between Silex, Cameco Corporation (Cameco) and GE-Hitachi (GEH) for the purchase of GEH’s 76% interest in GLE. Subject to US Government approvals, this agreement will result in Silex acquiring a 51% majority interest in GLE, and Cameco increasing its interest from 24% to 49%. 

Uranium Enrichment 

Naturally occurring uranium is dominated by two isotopes, U235 and U238. Nuclear energy is produced by the splitting (or ‘fission’) of the U235 atoms. Natural uranium is made up of ~0.7% of the ‘active’ U235 isotope with the balance (~99.3%) made up of the U238 isotope.  Uranium enrichment is the process of concentrating or enriching the U235 isotope up to ~5% for use as fuel in a conventional nuclear power reactor. Enrichment is a technically difficult process and accounts for around 30% of the cost of nuclear fuel and approximately 5% of the total cost of the electricity generated.

The Separation of Isotopes by Laser EXcitation (SILEX) process is the only third generation enrichment technology at an advanced stage of commercialisation today. It is able to effectively enrich uranium through highly selective laser excitation of the fluorinated form of uranium – the 235UF6 isotopic molecule. 

The two methods of uranium enrichment used to date have been the now obsolete Gas Diffusion technique (first generation) and Gas Centrifuge (second generation). Silex’s third generation laser-based process provides much higher enrichment process efficiency compared to these earlier methods, potentially offering significantly lower overall costs.

UET-Diagram-2019-01.jpg

Nuclear Fuel Production

The SILEX technology, could become a major contributor to nuclear fuel production for the world’s current and future nuclear reactor fleet, through the production of uranium in three different forms:
  • natural grade uranium (Unat): via re-enrichment of DOE inventories of depleted tails through the Paducah commercial project (producing uranium at natural U235 assay of ~0.7%); 
  • low enriched uranium (LEU): for use as fuel in today’s conventional nuclear power reactors (includes U235 assays between 3% to 5%); and 
  • high assay LEU (HALEU): a customised fuel for next generation Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) currently under development (includes U235 assays up to 19.9%).
Uranium production and enrichment are the two largest value drivers of the current nuclear fuel cycle, accounting for up to 70% of the value of a fuel bundle. 
 

fuel-diagram-2020-02.jpg

The SILEX Uranium Enrichment Technology

The SILEX technology is a unique laser-based process that has the potential to economically separate uranium isotopes as well as commercially valuable isotopes of several other elements. It has a number of advantages over other uranium enrichment processes including:
 
- Inherently higher efficiency resulting in lower enrichment costs; 
- Smaller environmental footprint than centrifuge and diffusion plants; 
- Greater flexibility in producing advanced fuels for next generation SMR’s; and 
-  Anticipated to have the lowest enrichment plant capital costs.




 

Read about the:

The SILEX Technology License Agreement with GLE
GLE Restructure
The Paducah 'Tier 1' Uranium Production Project

Contact us

Registered Office:
Lucas Heights Science and Technology Centre New Illawarra Road
Lucas Heights NSW 2234
Australia

Postal Address:
PO Box 75
Menai Central NSW 2234
Australia


General Enquiries:
enquiries@silex.com.au

Investor Relations:
investor.relations@silex.com.au
Call: +61 2 9704 8888