Developing the SILEX laser technology for the application to uranium enrichment.
After several years of pioneering R&D, the SILEX Technology was invented by Silex Systems scientists Dr Michael Goldsworthy and Dr Horst Struve in the mid 1990’s. In order to facilitate the potential commercial deployment of the technology in the United States, an Agreement for Cooperation between the United States and Australia was enacted in May 2000.
In June 2001, the technology was officially Classified by the United States and Australian governments, bringing the project formally under the security and regulatory protocols of each country.
Silex signed a Technology Commercialisation and License agreement with General Electric Company (GE) in 2006 to develop and commercialise the technology to enrich uranium for use in nuclear power reactors. Since 2008, the project has been managed by GE subsidiary Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), comprising GE (51%) Hitachi (25%) and Cameco (24%).
Naturally occurring uranium must be enriched before it can be used as fuel in a nuclear reactor. Enrichment is a technically difficult process and constitutes a major component of nuclear fuel costs.
Uranium enrichment involves increasing the atomic concentration of the ‘active’ U-235 isotope from 0.7 per cent in natural uranium to approximately 5 percent required for reactor fuel.
The two methods of uranium enrichment used to date have been Gas Diffusion (first generation) and Centrifuge (second generation). The third generation laser-based SILEX process provides much higher enrichment efficiency compared to these earlier methods, offering significantly lower costs.
Demand for Enriched Uranium
The global demand for nuclear power and therefore enriched uranium, is expected to increase significantly over the next few decades to help meet the world’s converging needs to achieve energy supply security and address climate change.
The uranium enrichment market is currently worth in excess of $6 billion per annum (2012). It is expected that this will increase to approximately $20 billion by 2030.
The SILEX Technology is a unique laser-based process that has the potential to efficiently separate uranium isotopes as well as various elements.
The SILEX Technology has a number of advantages over other uranium enrichment processes including:
Significantly higher enrichment process efficiency.
Relatively low operating costs.
Considerably lower capital costs compared to centrifuge technology.
Significantly, SILEX Technology is the only third generation laser-based uranium enrichment technology under development in the world.
Subject to the continued success of the program GE agreed to fund the following activities to be undertaken in conjunction with Silex:
Test Loop: This program is designed to test the performance and efficiency of engineering-scale equipment and to provide the engineering design detail for a commercial production facility.
Lead Cascade: This program involves the construction and operation of the first small production module after successful completion of the Test Loop. If the Lead Cascade confirms the efficiency and reliability expected of the technology at full-scale production, then GE may continue with the deployment of the first large-scale commercial enrichment plant.
In addition to funding the technology development program, GE agreed to the following milestone payments to Silex:
US$5 million after receipt of preliminary US government approval (payment was received in June 2006).
US$15 million on receipt of final government approval (payment was received in October 2006).
US$15 million upon successful completion of the Test Loop program and receipt of an NRC license for the commercial plant.
US$20 million upon successful completion/licensing of the Lead Cascade.
Additionally, Silex will receive a perpetual royalty of up to 12 percent, comprising:
A base royalty of 7 percent of revenues generated from enrichment services using the SILEX Technology.
An additional royalty of up to 5 percent based on the total cost of deployment whereby the lower the cost of deployment per unit production, the higher the royalty.