The nuclear sector is much more than the generation of electricity for homes at the Atucha plants. Currently, the construction of the RA-10 reactorwhich will allow the development of a industrial input called siliconwhich will be key in the international geopolitics of the energy transitionbecause it is used for the production of electric car chips. It will be another of the services that the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA) will provide to the industry.
“You may wonder: What does nuclear energy in general and the construction of the RA-10 multipurpose reactor in Ezeiza, by the CNEA, have to do with the automotive industry?” he wrote on the social network Eduardo GiganteNational Director of Territorial Development in Lithium and Batteries, at the Secretariat of Strategic Affairs.
The RA-10 Project, currently under construction in Ezeiza, aims to develop the RA-10 Multipurpose Argentine Nuclear Reactor. Construction began in 2016 and is currently registers a global progress of 80%. The civil works are expected to be completed in 2023 and the installation will be commissioned at the end of 2024, according to official information.
“The RA-10 is a multipurpose research and production reactor of the open pool type with a power of 30 MW,” Gigante explained. The Atucha I plant has a power of 362 MW, more than 10 times the RA-10 reactor. “Because the RA-10 is not going to be used to generate electrical energy on a scale, its function is going to be totally different,” explained the engineer.
Among the functions, he detailed the production of medicinal radioisotopes for treatments such as cancer, and their use for diagnostic imaging. “Argentina is an exporter of this type of radioisotopes, thanks to the RA-3, which is already many years old and must be taken out of service,” Gigante mentioned.
But he also highlighted the role of the reactor for the industry. “One of the services that the RA-10 will provide is silicon doping, basically it is a certain material, impurities are added intentionally, to modify certain parameters of this material. The introduction of impurities into materials is a process that has been practiced for centuries. The steel that we continually see is iron with an impurity, carbon, effectively steel is a solid solution of carbon in iron, which causes several of its mechanical properties to be modified.”
At this point, he linked the operation of the reactor with the industrial input: “In the case of silicon, doping, or its contamination with impurities, what it achieves is modifying its electrical properties, which makes it useful for making very high-performance computer chips. There are two ways to dope silicon: through a chemical process, or through irradiation in a reactor. Doing it through irradiation makes the final product of a much higher quality than the chemical process.”
To highlight the technology behind the process, Gigante mentioned: “This process is well known and is already done by the OPAL reactor in Australia.designed entirely by INVAP” (the Argentine state company that produces space, nuclear and scientific technology).
The relationship between this process and the geopolitics of the energy transition is in electric cars. “It is estimated that a current internal combustion car (of the latest generation) needs around 1000 to 1500 computer chips to operate, but in the case of an electric car this value reaches 3000 to 3500 high-performance chip.”
“We talk about power electronics, because they are subjected to high voltages and currents) that can only be produced with high quality silicon doping, that is silicon doped by neutron transmutation, which is precisely what is obtained in RA-10 processes“Gigante added.
Sources in the sector anticipate that there will be shortages of this service, due to the demand that will exist and a supply “saturated with sales”, which is why it is expected to be a strategic and “very well-paid” input. It is estimated that the service of irradiating one ton of silicon costs US$100,000.
Atomic energy and industry
The National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA) has an offer of services for the productive sector, through technological linkage units. By law, the income it generates is reinvested in its laboratories and research.