According to a recent article from Vanderbilt University, Zeno Power, a startup launched through the university’s innovation center, has been selected by NASA to receive funding for the development of technologies that could support long-term exploration on the Moon and in space. The company is among 11 American companies chosen for this opportunity.
Zeno Power will lead a team called Harmonia, which includes other industry leaders such as Blue Origin, Intuitive Machines, NASA Glenn Research Center, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, SunPower Inc., and the University of Dayton Research Institute. Together, they will receive $15 million to develop a space-ready radioisotope Stirling generator powered by americium-241 for use during NASA’s Artemis missions.
The Artemis program aims to restore human presence on the moon after more than 50 years since the last mission. To achieve this goal and sustain lunar exploration, reliable and long-lasting power sources are crucial for operating in permanently shadowed regions and surviving the two-week lunar night. Zeno Power’s innovative technology fills this need by providing an energy source that was not commercially available until now.
A radioisotope Stirling generator utilizes a Stirling engine to convert heat into electricity instead of traditional thermoelectric generators. Radioisotope energy systems are compact sources of clean energy that convert heat generated by the decay of radioisotopes into a constant supply of power. Historically, these systems have been powered by plutonium-238 from the US Department of Energy. However, Zeno Power’s design offers additional fuel options using radioisotopes currently classified as nuclear waste.
One such isotope is americium-241, which has favorable thermal and radiation profiles that can complement current plutonium-238-based radioisotope power systems (RPSs) and enable new classes of missions. By leveraging advancements in materials science and nuclear fuel manufacturing, Zeno Power aims to revolutionize lunar exploration with their novel design.
Tyler Bernstein, co-founder and CEO of Zeno Power, expressed excitement about working with industry leaders to bring Americium-241 and Stirling conversion technologies to the lunar surface for the first time. Bernstein founded the company with two Vanderbilt alumni, Chief Technology Officer Jake Matthews and Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Segal.
The partnership between Zeno Power and NASA demonstrates the power of collaboration between commercial space industry companies and government agencies. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson highlighted how this investment in innovative technologies could lay the foundation for future exploration.
The funding for Zeno Power’s project comes from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate Tipping Point Program. This program supports companies that can significantly mature technology, increase its likelihood of being used in commercial space applications, and bring it to market for both government and commercial purposes.
Zeno Power’s success can be attributed in part to their involvement with Vanderbilt University’s innovation center, The Wond’ry. Through programs like the Founder Program and Launch startup incubator, Zeno Power has received guidance from faculty mentor Steven Krahn, a professor of nuclear environmental engineering practice at Vanderbilt.
In 2022, Zeno Power secured $20 million in Series A funding. The company also recently won a $30 million project grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a commercially developed RPS-powered satellite set to launch in 2025.
Evidently, Zeno Power’s collaboration with NASA represents an exciting development in the field of space exploration. Their innovative radioisotope Stirling generator powered by americium-241 has the potential to revolutionize lunar missions and pave the way for sustained human presence on the Moon. With continued support from organizations like NASA and Vanderbilt University’s innovation center, Zeno Power is poised to make significant contributions to space exploration technology.
According to an inside source: “Vanderbilt-initiated startup Zeno Power receives $15M from NASA to build tech to support lunar exploration.”