Vanderbilt University Students Develop Innovative Nuclear-Powered Technology for Space Exploration

Vanderbilt University engineering students have created a groundbreaking solution for remote exploration by using nuclear waste to power machines in outer space. The startup known as Zeno Power, which emerged from Nashville, has already gained significant traction, employing dozens of staff members and securing major military contracts. The company’s technology aims to enable exploration in areas of the ocean, space, and remote regions of Earth that are not accessible with solar or battery-powered machines.

Zeno Power’s self-sufficient and lightweight radioactive system can be transported to extremely cold, dark, and distant locations, overcoming the limitations of current energy sources. The founders of Zeno Power, Tyler Bernstein, Jonathan Segal, and Jake Matthews, believe that their technology will open up new possibilities for exploration and provide insights into the role of the moon in our journey towards becoming a multiplanetary species.

The success of Zeno Power’s prototype development was validated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, paving the way for the company to bring the power of radioisotopes to the commercial market. Zeno Power has already won a $30 million contract from the Department of Defense to develop flight-ready power systems for the U.S. Space Force and a $15 million contract from NASA to support the Artemis missions to the moon.

The utilization of nuclear energy offers a clean alternative to fossil fuels and presents new opportunities for Zeno Power. By using strontium-90, a byproduct of nuclear fission, the company can provide extended periods of power in remote locations where traditional power grids are unavailable. The founders are currently navigating the regulatory aspects of working with nuclear energy and ensuring safety.

Zeno Power’s journey has been supported by Vanderbilt University’s innovation and design center, The Wond’ry, which provides guidance and mentorship to startups. The center aims to bridge the startup “valley of death” and has played a crucial role in the growth of successful ventures like Zeno Power.

As Zeno Power continues to advance, it is expected to contribute to the growing demand for nuclear energy and propel humanity’s exploration of remote and challenging environments.