• Advanced nuclear reactor design firm Transatomic Power announced that it will suspend operations and open-source its intellectual property.
  • Transatomic’s intellectual property portfolio includes three patent applications and, presumably, reactor designs and specifications that have been held until now as trade secrets.

Transatomic Power, a company that once aimed to repurpose spent nuclear fuel as an energy source for advanced reactors, announced recently that it will suspend operations and open source its intellectual property. Transatomic cited its inability to “scale up the company rapidly enough to build our reactor in a reasonable timeframe” as the reason for closing shop.

The “open sourcing” of intellectual property remains a fairly rare occurrence.[1] Although Elon Musk famously open-sourced Tesla’s patent portfolio a few years ago (a move largely seen as a bid to encourage other companies to share the burden of building electrical vehicle infrastructure), most technology companies maintain a close hold on their IP assets. Even when a company declares bankruptcy, it is rare for the company’s IP assets to be open-sourced; rather, those assets are typically auctioned to raise funds for creditors.[2]

There are likely two main types of intellectual property that will be open-sourced by Transatomic: patents and trade secrets.

Patents

Transatomic owns just three patent applications.[3] All three are generally directed to molten salt reactors:

  1. U.S. Patent Publication No. 2013/0083878: describes a molten salt reactor using hydrides and/or deuterides as a moderator.
  2. U.S. Patent Publication No. 2015/0228363: describes fuel cladding properties for use in a molten salt reactor.
  3. U.S. Patent Publication No. 2016/0217874: describes a molten salt reactor using a fluoride fuel salt and a hydride moderator.

Two of Transatomic’s applications (Nos. 2015/0228363 and 2016/0217874) were rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on the basis that the inventions described in those applications were not new and non-obvious when compared to existing MSR technology. Those applications were abandoned by Transatomic prior to the open source announcement.[4]

Transatomic’s lone remaining patent application (No. 2013/0083878) has been rejected by the USPTO five times, also on the basis that the invention is not new and non-obvious when compared to existing MSR technology. With Transatomic’s suspension of operations it is uncertain if this application will ever issue as a patent.

Trade Secrets

It is difficult to speculate on the scope of Transatomic’s forthcoming public disclosure of its trade secrets because those IP assets are, well, secret. A trade secret is any commercially-valuable information subject to reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy. Common examples include technical designs and specifications, customer information, financials, and marketing strategies.

Transatomic has announced that it will work with the Department of Energy to add its intellectual property – presumably in the form of reactor designs, specifications, and research notes – to the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) database.

In its announcement that the IP assets will be open-sourced, Transatomic expressed hope that others will use their research and design efforts to continue the development of advanced nuclear reactors.