About 19% of the electricity in the U.S. today is nuclear-generated–enormous plants that generate power by way of uranium fuel rods, which heat up water to create steam and drive turbines. The downside: the risk of a meltdown or radioactive leak, plus lots of toxic waste. Leslie Dewan, along with colleague Mark Massie, designed a “molten salt” technology, wherein the uranium is dissolved in a hot salt mixture. A molten salt plant could ideally run on spent nuclear fuel (solving the latter problem) and neatly eliminate risks of steam explosions (solving the former). Dewan, who holds a PhD in nuclear engineering, has spent the past year raising $6 million in financing to get the company through its experimental stage, which was tricky, she says, given that “our returns were 10-plus years out.” Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund made a large investment. “They were one of the early investors in SpaceX, so when we talked with them about our time line, they said, ‘Oh that’s kind of in line with how much time it took to get the Falcon 9 off the ground.’” The goal, says Dewan, who’s blueprinting a test plant and hopes to break ground on a prototype facility at a national laboratory by 2020, is not to prove that nuclear is a better zero-carbon technology than wind or solar. “Basically, we’re all working together in opposition to fossil fuels,” she says. “That’s the real fight.”
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
Through undergrad and grad school I did a lot of interdisciplinary work–in material science, archaeology, computer science, nuclear engineering. A lot of the interesting ideas I’ve had come from exploring the boundaries between different fields.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
How much writing is involved in starting a technology company. When I started out as an engineer, I wasn’t aware how important it was to be able to communicate your ideas.
How do you keep track of everything you have to do?
People make fun of me for keeping a paper dayplanner, but I found that it’s much easier to keep track of things when I write them down.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
I go for a run.
Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?
Danielle Fong at LightSail, an energy storage company using compressed air, and Meredith Perry, at Ubeam, a company looking at wireless charging. We’re all working on similarly big energy problems.