Nuclear fusion may one day solve the world's energy needs, but a Wisconsin company is taking the science one step at a time to help make travel safer, life-saving cancer treatment more available and the whole process highly profitable.
SHINE Technologies, headquartered in Janesville with a production facility in Fitchburg, is fast-becoming a global leader in nuclear reactor technology, said Greg Piefer, founder and CEO. Piefer was the featured speaker at the second Cap Times Executive Breakfast on Thursday at The Edgewater Hotel in Madison.
"We have aspirations to create clean energy in a way that essentially gives humans unlimited access to energy over time," he told the crowd of about 135 local business leaders. "But we recognize it’s a hard path, and so we found ways to create commercial value along the way."
The quarterly Executive Breakfast series, sponsored by UBS, was created last fall by the Cap Times and features one-on-one conversations with top Wisconsin CEOs. Aaron Jagdfeld, CEO and president of Generac Power Systems, spoke in the first installment of the series last October.
The moderator for the speaker series is Mark Richardson, president of Unfinished Business Consulting and CEO of GigBlender. Richardson has helped professionals transition in their careers and organizations attract and acquire talent of color for the past 10 years.
SHINE Technologies has grown to include about 400 employees and is expanding into The Netherlands. The company's development has come in phases, starting with the use of nuclear fusion to create neutrons, which can then be used "to take pictures" with applications in the aircraft, spacecraft and defense industries.
In the second phase, SHINE drastically reduced its costs per nuclear reaction and is using the process to fuse low-cost elements and create "hyper-valuable" material, Piefer said.
For example, the company can use neutrons to turn uranium that costs $6 a gram into a material used in medical diagnostic imaging that is valued at $150 million a gram. Piefer pointed to the sugar packets on the tables around the conference room as he spoke, and noted that each one contained about 2 grams of crystals.
"If one those were full of molybdenum-99, it would be (worth) $300 million," he said. "These are really, really valuable materials that we only need to make small quantities of to have a great business."
The company also is involved in nuclear waste recycling, Piefer said, and he noted that 96% of the waste stream can be reused over and over. Almost all of the remaining 4% contains precious metals and other materials that can be mined and sold, he said. SHINE also is using neutrons to turn a "really small percentage of that 4%" into less dangerous and shorter-living isotopes.
Asked why the company chose Janesville as a base, Piefer said it was a matter of economics that kept SHINE in the state — Wisconsin offered more financial incentives — and then the city itself showed the most enthusiasm. He said community leaders from Janesville, including former U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, called him personally to tell him they wanted him to build there.
He also noted that Janesville had an eager and proud workforce, partly the result of having been home to a GM auto assembly plant for decades and then suffering the facility's closure in 2009.
Now SHINE is continuing to maximize the value of nuclear reactor technology while minimizing its risk, Piefer said.
"We're at the point where fusion is commercially relevant now, just not as an energy source," Piefer said.
Greg Marcus, CEO and president of The Marcus Corporation, will be the featured speaker at the next event, taking place Wednesday, April 12. Tickets are on sale now.