There are those who semi-retire. Those who just never retire. And then there's Bill Simpkin.
A former jet and rocket engine engineer with what is now Lockheed Martin, Simpkin, 88, has developed a concept to cut carbon emissions from the country's aged coal plants. Instead of abandoning the plants, Simpkin believes, their turbines can be retrofitted to run off the superheated exhaust of a nuclear plant instead of coal, essentially combining two power plants into one and creating a vastly more efficient system than current technology allows.
It may sound like the pipe dream of an over-ambitious octogenarian. This year alone, almost 300 patent applications for nuclear power technology have been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But Simpkin isn't the lone inventor type, tinkering away with formulas free of scientific review. His work has attracted an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, Donald Wilson, who this summer presented Simpkin's concept to a U.S. Department of Energy team at the Idaho National Laboratory.
"I hadn't talked to Bill in years until I got a phone call from him earlier this year. He said he had something he wanted to show me. A week later he came by with his PowerPoint, and as I was looking it over, I thought to myself it made a lot of sense," Wilson said. "The scientists I met with in Idaho seemed to think it was a viable concept. I told them I'd get them the results as soon as they came out."
Back in the early 1990s, Simpkin came up with an idea to make nuclear power plants more efficient. It seemed ridiculously obvious: Take the coolant that circulates around a nuclear reactor to keep it from melting down and instead of expending energy to cool it, just use its intense heat to run another turbine, creating even more electricity.
Efforts to sell the idea hit a wall. It was expensive; nuclear power had gone into the doldrums. And Simpkin might have been a well-respected engineer, but his specialty was designing more powerful jet engines, not power plants.
But two decades later, Simpkin was reading an article about rising carbon levels in the atmosphere and decided to revive his idea.
"It's just a matter of hooking up the pipes," he said. "We could take these old (coal) plants make them clean as a whistle."
By and large, electricity is generated through the boiling of water, whether by burning coal or natural gas, or harnessing the radiation of uranium. The water turns to steam, which spins turbines, creating an electrical charge that can be transmitted hundreds of miles to your home.
But steam generation is not the most efficient of technologies. At some plants, only about 30 percent of the energy contained within a piece of coal or a nuclear rod is actually captured. But Simpkin, using his background getting the most speed out of a jet engine, figures that by running two sets of turbines off one reactor he can improve efficiency by 50 percent.
It's a seemingly radical idea. But the world is filled with such ideas, thought up outside of the university and corporate structure. Among engineers, there is a well-trodden culture of creating and tinkering outside of working life. At Texas Instruments, staffers are encouraged to work on their own projects and are even given access to company equipment.
"Typically people in my field do it because they like making stuff. They're natural makers. You don't go into engineering for money," said Leo Estevez, an engineer at Texas Instruments.
The trick is proving an idea's commercial application. And Simpkin has not had much luck on that front. He described the difficulties in getting a General Electric or a Westinghouse to invest.
"My daughter went to school with Trammell Crow, but that probably doesn't give me access," Simpkin joked. "We're accountable for what we do and the gifts we're given. I told myself before 2012 I'm going to file a patent and I did."
Nuclear is far from the mind of the U.S. power industry. Safety fears have intensified since Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant melted down in 2011. And fracking has opened up vast reserves of natural gas, driving down U.S. power prices.
What's more, Simpkin's idea is contingent on nuclear technology that hasn't fully been proven yet. To get the temperatures required to run a second turbine, Simpkin would need a gas-cooled reactor, not the water-cooled variety that has dominated since nuclear power first came of age. And there are no commercially operating gas-cooled reactors in the United States, said Yassin A. Hassan, a nuclear engineering professor at Texas A&M University.
"It has a lot of advantages in terms of safety," he said. "This generation approach was really developed a long time ago, but there have been problems with materials. We know how to do it, and now we need to improve it."
But that fact hasn't done anything to deter Simpkin, who explains his technology with the plainspoken care of a kindly college professor. "If you took physics in college, you would know about it," he says, explaining his design.
China, which has announced ambitious nuclear plans to combat its polluted air, is building the type of reactor Simpkin requires. Now he and his wife, Peggy, a retired schoolteacher, and their attorney are plotting how to get access to the Chinese market.
"China isn't going to wait around 15 years debating it. That's the place we're going to sell it," Simpkin said.
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