Australia’s Silex Systems has completed a AUD120m ($81m) institutional placement to further develop its uranium enrichment technology. Silex Systems is developing laser separation of chemical isotopes and hopes the equity funding will enable it to accelerate commercialisation of the technology. Silex Systems is based at the Australia Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in Lucas Heights, Sydney. It has been collaborating for several years with US-based Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) – a joint venture of Silex and uranium producer Cameco.

The funding comes just a few months after Silex completed testing of the first full-scale laser system module developed for deployment in GLE’s commercial pilot demonstration facility. GLE said this represented “an important milestone in the development of commercial-scale equipment for GLE’s quest to become the only third-generation laser uranium enrichment company in the world”.

The module has been shipped to the USA and installed at GLE's Test Loop Facility at Wilmington in North Carolina. GLE is the exclusive worldwide licensee of the Silex laser technology for uranium enrichment.

Silex CEO Michael Goldsworthy described the new equity as “an exciting and transformational juncture” in the firm’s progress. “This capital underpins a highly value-accretive acceleration in our various technology commercialisation activities, at a time of increasing impetus to improve the security of the global nuclear fuel supply chain and to support a smooth transition toward decarbonisation.”

Silex says that the new funding will also help it further develop two other potential uses of the technology – separating different forms of silicon for quantum computing, and radioactive isotopes for nuclear medicine.

However, the nuclear fuel industry represents the biggest commercial opportunity for laser separation. In a 2022 report Silex pointed out that the US nuclear industry typically imports around one-fifth of its enriched uranium fuel requirements from Russia, with similar levels of reliance in other parts of the Western nuclear industry. Europe is seeking to both reduce reliance on Russian gas and move away from fossil fuels leading to renewed interest in nuclear energy.

In a recent “operational update” Silex stated: “We believe Western nuclear fuel markets will undergo a fundamental realignment over the next 12-24 months towards a more resilient and sustainable footing, with the aim of becoming less dependent on, or free of, reliance on Russian and other state-owned nuclear fuel suppliers. We believe this realignment could endure for decades, given the renewed focus on long-term energy security.”

Geopolitical developments have prompted Silex and Cameco to consider accelerating GLE’s prospective timeline, which had previously envisaged commercialisation by of laser enrichment technology by 2030. GLE has suggested that acceleration could involve targeting completion of the pilot demonstration programme by mid-2024, with a view to starting commercial operations in 2027.

Bringing forward a commercial feasibility assessment and licensing activities is a possibility.

Image: Silex's laser uranium enrichment technology (courtesy of Silex Systems)

Date: Saturday, 04 March 2023
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