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Greg Piefer ’99, MS’04, PhD’06 had a decision to make after graduating from the College of Engineering at UW-Madison: he could take a $90,000-a-year job and enter a soaring tech economy, or he could keep studying with the UW professors who inspired him and get by on $15,000 per year.
The idea they were chasing on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus was the promise of nuclear fusion. One of Piefer’s UW professors was geologist Jack Schmitt, the only civilian ever to walk on the moon. His studies advanced the knowledge of lunar rock and its abundance of helium-3. Piefer’s other professor, physicist Jerry Kulcinski, was trying to fuse these kinds of atoms.
If they could harvest and fuse helium-3, it would supply the world’s energy needs. The promise of this work captivated Piefer, so he stayed on to earn his PhD while diving into this mystery.
Getting helium-3 from the moon back to earth now looks like the easy part of the equation. It’s the fusion that’s hard.
“Getting helium-3 from the moon back to earth now looks like the easy part of the equation,” says Piefer. “It’s the fusion that’s hard.” As he drove on where his mentors’ research had left off, diligence and major breakthroughs allowed him to found two companies: Phoenix Nuclear Labs and SHINE Medical Technologies.
Piefer, the son of a Rockwell Automation electrical engineer, bought surplus lab equipment and industrial machinery from UW-Madison to help him build a 300,000-volt power supply by hand. That device would help him to accelerate one isotope of hydrogen, called deuterium, into another isotope of hydrogen, called tritium. The fusion reaction produces helium and free neutrons, which in turn collide with uranium salts to produce medical-imaging isotopes.
SHINE will supply an isotope called Molybdenum-99, which is used 50,000 times a day in the United States to diagnose and treat patients. Piefer estimates that SHINE — the first startup company ever to receive approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — will end up serving 1 billion patients. Its new plant will break ground in Janesville, Wisconsin within about a year.
“It’s really just the first major step,” Peifer says of what he hopes to offer through fusion technologies. “There are ambitious projects ahead.” And ones that have already seen the Wisconsin Idea go to the moon and back.