Testing 1, 2, 3: SHINE makes progress at demonstration facility
MONONA — One of eight accelerators that's expected to eventually drive the production of medical isotopes in Janesville sits quietly for now, surrounded by white concrete walls that are two feet thick.
About 60 feet away is one of eight target vessels, where fission ultimately will split uranium atoms into isotopes that are the backbone of SHINE Medical Technologies, the start-up company that plans to build an $85 million production facility on Janesville's south side.
Initially, SHINE plans to produce molybdenum-99, a medical isotope used in more than 30 varieties of diagnostic imaging procedures performed more than 50,000 times each day in the United States.
For now, the company's vital components sit in a nondescript building in Monona, where for nearly a year the SHINE team has been busy testing and proving its technology in advance of licensure from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"We're prototyping with full-scale equipment," said Greg Piefer, SHINE's founder and chief executive officer. "This facility also allows us to practice and ingrain our cultural behaviors, many of which focus on safety."
Piefer said the 30 or so SHINE employees are focusing on three main areas:
-- Testing and tweaking their technology.
-- Preparing reams of data for federal and state licensing.
-- Designing a 50,000-square-foot building.
SHINE's proprietary accelerator and target vessel sit separately for a reason, Piefer said. Joining the two at this stage would require federal licensure.
"Through the testing we've been able to do, the technology has met my expectations so far," he said. "We know the two will work together.
"In fact, they'll be rewriting textbooks for a long time if they don't work."
SHINE's demonstration facility in Monona has allowed the young company to put itself together in one location, one with room for the entire staff as well as a large shop area for assembly and testing of components.
It also provides a welcoming atmosphere for potential customers and investors, Piefer said.
SHINE is one of four U.S. companies supported by the National Nuclear Security Administration as it pushes for a more reliable and diverse supply of Mo-99, which is primarily used for detecting heart disease and determining stages of cancer progression.
Historically, most Mo-99 used in the United States has been produced in Canada and the Netherlands using highly enriched uranium in high-power research reactors. Both the Canadian and Netherlands reactors are operating beyond their licensed lives, and unscheduled shutdowns caused worldwide shortages that delayed or canceled millions of medical procedures.
In Janesville, SHINE plans to use eight units that would each produce one vial of a Mo-99 solution a week. That would be enough to meet about two-thirds of U.S. demand, Piefer said.
Piefer said SHINE's manufacturing process would offer significant advantages over existing production technologies. It would not use highly enriched uranium, and it would not require a nuclear reactor.
Instead, it would rely on a particle accelerator to generate hundreds of times less radioactive waste than any current Mo-99 production process, he said.
In short, deuterium ions would be shot through the accelerator at about 12 million mph. In a heavily protected chamber, they would collide with tritium gas and release neutrons that would travel into a tank of liquid containing uranium-235, also known as low-enriched uranium.
The neutrons would hit the uranium-235 in the solution and create Mo-99 and other isotopes that would travel to an extractor bed of sand-like material. The Mo-99 would be washed out, purified to medical standards and packaged for immediate delivery to customers.
SHINE got a significant boost when The Los Alamos National Laboratory recently validated the company's process for production and separation of Mo-99 from the uranium solution.
Federal licensing representatives have visited the SHINE site in Janesville near the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport and the demonstration facility in Monona.
That's important as the company and agency work toward licensing and permit agreements, Piefer said.
"It's good to learn about things ahead of time," Piefer said. "They've never licensed anything like this before, and as we work toward that they have been tremendously helpful."
Piefer said it's possible construction could start in Janesville in late 2014, with production starting in June 2016.
The company is considering options for an office in Janesville well before production starts.
"We're at the point, now, where things are going really well here, and we don't want to split the team up too much," Piefer said. "We'll certainly need a presence in Janesville by 2015."
In the meantime, SHINE continues to fine-tune its processes, design the Janesville facility and work toward licensure.
Representatives routinely meet with staff at Blackhawk Technical College in an effort to develop curricula that will train some of the future 150 employees.