Joanna Patsalis on why it’s time to start talking about radioisotopic power sources
Marianna Nicolaou 07:17 - 10 February 2024
Joanna Patsalis, Co-Founder and COO of Direct Kinetic Solutions (DKS), was included in the 2023 Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ Energy list.
Here, she talks to GOLD about radioisotopic power sources as the next generation of batteries, the adrenaline rush arising from an idea taking form and the need to fail in order to succeed.
Joanna Patsalis is one of those people who would have been a restless entrepreneurial trailblazer, no matter the era she was born in. In another time, she might have been a Joy Mangano or a Julia Child. A woman who identified her passion, saw a gap in the market, drew up a plan and took the risk.
The three main takeaways from my riveting discussion with Patsalis were these: First, it’s time to start talking about radioisotopic power sources (RPS). Second, we should clear the air with regard to nuclear power misconceptions. And third, failure and the ability to bounce back is the ultimate test of a robust business infrastructure ecosystem.
To understand the accuracy of my conclusions, you need to hear Patsalis’ side of the story. With a background in Business Studies, she started with a career in cosmetics, climbing from marketing to operations and onto the supply chain. Every step of the way, she observed how an idea could be transformed into a product and then be successfully distributed to the market.
While pursuing her MBA in New York – and as a technology enthusiast – Patsalis joined FedTech, a programme that connects government technologies with innovative business minds. This marked the birth of her startup, Direct Kinetic Solutions (DKS) in 2019, as she began working with the Army Research Lab (ARL) to enhance and commercialise a particularly innovative technology called RPS (Radioisotope Power Sources). “When I chose this technology as my focus, I was doing consulting at IBM and research into the Internet of Things (IoT),” she recalls. “I observed that, while there were a trillion devices constantly monitoring and putting data out there, no-one was talking about the trillion batteries needed for them, the maintenance cost and how they would impact the environment. Renewable energies are not a good fit for these applications, so when I read about isotopes and their hundreds of years half life, I knew there was something there to explore.”
Radioisotopic power sources are long-lasting batteries that run off of tiny amounts of nuclear material. As Patsalis explains, what sets RPS apart from conventional lithium-ion batteries is the way they use isotopes that continuously emit energy as a continuous flow of low current. “The way I would easily describe it,” she says, noting my evidently perplexed expression, “is to imagine putting a small sun that is always emitting energy (the isotope) on top of a solar panel (the semiconductor chips) and encapsulating it so that its light (energy) cannot escape. In this way, the ‘sun’ will keep emitting its energy for hundreds of years, uninterrupted by environmental conditions, and we are able to capture it.”
The DKS founders met through the aforementioned FedTech programme. “We got paired up as we were interested in the same technologies,” she tells me. “We did a lot of customer discovery and interviews to understand where technology could have an impact. We then participated in a contest where we obtained our first $30,000 and decided to create a company and see where it might go!”
It has gone a long way. DKS has secured a licence and Cooperative Research & Development Agreement (CRADA) with ARL and has won several US Government awards and contracts with the Department of Defense, totalling about $4 million of undiluted funds to further develop the technology.
“DKS has a small but agile team of experts in the areas of nuclear energy, chemistry and engineering,” she explains. “Right now, we are like any hardware company: once you have a prototype or a minimum viable product, you need to reach economies of scale. And that’s exactly what our next milestone is. The next two years will be more about scalability and productization, automating a lot of our processes and getting all the raw materials and equipment. We're looking into strategic partnerships, such as with the US Air Force, as we are trying to power some of their devices. As we have successfully delivered a functioning prototype to the customer we're now preparing for the next phase, pilot testing and fulfilling orders. Space comes next; making headway with our NASA contract, going from design to the testing phase for CubeSats and small satellites.”
RPS seems to be the next generation of power and a waste-saving solution. According to Joanna Patsalis, they have extreme energy density compared to any other sources and a continuous current flow of energy lasting as much as the decay of the isotope. They're not affected by any environmental condition and do not need any maintenance or replacement. “These are very competitive characteristics for specific applications we are targeting first, such as sensors, and in space where you need devices to last for decades without the need to recharge because maintenance or failure has a huge cost. In the future we imagine a world where you no longer need to recharge your phone or change the battery on a medical device”
As mentioned earlier, radioisotopic batteries run off of tiny amounts of nuclear material but, says Patsalis, nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), mixed with ignorance and fear, have fuelled misconceptions surrounding nuclear power and its applications. “When people think of nuclear power, they think of disasters, but that’s not what we do at all,” she says. “We use beta and alpha emitting isotopes and even if those came close to skin, they wouldn’t have any impact unless you were to inhale or eat them – which you wouldn’t do with lithium-ion batteries either! You know, people are not awarethat there is nuclear radiation in things around us right now, like the smoke detectors here,” she says, pointing upwards. “They contain americium, which is an isotope. So they exist, they’re around us and I think that talking about it, making sure you obtain the right safety certifications and educating people, are things that need to happen so that technology can be widespread. Our plan for next year is to get a sealed source certification, which should bat away people’s misconceptions and enhance distribution and handling.”
History is filled with examples of innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs who failed countless times before finally achieving their goal and DKS is no exception. “We’re experimenting with something that’s never been done before, so we have already failed many times. But we view it more as a learning lesson rather than a failure; we go instantly to solutioning. We have plan A, plan B, plan C and, if they all fail, we pivot on the spot!” she says, beaming with excitement. “There are many challenges, but they keep it fun and, thankfully, I work with a lot of very smart geniuses that make it even more exciting! I could never have imagined the journey of the past four years and being here today. One can only dream and from the time I remember myself, I always wanted to have my own company and make an impact.”
Listening to Patsalis, I can’t help but wonder what it is that gives her so much confidence when she expects to be making mistakes, rather than scaring her or making her more hesitant in her choices. The answer is simpler than one would imagine. "One of the things that I enjoy in the US is the fact that innovation, entrepreneurship and failure are encouraged," she says. "The US private and government sectors are very much into entrepreneurship; they don’t care if they invest in 1,000 technologies and only one of them ends up succeeding. This allows people to dig deeper and bring their ideas to the fore. You are encouraged to fail and experiment! If I fail in the US, I know for sure that I will be able to pick myself up and try something else. I really wish that one day Europe will reach this state as well.”
Patsalis was included in the 2023 Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ Energy list – which is how I stumbled upon her name in the first place. “Well, it is an achievement but I don’t think it’s my achievement,” she says modestly. “I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for my team. Being nominated and chosen for that…I feel really blessed about it but it is more of a testament to the team’s work and passion,” she says.
It would not be an exaggeration at this point – considering DKS’ contract with NASA as well – to say that Patsalis is reaching for the stars. “I think that once you're very passionate about something, you can’t stop thinking, reading and investing time in it and I am very passionate about what I do. Although my focus and background is on the business side of things, at this point I know enough to be dangerous!” she says, laughing.
If danger only came in the form of good intentions, a thirst for knowledge, innovation and dreaming with open eyes, what an incredible world that would be.
(Photo by Michalis Kyprianou)
(This interview first appeared in the January edition of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.)