INL’s university collaborations impact nuclear technology development

Collaborations between Idaho National Laboratory and prominent universities are advancing the science and development of next generation nuclear energy technology with recently awarded projects that include efforts important to the conceptual design for a proposed, one-of-a-kind research reactor.

INL's National University Consortium (NUC) was established in 2005 and allows INL and the five participating universities – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oregon State University, North Carolina State University, The Ohio State University and University of New Mexico – to provide cutting-edge research that wouldn't be possible by either the lab or the universities individually.

"NUC is a win for both the lab and the universities because it increases impactful science and technology," said Marianne Walck, who oversees the NUC as its director and serves as INL's deputy laboratory director for Science and Technology and chief research officer.  

Several projects awarded within the last six months have both INL and NUC university team members. Projects focus on a wide range of nuclear energy research from a first-of-a-kind modern autonomous control framework for a nuclear reactor to developing novel nickel-ODS alloys for use in next generation molten salt reactors, to research supporting the creation of the proposed Versatile Test Reactor (VTR).

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy established the VTR program in 2018 in response to studies indicating a need for a U.S.-based research reactor to produce neutrons at higher energies to support development of new nuclear energy technologies.

Two of the VTR supporting projects are led by researchers at the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL). One project is focused on data infrastructure of the proposed VTR while the other evaluates containment systems for gases that might result from various types of high-temperature salt experiments in the test reactor. These university-led projects are part of mixed university-industry teams such as the MIT Hierarchical Data Format (HDF) Group, a nonprofit organization developing data management technologies.

David Carpenter, group leader for reactor experiments at the NRL, is the principal investigator on the data project and involved with gas control system research. He said many universities, national laboratories, and industry partners are working together on small aspects of the VTR. The goal is to build a one-of-a-kind research reactor that would generate high-energy, or "fast," neutrons for experimentation and testing purposes. This requires input from the U.S. nuclear science and engineering research community.

"It's a smart matching of capabilities and research," Carpenter said about the projects. He said the partnerships are a nice blend of practical industries with the academic world, which doesn't always happen.

The data project will initiate the creation of a unified information network for the test reactor, which not only manages the internal reactor controls but also delivers experimental data, converting it to a format to be shared across a network for diverse users.

MIT's role focuses more on the actual hardware used to digitize raw signals and turn them into data. Other members of the data team are working on ways to take the wide arrays of data and convert the information to share on the network at high speeds.

"My part is someone will give me output from 100 thermocouples, and then we'll take all that and pass it into the computer in a smart way," Carpenter said.

The gas control project looks at the challenges and needs to get gases transported through various types of salt experiments that are inserted into the VTR. This is part of the initial reactor design work looking at the fundamentals of what type of space and equipment configurations are needed.

The hope for these one-year projects is they will be renewed and the VTR work will continue to progress to where actual experiments begin. Carpenter said that will save time and money because new teams won't have to start over each year, which would make it easier to involve students in ongoing projects.

"This is great if students can contribute to a new reactor in the U.S.," Carpenter said. "It's a huge deal and a monumental task. It's really tantalizing."

Other important work funded by NUC awards includes that of Michael Glazoff, an INL distinguished staff scientist. Glazoff is collaborating with an international team of researchers to develop and examine new ODS-strengthened superalloys that can withstand the detrimental effects of neutron radiation and hot corrosion in a molten salt reactor for longer periods of time as required in the new generation of nuclear reactors.

North Carolina State University is the lead on the project that includes the University of Idaho, University of California-Berkeley and Oxford University.

The team is using yttria Y203 as the oxide with the hope of creating a material with the strength of the corresponding superalloy and improve the ability to withstand the effects of neutron irradiation; the formation of helium bubbles, swelling and cracking that occur in regular nickel alloys.

Glazoff and INL are focusing on the thermodynamic modeling, diffusion, precipitation and DFT modeling of the nickel-ODS alloys. The modeling results will further guide experimental efforts and will reduce the number of critical experiments, saving both time and money.

INL's NUC benefits universities by leveraging research funding and providing access to INL researchers and the large array of nuclear-related facilities, including neutron reactors and examination equipment.

In return, INL gets a boost to its science and technology research by working with these universities. Another important aspect is creating a pipeline of research talent where students participating in NUC projects can perhaps get jobs at INL, Walck said.

"We've got some really exciting work going on," Walck said.

Type of AwardProject NamePIPI InstitutionOther Collaborators
NEUPNi-based ODS alloys for Molten Salt ReactorsDjamel KaoumiNorth Carolina State UniversityMichael Glazoff (INL)
Peter Hosemann (UC, Berkeley)
Haiyan Zho (University of Idaho)
David Armstrong (Oxford University)
Michael Moody (Oxford University)
NEUPDemonstrating Reactor Autonomous Control Framework using Graphite Exponential PileKaichao SunMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyBenjamin Baker (INL)
Akshay Dave (MIT)
Kord Smith (MIT)
NEETContext-Aware Safety Information Display for Nuclear Field Workers Pingbo TangArizona State UniversityRon Boring (INL)
Alper Yilmaz (Ohio State University)
Thomas Myers (Duke Energy)
Joint R&D with NSUF AccessHigh Fluence Active Irradiation and Combined Effects Testing of Sapphire Optical Fiber Distributed Temperature SensorsJoshua DawIdaho National LaboratoryThomas Blue (Ohio State University)
Chrisitan Petrie (Oak Ridge National Lab)
Paul Ohodnicki (National Energy Technology Laboratory)
VTRMolten Salt Sweep Gas Control, Analysis, and Capture System to Support VTR ExperimentsTony HillIdaho National LaboratoryMassachusetts Institute of Technology
Hierarchical Data Format (HDF) Group
ARPA-ENext-Generation Metal FuelMichael BensonIdaho National Laboratory
Wade Marcum (Oregon State University)

John Hanson (Oklo)

By Erica Curless

Date Published: 2019-09-13T06:00:00Z