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INL National University Consortium
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INL National University Consortium
Postdoc from Oregon State University is motivated by childhood experiences to perform energy research
Growing up in Northern China, Dr. Ningshengjie Gao and her family would prepare for scheduled area power outages meant to conserve energy. Her mother would cook meals to last the family for the duration, and they'd plan for Gao to visit her grandparents in a nearby, but different region, so she could do her homework with more light than the candles they'd use during the blackout. Those few summer days were not a big ordeal for Gao and her family, but the periods of time without electricity were enough to teach Gao at a young age about energy's importance in her daily life and the world.
Today, Gao is a postdoctoral researcher in the Energy Storage and Advanced Transportation department at Idaho National Laboratory studying energy storage and conversion. Her two current projects work with carbon dioxide reduction and lithium metal batteries.
Gao's parents had science backgrounds. Her father teaches at a medical school, and her mother is a mechanical engineering professor. But Gao's scientific path was far from ordained. She entered Nankai University in China for her undergraduate studies uncertain what career path she might follow – until she entered a chemical lab. It was not the discovery or experiment possibilities that made an impression. It was all the crystal-clear glassware shining in the room. Gao found them pretty. "I've always loved sparkly things," she said.
Gao put an assembled coin cell into a cell holder, which will then be tested later in an environmental chamber to test how the cell reacts in different temperatures, humidity levels, and pressures.
It might have been the glassware that got her in the lab, but it was the science that kept her returning. Her efforts rewarded her with an international award during the 2013 World Engineering Summit held in Singapore. Gao loved conducting experiments. She still does.
"It provides a continuous experience of exploring the world," she said. In the lab, "I am excited to witness new phenomena or processes that have never been seen before. I am doing things I cannot do in my daily life."
In her daily life she does yoga, she hikes, and she investigates objects, like flowers, by quietly sketching them. In the lab, she is working to better understand energy, how to convert it, how to store it, how to use it safely and minimize its impact, and how to get more of it directly into everyone's hands in the form of electronic devices with batteries that last longer.
Gao graduated with a bachelor's degree in 2013, and a few months later she entered a doctorate program at Oregon State University, where she focused on electrochemistry for energy applications. Specifically, she worked on technology to recover electrical energy and fuels from organic wastes. In the back of her mind, she remembered those days as a child without electricity at home in China.
"In general, energy is critical across the world," she said.
Gao finished her doctorate program last year, but her research at Idaho National Laboratory still investigates energy storage and conversion. One of her projects involves electrochemical carbon dioxide reduction. It is a project she started on two years ago as an intern at INL and involves using renewable energy to reduce the carbon footprint. She's currently working on how to convert renewable energy into a more dispatchable form to easily integrate into the electrical grid for long-term storage and transport. She recently helped draft a paper about this work that has been submitted for review for publication.
Her other area of research focuses on lithium metal batteries. Lithium metal batteries have a higher theoretical capacity than lithium ion batteries, she said. But there are still issues with making it largely applicable to daily life.
In the lab, Gao assembles batteries and then tests them. She runs them until they die in various conditions and collects the data. She is looking at battery failure mechanisms – why the battery cell dies. She looks at battery failure mechanisms to predict the lifespan of lithium metal batteries. Understanding how to make batteries last longer could have implications for anyone with a cellphone or any other portable electronic device. Lithium batteries are also used more and more in electric vehicles, which are becoming a global transportation trend, she said.
She still has a long way to go before she reaches her end goal, but when she's successful, it will impact the lives of everyone whose cellphone battery always seems to die.
"I want our electronic devices to last longer and charge faster," she said.
Revolutionary Cybersecurity Tool for Protecting Energy Systems Released on Github
A revolutionary new cybersecurity tool that can help protect the electric power grid has been released to the public on the code-hosting website GitHub. Developed by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, the Structured Threat Intelligence Graph (STIG) software allows utility owners and operators to easily visualize, share, create, and edit cyberthreat intelligence information.
The ability to share threat intelligence is essential for protecting critical infrastructure like the electric power grid, water treatment facilities, oil refineries, and manufacturing plants from cyber exploits. Prior to the development of this software, threat information was too complex and cumbersome to share, limiting its application in operational environments. The new software standardizes the collection via Structured Threat Information eXpression (STIX) and converts complex data on cybersecurity vulnerabilities into a visualization that is easy to understand and act on. With STIG, utility owners and operators have a common system for sharing threat intelligence information, thus increasing the chances of detecting and mitigating cyber exploits before they lead to a cyberattack.
“We’ve been working on the development of this tool for quite a while and have had success testing it with a major utility,” said Jed Haile, INL cybersecurity researcher and tool developer. “This software helps analysts process new threat information rapidly and makes it easier for them to find or create relationships between pieces of information.”
By releasing the open-source code on GitHub, INL researchers hope other developers will take on the challenge of making the tool even better and ultimately helping to better protect the nation’s critical infrastructure systems. In addition to Haile, INL Infrastructure Security Strategic Adviser Rita Foster and cybersecurity researchers Justin Cox and Zach Priest were instrumental in the tool’s development.
The team has been working closely to test the software with Southern California Edison, a principal member of the California Energy Systems for the 21st Century (CES- 21) Program, and the primary electricity supply company for much of Southern California. The company provides 14 million people with electricity across a service territory of approximately 50,000 square miles. Southern California Edison sponsored the research that led to the development of the software. Seeing the potential for wider application of structured threat sharing, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a request to release the open-source code.
The tool is available for free download at:
INL Selected to Partner with Three Utilities on First-of-a-Kind Integrated Energy Systems
Three commercial electric utilities and Idaho National Laboratory have been chosen by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy’s funding opportunity announcement (FOA) U.S. Industry Opportunities for Advanced Nuclear Technology Development for a first-of-a-kind project to improve the long-term economic competitiveness of the nuclear power industry. Through this solicitation, DOE encourages partnerships between federal agencies, public and private laboratories, institutions of higher education, and the business community, including electric utilities, to share expertise needed to successfully develop innovative nuclear technologies.
This project accomplishes DOE’s objective to support innovation in and competitiveness of the U.S. nuclear industry through research, development and demonstration of commercial applications that pair carbon-free nuclear energy in a hybrid, nonelectric application to produce hydrogen. The DOE awards announcement for this project and others can be found on the DOE website (
“This first-of-a-kind project represent significant advances for improving the long-term economic competitiveness of the light water reactor industry,” said Bruce Hallbert, director of DOE’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program, based at INL. “They will enable the production of commodities such as hydrogen in addition to electricity from commercial nuclear power plants. This project also accelerate the transition to a national hydrogen economy by contributing to the use of hydrogen as a storage medium for production of electricity, as a zero-emitting transportation fuel, or as a replacement for industrial processes that currently use carbon-emitting sources in hydrogen production.”
The utility participants are Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Solutions, the industry leader for the effort; Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based energy company that owns and operates two nuclear plants in Minnesota; and Arizona Public Service (APS), a Phoenix, Arizona-based utility that operates Palo Verde Generating Station.
The two-year project led by FirstEnergy Solutions will initially demonstrate and deploy a 1- to 3-MWe low-temperature electrolysis unit to produce commercial quantities of hydrogen. The first site, planned for 2020, is FirstEnergy Solution’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station near Toledo, Ohio.
Hydrogen from Davis-Besse may initially be used to supply public transportation fleets in Ohio, in new direct iron reduction plants being constructed to produce steel products, or for other commercial products now under investigation. The project will demonstrate how hydrogen from commercial nuclear operations can be used to produce “green” products and commodities in significant quantities for domestic use and for export to international markets where green and low-carbon attributes are incentivized.
“We are pleased to have been selected for this project by the Department of Energy and look forward to exploring the economic viability of H2 generation at a nuclear power plant, and demonstrating the compatibility and synergy of the two technologies,” said Raymond Lieb, senior vice president of Fleet Engineering for FirstEnergy Solutions. “Thanks to the support provided to our Ohio nuclear plants by the state of Ohio, we are able to work with DOE to explore new methods of keeping nuclear power plants competitive in any economic environment. This is a great opportunity to show that hydrogen can be effectively generated in a carbon-free and safe manner.”
Xcel Energy will also participate in the demonstration project to help determine if hydrogen production can enhance the company’s growing carbon-free footprint. Redirecting nuclear energy from electricity to hydrogen production could help balance the electrical grid with the increasing amount of wind and solar energy on the system. The company has also been testing flexible operations at its nuclear plants, but hydrogen could create an entirely new value stream. Xcel Energy plans to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent in the Upper Midwest by 2030 (from 2005 levels) and is pursuing a vision to provide electricity from 100 percent carbon-free sources by 2050.
”We’ve challenged our nuclear employees to find innovative ways to operate more efficiently, use technology, pursue new ideas and reduce costs to make our plants more valuable for our customers,” said Tim O’Connor, chief nuclear officer, Xcel Energy. “Projects like this hydrogen demonstration will ensure our nuclear plants continue to help Xcel Energy provide reliable, affordable carbon-free electricity for the Upper Midwest.”
APS’ Palo Verde Generating Station near Phoenix, Arizona, also participates in the demonstration. Hydrogen from Palo Verde may be used as energy storage for use in reverse-operable electrolysis or peaking gas turbines during times of the day when photovoltaic solar energy sources are unavailable and energy reserves in the U.S. Southwest are low, and could also be used to support a burgeoning hydrogen transportation fuel market. Experience from this pilot project will offer valuable insights into methods for flexible transitions between electricity and hydrogen generation missions in solar-dominated electricity markets—and demonstrate how hydrogen may be used as energy storage to provide electricity during operating periods when solar is not available.
“This project allows us to explore a new form of energy storage while continuing to provide customers what they want – clean, affordable and reliable electricity,” said Bob Bement, APS executive vice president and chief nuclear officer. “For more than 30 years, Palo Verde has been the largest single clean-air energy source in the country. This pilot combines advanced technology with existing infrastructure to integrate carbon-free nuclear power with the desert Southwest’s abundant solar energy. It is an exciting opportunity to advance a clean energy future for Arizona and beyond.”
“This demonstration project will confirm how commercial nuclear utilities can produce—without carbon emissions—essential products, like hydrogen, at a scale needed by industry,” Hallbert said. “Nuclear energy can help meet the significant demand for hydrogen and other synthesized products while helping industrial users reduce their own carbon footprints.”
Two Oregon State Students Selected as INL Graduate Fellows
Idaho National Laboratory awarded prestigious INL Graduate Fellowships to 12 students from universities throughout the U.S. These students will become the third cohort of INL Graduate Fellows.
Recipients of these competitive fellowships have their tuition and fees covered by their university during their first years of graduate school (years one to three). Their tuition and fees plus a $60,000 annual salary are paid by INL during the last two years of their doctoral research performed at the lab.
In the first years of their Ph.D. program, graduate fellows will spend most of their time taking classes at their university. That balance will shift in the last years of their Ph.D. program, where graduate fellows will spend the majority of their time at INL conducting research. The typical graduate fellowship program runs between three and five years.
There are mutual benefits for the graduate fellows, universities and the lab. Throughout the program, the graduate fellows will interact and collaborate with both their INL mentor and their university thesis adviser.
The program allows INL to integrate students into the laboratory and provides graduate fellows with work on significant projects that will help them fulfill their thesis research requirements. INL gains access to skilled staff, along with the opportunity to build long-term collaborations with universities, increase recruiting opportunities, and interact with a continuous pipeline of students interning and conducting research at the lab. Both the university and INL have the opportunity for joint publications and intellectual property.
“INL graduate fellowships offer huge opportunities for everyone involved,” said Michelle Thiel Bingham, INL’s University Partnerships director. “Universities gain a window into INL research, students are provided an amazing research experience while pursuing their education and INL researchers get fresh perspectives from the graduate fellows. The end result is the laboratory strengthens its partnerships with universities while continuing to develop the next generation.”
Graduate fellows were selected in degree fields that closely tie to INL’s three mission areas of innovative nuclear energy solutions, other clean energy options and critical infrastructure.
Congratulations to the following students who were selected as the third cohort of INL Graduate Fellows:
*N&HS: National & Homeland Security, NS&T: Nuclear Science & Technology, EES&T: Energy & Environment Science & Technology
The next call for graduate fellows will begin in fall 2019 and is open to all universities. For more information about the program, contact
Michelle Thiel Bingham
(208-526-7830) or visit
.*N&HS: National & Homeland Security, NS&T: Nuclear Science & Technology
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.
By Erica Curless
North Carolina State postdoc fulfills research dreams at INL
4. University Highlight
Dr. Mohammad Abdo, a graduate of North Carolina State University (NCSU), has always had a passion for knowledge and learning. As an instructor, his research often was a lower priority to helping his students. That's why after many years of putting research second to teaching, Abdo decided to finally fulfill his dream of pursuing a postdoctoral researcher position at Idaho National Laboratory (INL).
Since beginning his two-year appointment in June as a member of the Risk Analysis and Virtual Environment (RAVEN) development team, Abdo has utilized his extensive background in data mining, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
As part of the RAVEN team, Abdo's research primarily focuses on using, adding and developing new algorithms to facilitate the creation of models and simulations that are less expensive, yet more efficient in modeling and testing nuclear energy applications. In the past, it was common for simulations to be costly and run for several days or weeks before seeing any sort of statistical result, and even then, researchers were not guaranteed the outcome they were anticipating. To help combat this, Abdo plans to make the simulations less expensive without sacrificing efficiency.
"My current research is to make use of the mines of data available in the national labs, universities, and industrial entities to inform experimentalists of the most influential measurables and help them build experiments that save both time and money," said Abdo.
A native of Alexandria, Egypt, Abdo grew up with a constant thirst for knowledge, always wanting to learn more and help others in his endless quest for enlightenment. He found himself placing top of his class in his early years, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at Alexandria University in 2000. Years later, he earned his doctorate in nuclear engineering from NCSU, ranked third among the nuclear graduate schools nationwide, in 2016.
After obtaining his Ph.D., Abdo served as a postdoctoral researcher at NCSU and Kansas State University (KSU). Following a year of instructing at the latter, he heard about a potential research opportunity with INL that he simply couldn't pass up.
"INL was always on my roadmap of places I dreamed to conduct research for," he said. "I had people tell me, 'you'd better apply for a tenure-track.' And I'd say, 'not before I gain this experience.' I feel like it's where I should be."
One of Abdo's most prominent projects in collaboration with his mentor, Dr. Aaron Epiney, is to help design the Transient Reactor Test (TREAT) Facility Water Environment Recirculating Loop. Abdo's modeling and simulation research will allow the TREAT team to better understand how sensitive the responses of interest are to the input parameters and initial conditions and will help identify all possible uncertainties. The goal is to create an indistinguishable parallel between the experimental data and the actual plant through the team's utilization of the representativity theory, which aims to accurately represent a simulated accident under controlled conditions using TREAT.
Abdo's work will eventually improve the fidelity and reliability of many nuclear simulations. His research with RAVEN will allow facilities like TREAT to conduct more experiments by generating results at a more cost-effective rate. How far away they are from sustainability is anyone's guess, said Abdo. However, he's confident these methodologies will prove to be indispensable.
Now that he's finally fulfilling his dream of pursuing research in his field of expertise, Abdo is beginning to think about the next step of his journey. Like many researchers, he hopes his work will eventually allow him to help find a cure for cancer using pattern recognition and machine learning techniques in genomics.
"Several members of my family have had it," he said, "so if I could participate in making cancer less common or cure it entirely, that would be a dream come true."
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