UW-Madison earns DOE funding for nuclear engineering innovations

May 8, 2012

by Renee Meiller

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded the University of Wisconsin-Madison more than $2.6 million in grants for nuclear engineering research, fellowships and facilities upgrades.

UW-Madison received four of 143 grants awarded under the DOE Nuclear Energy University Programs. A UW-Madison nuclear engineering safety expert also will collaborate with Oregon State University on a fifth project totaling $871,000.

In a DOE announcement of the awards, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said the funding is part of an effort to keep college education affordable for U.S. students. "We must invest in the next generation of American scientists and engineers in order to fulfill our commitment to restarting America's nuclear industry and making sure that America stays competitive in the 21st century," he says.

Through the Nuclear Engineering University Program, three UW-Madison first-year nuclear engineering Ph.D. students received fellowships. Robert Carlson, Scott Greenwood and Sam Briggs each will receive $50,000 annually over the next three years, in addition to a summer internship at a national laboratory.

"I'm honored to be recognized for my potential and my achievements so far," says Briggs. "It's great to feel like the hard work I've put in has paid off. The funding will afford me additional opportunities and freedom in my research-and the national laboratory experience aligns well with my plans to pursue a career at one of these DOE facilities after graduation."

The three students are studying under UW-Madison engineering physics professors Paul Wilson and Mike Corradini and associate professor Todd Allen, respectively.

One of the two UW-Madison reactor concepts research development and demonstrations grants builds on university engineering expertise in using supercritical carbon dioxide as a more efficient, cost-effective fluid for converting energy in several high-temperature reactor systems, as well as concentrating solar power systems.

With $877,000, Mark Anderson, a UW-Madison engineering physics senior scientist, and colleagues will study ways to optimize the performance of such an approach. His team's research will inform future projects to develop test equipment and ultimately, a large-scale supercritical carbon dioxide advanced power system. Anderson's collaborators include Greg Nellis and Sanford Klein, both UW-Madison professors of mechanical engineering, and James Sienicki and Anton Moisseytsev of Argonne National Laboratory.

With the second, $875,350 grant, a team of materials scientists will study how silicon carbide responds to radiation. Because of its high strength and relatively good corrosion resistance, silicon carbide is a promising structural material for high temperature nuclear reactors.

Led by Izabela Szlufarska, a UW-Madison associate professor of materials science and engineering, the team will study irradiated silicon carbide samples to locate defects in the material and determine how those effects contribute to strains and stresses, including those known as radiation swelling and radiation creep. The researchers will draw on state-of-the-art UW-Madison imaging capabilities and techniques to analyze the samples.

Szlufarska's collaborators include Todd Allen, a UW-Madison associate professor of engineering physics; Paul Voyles, a UW-Madison associate professor of materials science and engineering; and Yutai Katoh of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "The two research grants led by Wisconsin principal investigators cement our leadership positions in two key areas of advanced reactor technology," says Allen, who has been instrumental in several successful DOE nuclear engineering funding proposals at UW-Madison.

Additionally, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Engineering Physics Michael Corradini will collaborate with Jose Reyes of NuScale Power Inc. and principal investigator Qiao Wu of Oregon State University on a $871,000 project in which they will experimentally validate an updated containment condensation model. The model is important in determining adequate reactor cooling-particularly after the core meltdown accidents in 2011 at the Daiichi nuclear power stations in Japan.

UW-Madison has extensive radioactive materials sample preparation and analysis facilities, and with approximately $433,000 in funding, UW Nuclear Reactor Director Robert Agasie will relocate several existing laboratories and equipment into a single space, housed within the UW Nuclear Reactor.

Historically, UW-Madison researchers have fared extremely well in the highly competitive DOE nuclear energy grant process, says James Blanchard, a UW-Madison professor of engineering physics and current department chair.

"This ongoing funding really is indicative of the quality of our research and educational programs and the faculty, staff and students who are a part of them," he says.