Two MAE nuclear PhD students win DOE RTE awards

Posted: March 27, 2023

Two Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering nuclear PhD students, Joshua Ferrigno and Jack Lanza, had their proposals chosen for Rapid Turnaround Experiment (RTE) awards by the U.S. Department of Energy - Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE) Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF).

24 new RTE projects, totaling approximately $1.42M, were awarded to support the advancement of nuclear science and technology by providing access to world class capabilities at no cost to the researcher.

The NSUF competitively selected these projects from a pool of quality RTE proposals submitted during the solicitation period. Proposals were evaluated based on a variety of factors including technical approach, mission relevance, and scientific-technical merit.

The NSUF, managed by Idaho National Laboratory, provides unparalleled opportunities for nuclear energy researchers. Through the RTE solicitation, researchers can access capabilities such as irradiation, post irradiation examination, beamline, and high-performance computing equipment. RTEs are also accompanied with the expertise necessary to advance the understanding of irradiation effects in nuclear fuels and materials in support of DOE-NE’s mission.

Joshua Ferrigno

Ferrigno’s research proposal focuses on taking post-irradiation examination thermal conductivity measurements on a nuclear fuel known as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which is a combination of both uranium and plutonium oxide, to analyze the changes to thermophysical properties under irradiations.

Currently, there two ways perform this analyzation: in-pile characterization and post-irradiation examination. The former requires sensors in a nuclear reactor to relay relevant information to researchers, while the latter is a matter of looking at the fuel once it’s taken out of a reactor.

“This research aims to understand how thermal conductivity changes inside a reactor across the length of the nuclear fuel using a specialized kind of instrument known as the Thermal Conductivity Microscope that can measure localized thermal conductivity,” Ferrigno said. “We have one here at OSU, but because of the extremely high radioactivity of the MOX sample, we are unable to perform these measurements. That is why the proposal was to have these measurements done at Idaho National Laboratory, where they have the proper radiation handling equipment and staff for these types of fuel.”

Understanding this thermal conductivity is important because nuclear engineers hope to improve the efficiency of reactors and extract the most energy as possible through heat. At the moment, reactor operators keep nuclear reactors at a safe buffer between the fuel temperature and the melting temperature of the fuel to keep fuel degradation to a minimum, but at the cost of keeping heat down and, in turn, production of energy lower.

Currently, there are several fuel properties that affect thermal conductivity in MOX fuel. Using the data from this grant, engineers can develop a first-of-its-kind, spatially informed thermal conductivity model, something that is only possible due to the localized nature of this measurement.

“I’m very excited to have been awarded this grant,” Ferrigno said. “This is something I have been focusing on nearly since I started at Ohio State, but the data needed was nonexistent.”

Ferrigno wanted to thank his advisor, Dr. Marat Khafizov, and his mentor at the Idaho National Laboratory, Dr. Tsvetoslav Pavlov, for all of their support.

“Dr. Khafizov has immensely supported me and my ideas of developing these kinds of models and pursuing datasets such as the one in the RTE grant. Because of his advice and suggestions, I was able to put together a great team of co-PI’s for this grant,” Ferrigno said. “Dr. Pavlov has been instrumental in getting access to the necessary samples, and instruments that this grant will fund. He has been an amazing source of knowledge for all things post-irradiation examination, and fuel characterization for MOX fuel.”

Jack Lanza

Lanza’s research focuses on the other form of analysis within nuclear reactors during irradiations, in-pile characterization, and the instrumentation needed for this process. His proposal seeks to evaluate gallium nitride-based electronics that are resistant to radiation.

This evaluation will be completed through simultaneous heating of the devices during the irradiation. The funding will allow more devices to be tested and additional work to be done on modeling the behavior of said electronics under irradiation.

Currently, the use of in-core or near-core sensor, instrumentation, and control systems requires the placement of a detector at the desired measurement location within or near the core of a nuclear reactor with long cabling run out of containment for interfacing. The result is not only multiple penetrations into reactor containment, but electronically noisy signals complicating the already difficult task of reactor monitoring instrumentation and control.

“Radiation-Hardened electronics such as the one we’re working on can provide stable wireless communication in high-temperature and high-radiation environments such as a reactor or space,” Lanza said.

This recognition gives Lanza a step forward in his research.

“To receive this additional funding and recognition means to me that I have a good jump start on my research,” he said. “It also shows me that even as a PhD student that I can have a large impact on both the university and the world as a whole through my work.”

Lanza also took the time to thank everyone who supported him to get to this point.

“I would like to start by thanking my advisor Dr. Raymond Cao for supporting my journey and being there for guidance and questions.,” Lanza said. “In addition, I would like to thank Dianne Ezell, Kyle Reed, and Brandon Wilson from Oak Ridge National Laboratory for supporting the project and myself during the journey. Lastly, I’d like to thank my close friends and family.”