Turning “what-ifs” into realities

Graduate students Aaron Reynolds and Sean O'Brien working on some machinery.

Nuclear engineering graduate students Aaron Reynolds (left) and Sean O’Brien troubleshoot data acquisition hardware on the Transient Reactor Test Loop (TRTL) facility at Oregon State. The TRTL supports funded research related to the restart of the Transient Reactor Test Facility at Idaho National Laboratory.

Taking the “what-ifs” of today and turning them into tomorrow’s realities requires a unique blend of funding, expertise, facilities, and freedom to explore possibilities. Often, it is enabled by collaborations among academia and government entities through mutually beneficial relationships that produce tangible and practical impact. The National University Consortium enables these types of collaborations.

The foundation for the consortium began in the early 2000s, when the U.S. Department of Energy took a risk and funded a collaboration between Oregon State and what is now the Idaho National Laboratory to design and test a concept for a small, modular, nuclear reactor. The partnership enabled construction of the Multi-Application Small Light Water Reactor on the Oregon State campus, a facility that enables experimental research.

Research at the facility spawned the nuclear reactor company NuScale Power, which was founded in 2007. NuScale now employs more than 20 Oregon State alumni in full-time positions and is on schedule to have a facility in operation by the mid2020s. If successful, it will be the first new nuclear reactor design to become operational in the United States in decades.

Meanwhile, Idaho National Laboratory was in the process of becoming the nation’s leading laboratory for nuclear energy research and development. It saw the value of accessing the expertise and facilities that were available in the academic world to help move industry beyond traditional applied research and tap into high-risk discovery concepts. The partnership between Oregon State and the lab laid the foundation for a more robust research program. In 2005, Idaho National Laboratory and Oregon State, along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, The Ohio State University, and University of New Mexico, formalized a partnership as the National University Consortium.

“The five universities were chosen for geographic regions and the strength of their nuclear engineering programs,” said Andy Klein, a professor of nuclear engineering at Oregon State who was “on loan” to the laboratory as part of its leadership team from 2005 to 2009.

Oregon State and other universities benefit from involvement in the consortium because their cutting edge research can be directed toward strategically funded projects and goals.

Marsha Bala, who leads research and development strategic initiatives for partnerships at Idaho National Laboratory, said that the goal of the National University Consortium is to integrate the universities’ and the laboratory’s strengths.

“We work synergistically to expand our missions and our capabilities,” she said. Each university in the consortium receives $200,000 annually to support specific laboratory-directed research and development projects.

Current projects at Oregon State involve faculty members with expertise in nuclear and mechanical engineering. For example, Julie Tucker, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is looking at the interaction of supercritical carbon dioxide (i.e., carbon dioxide in a state between liquid and gas) with piping configurations in hybrid energy systems. Todd Palmer, professor of nuclear engineering, is working on improving computer modeling and simulation for nuclear reactor physics.

Although it is predominantly focused on nuclear or nuclear related research, the consortium is branching into other areas of research, such as robotics and electrical engineering.

Since 2012, Idaho National Laboratory funding to the College of Engineering exceeded $11.3 million, including more than 30 separate grants and contracts with nine faculty members and numerous student researchers. It also provided three joint appointments for Oregon State faculty.

“People work with people they know — they work with people they trust,” said Palmer, who was involved in setting up the consortium. “That financial relationship allows people to go back and forth, and that’s very valuable.”

Another example of how the symbiosis works is that instructors from the laboratory are now teaching a course in materials science at Oregon State.

“It fills a huge gap,” said Wade Marcum, an associate professor of nuclear engineering who holds a joint faculty appointment at the laboratory and leads the National University Consortium from Oregon State’s end. “It benefits the lab by educating students in areas where they have technical interest and draws students that may be interested to them. Those students then have an elevated level of intellect in those particular veins of research. But it also extends our ability to educate students in areas that we may not be as comfortable teaching. It’s great from both sides of the fence.”

The consortium also serves as a highway toward employment for Oregon State’s future graduates. Tony Alberti, a nuclear engineering Ph.D. candidate, completed two internships at the laboratory, fostering future connections that will be invaluable to his research and career.

“We’ve got to have pipelines, if you will, into our future, that are going to let us continue to grow and to build expertise,” said Bala. “We are hiring 500 people a year right now. Most of our entry-level positions are filled by people who are either an intern or a postdoc.”

Alberti’s graduate work has been funded through Idaho National Laboratory on projects that Palmer directed. He completed his nuclear engineering master’s degree in 2015 on a project modeling the core of the Transient Reactor Test Facility at the laboratory. He’s now investigating novel modeling techniques for his doctoral research.

“I’m working on developing reduced-order modeling techniques that allow us to more cheaply compute reactor calculations,” said Alberti. Using current techniques, modeling certain problems — reactor operation over a five-year span, for instance — can take months of computational time and resources.

“We want to be able to develop radiation transport algorithms that can run complex simulations with less computational hardware, if not on personal computers,” said Alberti. “What I’m trying to do is work with them to develop new algorithms to help achieve that.”

With support from the National University Consortium, Alberti’s “what-if” could be tomorrow’s reality, enabling better energy-generating technology to come to market at a much quicker pace.

MOMENTUM, College of Engineering, Fall 2017
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Sept. 15, 2017