A vital resource in the United States’ critical energy infrastructure, nuclear power requires perpetual research in order to advance. While other user facilities reside across the globe, very few provide the resources or capabilities of the Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF).
As the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy’s only user facility, NSUF has championed hundreds of researchers from across the country and world in the pursuit of nuclear energy innovation to benefit our nation. Researchers are provided access to world-leading nuclear facilities, such as the Irradiated Materials Characterization Laboratory (IMCL) at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) or the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). They can tap the technical expertise from accomplished scientists and engineers with backgrounds in experiment design, safety analysis, irradiation behavior, and post-irradiation examination.
All these resources are open and available at no cost to the researcher, providing endless benefits to both the student and NSUF alike, according to Dr. Caleb Massey.
“I love the collaborative aspect of NSUF,” Massey said. “The fact that any person associated with a university, whether a student, postdoc or professor, can get access to some of this equipment is extremely empowering.”
A research and development staff member at ORNL, Massey first heard about NSUF while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Tennessee. A necessary step to obtaining his degree, Massey’s doctoral project involved optimizing the thermomechanical processing parameters of the fabrication of advanced alloys such as the iron, chromium and aluminum alloys (FeCrAl).
Although his degree was primarily concerned with material science and processing, Massey longed for the ability to conduct post-irradiation examination of nuclear materials similar to the alloys he was studying. In the fall of 2017, Massey was awarded a Rapid Turnaround Experiment (RTE) to study an oxide dispersion strengthened FeCrAl sample that had already been irradiated in HFIR.
Since then, he’s used NSUF several times to conduct research, including most recently this past November, not just because of the world-class capabilities it provides, but the sense of empowerment that comes with it.
“It was only through NSUF that I got to actually see how radiation affects the microstructure of the materials that I’m designing,” he said.
NSUF’s ability to provide students with hands-on experience at state-of-the-art facilities in their respective fields is what separates the organization from other research institutions, according to Casey McKinney, University of Florida (UF) materials science and engineering graduate student.
“As I mainly work with nuclear fuels, there are not many facilities outside of the ones here at INL that are capable of handling such material,” McKinney said.
Now in her third year of graduate studies at UF, McKinney was drawn to nuclear materials sciences and engineering mainly due to his fascination with the challenges associated with the field. As with Massey, McKinney is required to conduct research to obtain his doctorate, a process that has since been streamlined by NSUF.
“I get access to perform my research on state-of-the-art equipment with the support of knowledgeable scientists in my field,” she said. “The scientists and support staff have all been very helpful while conducting my work, especially when dealing with technical issues. Some were even willing to come in on a Sunday to facilitate my work on a tight schedule.”
While McKinney’s research primarily utilized the plasma focused ion beam (FIB) at INL’s IMCL, the FIB just scratches the surface of NSUF’s capabilities, said the organization’s director, Rory Kennedy. Contrary to other user facilities, it is not a single facility. NSUF has ties to 50 user facilities located across INL and 20 partner institutions around the country, all of which contain their own unique research capabilities. Between access to numerous research and test reactors, ion and gamma irradiators, hot cells, advanced materials science laboratories, or high-performance computers, the possibilities for student-led research are endless.
The mission of NSUF is put simply by Kennedy: “We are a program that offers researchers, through competitive processes, access to advanced capabilities to conduct research in nuclear energy.”
The resources that NSUF provides help prepare students for success in countless ways. One of the most prominent being that the program’s offerings help students gain access to materials that may otherwise be unobtainable. Where their universities might not possess the materials or equipment they require for their research, NSUF can offer them nearly anything they may need. Whether it be through exposure to different types of advanced instrumentation, a variety of research methods or even just the knowledge of experienced researchers, the program ultimately aims to prepare the next generation of nuclear professionals for success.
Looking forward, Kennedy said, the program is always seeking methods of augmenting the capabilities of NSUF. One approach is strengthening the organization’s relationship with other user facilities, such as the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory, or the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) at Brookhaven National Laboratory, to conduct more radiation-related research, and hopefully continue to elevate the nuclear energy industry as a whole.
For doctoral candidate Jonova Thomas, that goal is being accomplished with ease. Like Massey and McKinney, the Purdue University materials engineering student requires a lengthy research dissertation to attain his degree but has found trouble finding accessible equipment and materials.
“Most institutions, apart from a select few, are very stringent on analyzing nuclear materials due to fear of contamination in the equipment,” Thomas said. They require researchers to have clearance certifications to ensure they meet safety standards. “Since my research involves providing a detailed assessment of neutron irradiated U-Zr fuels, only equipment available through NSUF can enable me to analyze these materials.”
Since October 2017, Thomas has been involved in five RTEs through the help of NSUF, expediting his research requirements exponentially, but the benefits of the program don’t stop there. Upon completing his doctorate, he hopes to find a career in nuclear energy that would be a benefit to both the field and humanity.
“This process has also given me invaluable insight into where larger future research opportunities may be, something that I look forward to bringing with me in the future,” he said. “I plan on becoming a professor in my later years so that I can transfer the knowledge I have acquired over the years to the next generation of researchers and scientists.”