NSUF Article

NSUF project leads postdoc to INL

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - Newsletter, Researcher Highlight

Idaho National Laboratory (INL) postdoctoral researcher Kaustubh Bawane attributes much of his career success so far to a 2018 Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF) award he received while working on his doctoral thesis at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The NSUF access award allowed Bawane to irradiate the nuclear fuel cladding materials he was studying, use cutting-edge instruments often unavailable to university students and ultimately secure his two-year postdoctoral position at INL that started in February 2020. To add to the journey, Bawane was recently awarded a second NSUF project that will allow him to utilize Texas A&M University's Accelerator Laboratory, a NSUF partner facility.

“NSUF is really great,” Bawane said. “It’s been a really big deal for me.”

INL and the 20 partner organizations that make up the NSUF help expose students to the capabilities at national labs and other universities. 

Without the NSUF grant, Bawane said his doctoral thesis would have remained just theory because he could have never actually irradiated the fuel cladding materials he was studying.

The thesis focused on new accident tolerant materials to be used for fuel cladding. The NSUF access award allowed him to use Argonne National Laboratory’s Intermediate Voltage Electron Microscope (IVEM) to do microstructural evolution of silicon carbide nanostructured ferritic alloy (NFA) composites under high temperature ion irradiation conditions. 

The IVEM allows researchers to view samples of materials at high magnification during irradiation, thus showing defect formation and evolution in real time. This research helped reveal previously unknown relationships among the materials and their irradiation responses that will help guide the development of more accident tolerant cladding materials, which is a top priority in the future design of nuclear reactors.

Traditionally, fuel claddings are made from zirconium-based alloys, which can produce hydrogen causing embrittlement and weakening the metal. Bawane said the risks associated with embrittlement can be greatly reduced by the development of new accident tolerant materials. NFAs and silicon carbides are leading candidates for replacing zirconium alloys for fuel cladding applications.

Bawane’s newest NSUF access award focuses on the ion irradiation response of silicon oxycarbide nanocomposites fabricated using a polymer derived ceramic route. He is working in collaboration with his doctoral adviser, Professor Kathy Lu of Virginia Tech. Lu is researching the fabrication of silicon oxycarbide nanocomposite based coatings for advanced nuclear fuels. 

Bawane will conduct helium ion irradiation on this material at Texas A&M University’s Accelerator Laboratory and then study the microstructure changes at the Irradiated Materials Characterization Laboratory at INL’s Materials and Fuels Complex, where Bawane works with Lingfeng He, a senior R&D scientist and instrument scientist, who also collaborates on the NSUF project. 

Bawane wants to stay in research and eventually become a permanent staff member at a national laboratory. The NSUF projects provide him access to these labs and involve him in trailblazing nuclear research.

“Material science is so important,” Bawane said. “There are still a lot of things that need to be solved or studied in material science, and this exposes me to really good, quality research programs that motivate me to stay in research.”

Originally from Nagpur City, India, Bawane said he was a curious child interested in science. He attended the College of Engineering in Pune and then received his master’s from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. During his studies, he did a corporate internship with General Electric India Technology Center in Bangalore. His research involved using 3D printing techniques to repair damaged industrial gas turbine nozzles and earned Bawane and the team a U.S. patent. GE is now using the printing technique to repair nozzles damaged during long-term operations at all its manufacturing locations. 

Before coming to INL, Bawane interned for seven months at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2019, where his work focused on microstructure and mechanical properties of structural materials for novel fission-fusion hybrid medical isotope generation technology. Bawane and Lauren Garrison, an ORNL staff scientist, worked with a private company on an idea to manufacture medical isotopes using the fission-fusion hybrid technique. 

In his new position at INL in addition to his NSUF work, Bawane is part of the molten salts Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC). The U.S. Department of Energy created EFRCs to tackle the toughest scientific challenges preventing advances in energy technologies, and INL is part of the EFRC scientific team studying the use of molten salts in extreme environments, such as in nuclear reactors. 

DOE considers molten salt reactors potential “game-changing technology,” where molten salts could act as coolants for solid-fueled reactors or where the salts are a combined coolant and fuel. 

Compared to his previous work with industry, Bawane said he prefers the national lab environment that focuses more on science with a mix of engineering. His interest in nuclear energy developed while at Virginia Tech and he’s happy to work at INL, one of the top nuclear research laboratories.

“That’s one of the reasons I came to INL,” he said. 

While trying to adapt to Idaho’s cold winters, Bawane said he looks forward to hiking, whitewater rafting, and exploring Yellowstone National Park.