The nuclear engineering program at Missouri S&T has recently been awarded a total of $1.7 million in federal support for research, student scholarships and safety upgrades to the university’s nuclear research reactor.
The federal investment marks a strong commitment to one of the top nuclear engineering programs in the nation, says Dr. Richard Wlezien, vice provost and dean of engineering and computing at Missouri S&T.
“As home to the state’s first research reactor, our campus has long recognized the vital importance of a robust and forward-thinking approach to nuclear engineering,” Wlezien says. “This latest infusion of federal funding will allow S&T to double-down cutting-edge research and play a major role in developing the next generation of nuclear engineers.”
The largest of the Department of Energy (DOE) awards is an $800,000 grant from DOE’s Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP). A research team led by Dr. Haiming Wen, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering with a dual appointment, and Dr. Joseph Graham, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering, will attempt to determine the oxidation behavior of silicon carbide and graphitic materials in oxygen and moisture.
They also hope to accurately measure the kinetic parameters of oxidation, to see how the oxidation mechanisms relate to the microstructures, to determine the effect of irradiation on oxidation behavior, and to provide data and input to the safety analysis of high-temperature gas reactors (HTGRs) under air and moisture ingress accident conditions.
“While HTGRs use pure helium as a reactor coolant, in some accident scenarios significant amounts of moisture or air can be introduced into the helium coolant and reactor core,” an abstract of the research proposal states. “The effects of oxidants on TRISO (tri-structural isotropic) fuel integrity are essential considerations that are part of HTGR safety analysis. Data are needed to more accurately understand fuel oxidation and model core behavior.”
The two S&T researchers will be assisted by investigators from the University of Idaho and Idaho National Laboratory.
In 2017, Graham and Dr. Hyoung Koo (Hank) Lee, an associate professor and program director of nuclear engineering, along with a former graduate student, also won a three-year, $800,000 NEUP grant, in their case for work developing advanced poolside fuel characterization techniques for nuclear test reactors. The team presented a concept for a compact, submersible, high-resolution gamma-ray tomography system.
“This is a good example of spreading technologies developed in the field of medical imaging to industrial applications,” Lee says. “X-rays and gamma rays have been used in hospitals for a long time to visualize human anatomy or to detect malfunctioning organs. In a similar way, we are developing a sophisticated gamma-ray imaging system to visualize the structure and chemical composition of test nuclear fuel after irradiation in a reactor. “
Another $250,000 federal grant will enable the Missouri S&T Research Reactor to both improve safety and enhance the university’s ability to use the facility as a distance learning resource.
The project’s principal investigator is Dr. Ayodeji Alajo, an associate professor of mining and nuclear engineering, assisted by co-PIs and faculty members Dr. Xin Liu, Graham, Dr. Joshua Schlegel, Dr. Shoaib Usman and Lee.
The needed safety improvements are in fuel handling as well as safety support for larger-scale experiments designed for submersion into the reactor pool.
A gamma sensitive portal monitor will improve safety standards, as will the installation of a two-ton overhead crane to minimize the effect of fatigue experienced by fuel handlers during core reshuffling and unloading. The new crane will also make it easier to move heavy components such as the core access element and in-pool delayed gamma detector rig.
On the teaching side, the DOE grant will allow a distance reactor laboratory class offered in collaboration with the University of Illinois to provide access to digital recordings of reactor power logs. Alajo is the project’s principal investigator. Co-PIs are faculty members Liu, Graham, Schlegel, Usman and Lee.
Lastly, another pair of federal grants totaling $650,000 will aid the program with faculty recruitment as well as undergraduate scholarship support.
The first award, a three-year Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) grant for $450,000, will cover the costs of a faculty hire specializing in nuclear materials. The NRC grant requires a $150,000 match from the university.
The award acknowledges the department’s recent and sustained growth — a 24 percent undergraduate enrollment increase over the past decade, with graduate enrollment growing 180 percent during that same span. The money will be used to purchase laboratory equipment, travel to professional meetings and provide additional graduate student support.
Another NRC grant of $200,000 will allow S&T to provide partial undergraduate scholarships to 26 full-time juniors and seniors annually over two years, based primarily on academic merit.
Similar scholarship support through a series of NRC grants starting in 2012 have been provided to 117 students, in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 per semester, Lee says. Missouri S&T has received similar federal grants in every year but one since 2009, totaling nearly $4 million.