A research team at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory will receive $4.1 million during the next five years to study materials used in nuclear fusion reactors.
The funding is part of a larger $11.5 million U.S. Department of Energy project that includes seven other laboratories and universities across the country.
The goal is to help convert nuclear fusion, which promises an “almost limitless supply of clean and safe energy,” into a practical, commercial power source, a UT press release said.
The project is being led by Brian Wirth, UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Computational Nuclear Engineering.
Unlike the nuclear fission reactors used today, nuclear fusion doesn’t produce used radioactive nuclear fuel that has to be managed for years. However, nuclear fusion unleashes a very high-energy neutron believed to cause more damage to reactor materials than fission, Wirth said.
That’s because the process to create the energy is different, the release said.
“In nuclear fission, an atom is split into two smaller atoms which remain radioactive for hundreds to many thousands of years,” it said. “In fusion, two or more smaller atoms are fused into a larger atom that is not radioactive.”
The UT and ORNL researchers will look at how the surfaces of materials that include the reactor respond when they are bombarded by energetic neutrons and ions.
“Using high-performance computers such as ORNL’s Jaguar and UT’s Kraken, the researchers will try to accurately predict materials’ performance and evaluate materials systems and component design for the fusion reactor environment,” the release said. “The team will then be positioned to use their computational tools to evaluate new materials and component designs to enable fusion energy.”
UT and ORNL are expected to receive $850,000 during the first year of the Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing, or SciDAC, project.
Wirth said a fusion reactor works by introducing plasma—a hot, electrically charged gas that serves as the reactor fuel—into a vacuum vessel. The plasma is then confined using electric and magnetic fields into a central, vacuum region.
But in addition to the high-energy neutrons, the ions from the plasma escape and bombard material surfaces, Wirth said. This combination causes significant damage and changes the properties of the reactor materials.
“It’s likely materials do not exist today that could be used to build a reactor that would contain the plasma,” Wirth said.
The press release said the material property changes are driven by many processes that occur in less than a nanosecond but add up over time. Wirth and his team aim to develop models which stretch this interaction over many decades to study the long-term effects.
No current experimental facilities exist that accurately represent the environment these materials are expected to face, Wirth said.
The Department of Energy’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences and Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research are jointly funding this SciDAC project. Collaborating institutions include Argonne National Laboratory; Los Alamos National Laboratory; Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; University of California, San Diego; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and General Atomics.