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A service for energy industry professionals · Tuesday, April 23, 2024 · 705,962,920 Articles · 3+ Million Readers

DOE’s $2.5 Million Award to Benefit Students in Chemical and Nuclear Engineering

By Edwin L. Aguirre

“UMass Lowell’s nuclear engineering program within chemical engineering is a unique academic program of its kind in the U.S.,” says de Almeida, who is the project’s principal investigator. “The faculty expertise, the resources and the academic programs make the university a perfect partner to develop extensive research, education and training opportunities for students in the fields of nuclear chemical separation and process engineering.”

Assoc. Prof. Valmor de Almeida

This is the first DOE-funded project focusing on uranium separations research that is being implemented at this scale anywhere in the country, notes Aghara, the project’s co-PI. 

“It is an initiative of the Non-Proliferation Stewardship Program of DOE’s National Nuclear Study Administration and Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Uranium Science and Technology Center,” he says. 

Student Research and Internship Opportunities

According to the researchers, the global expansion of nuclear energy and the development of new, advanced nuclear reactors present, for the first time since the Manhattan Project, a new challenge and opportunity for research and development in U.S. domestic uranium fuel production. 

“Our project will establish collaboration between UMass Lowell and the Uranium Science and Technology Center to support the development of modeling and simulation tools for processing non-irradiated uranium,” says Aghara.

Non-irradiated uranium refers to fresh fuel – that is, uranium that has never been used in a reactor before. 

“Once uranium has been used in a reactor, it will generate some amounts of fission products, which changes the way one handles the material,” says de Almeida. “The uranium ore that is mined has to be processed so that it can be used as reactor fuel to produce energy. There are several industrial-scale steps – that is, chemical process engineering – that are needed to convert uranium ore to uranium fuel.”

During Phase 1 of the project, students will conduct modeling and simulations in the lab to develop various physics models of the chemical process. In Phase 2, they will perform lab-scale experiments for validation, generally using surrogate (non-radioactive) materials first and then working with radionuclides. UMass Lowell’s 1-megawatt uranium research reactor may be used as needed. 

“The possibility of performing some irradiation experiments of samples, using the reactor’s in-core and ex-core neutron environments, may be explored as the project gets underway,” says Aghara. “The availability of a hot cell, an experimental location directly connected to the reactor that is designed to handle radioactive materials safely, is an important capability that would be leveraged in Phase 2 of the project.”

According to Aghara, the DOE award is also designed to provide scholarships for 10 students in the bachelor’s-to-master’s nuclear-chemical engineering program. Students will conduct research during the academic year; then, through an agreement with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they will have paid summer internships where they will continue their training and research projects at DOE labs.

“For example, students will begin working on their nuclear design project with a mentor at Oak Ridge and a faculty advisor at UMass Lowell. When students transition into the M.S. program, the project will expand into their master’s thesis. The paid internship at Oak Ridge will provide a unique professional experience for students as well as a prospective career path into the DOE national laboratories, government or the nuclear industry,” says Aghara.

The project will not only develop a highly skilled workforce to help meet the growing needs of the nuclear energy sector, but it will also solidify the state’s technical leadership in the specialized nuclear-chemical engineering field and create new career options into the nuclear materials industry, he says.

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