Uranium crystals could reveal future of nuclear fuel

Jun 25, 2013 by Kortny Rolston
Uranium crystals could reveal future of nuclear fuel
Burgett and his team successfully created pure crystals of a non-radioactive surrogate for fissionable materials. Credit: INL photo

Mention the word "crystals" and few people think of nuclear fuel. Unless you are Eric Burgett. The Idaho State University professor is on a quest to create pure, single crystals of uranium and uranium oxide so researchers at Idaho National Laboratory and elsewhere can better understand the material and design higher performance fuels to power nuclear reactors.

Burgett and his team of graduate students have successfully manufactured cerium oxide crystals as a practice run (cerium can be a nonradioactive surrogate for uranium or plutonium). The team produced its first uranium oxide crystal in June at ISU's Research in Science and Engineering (RISE) facility in Pocatello.

"A single crystal allows researchers to test and study a material in its simplest form," said Burgett, who also is a Center for Advanced Energy Studies affiliate.

Burgett first became interested in crystals and their potential to advance nuclear energy research as a doctoral student at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

He grew crystals for use in neutron detectors. From there, he began experimenting with uranium and plutonium oxide crystals.

In Fiscal Year 2010, he was part of a team that won U.S. Department of Energy funding to create single uranium oxide crystals.

Researchers have long studied the physical characteristics of uranium oxide – the primary fuel for the nation's fleet.

But they examine uranium oxide , which are composed of multiple crystallites randomly mixed together and whose microstructural makeup can vary from batch to batch. That variance makes studying it and predicting what happens to it in a reactor difficult.

"About 95 percent of the crystals that make up the uranium oxide are randomly oriented. There is no order," Burgett said. "How can you accurately model and simulate a fuel pellet crystal with randomness? With the crystals we are growing, you can. We will be able to examine a single uranium or uranium oxide crystal and how heat moves through it. That gives us a baseline to understand what happens to the material as it gets more complex and the crystal structure changes."

To make the crystals, Burgett and his team crush pellets donated by INL and then heat them in a furnace at the RISE building. Once the crystals grow, they are removed, inspected, and then polished.

The multiday process results in a crystal with atoms precisely aligned. The crystal can be studied to understand how heat moves through it.

"The goal is to build a safer fuel for a safer reactor," Burgett said.

INL researchers are excited about Burgett's work and are planning to acquire uranium and uranium oxide crystals.

INL and other scientists will subject the crystals to a variety of tests to better understand how the material behaves, said INL's Rory Kennedy, technical lead for metallic fuel technology development in DOE's Fuel Cycle Research and Development program. Such understanding is a key part of producing better .

"The more you understand a material, the better you can design a material," Kennedy said. "These single crystals will allow us to study and understand uranium and uranium oxide in its simplest form."

Kennedy said few people are growing of this type to study, which makes Burgett's research exceptional.

Explore further: Better software cuts computer energy use

More information: inlportal.inl.gov/portal/serve… aturestory=DA_609335

Related Stories

Plutonium in troubled reactors, spent fuel pools

Mar 18, 2011

(AP) --The fuel rods at all six reactors at the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi complex contain plutonium - better known as fuel for nuclear weapons. While plutonium is more toxic than uranium, other radioactive ...

Iran tests first domestically made nuclear fuel rod

Jan 01, 2012

Iran said on Sunday that its scientists have "tested the first nuclear fuel rod produced from uranium ore deposits inside the country," the website of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation said.

Recommended for you

Website shines light on renewable energy resources

1 hour ago

A team from the University of Arizona and eight southwestern electric utility companies have built a pioneering web portal that provides insight into renewable energy sources and how they contribute to the ...

Better software cuts computer energy use

2 hours ago

An EU research project is developing tools to help software engineers create energy-efficient code, which could reduce electricity consumption at data centres by up to 50% and improve battery life in smart ...

Cook farm waste into energy

22 hours ago

It takes some cooking, but turning farm waste into biofuels is now possible and makes economic sense, according to preliminary research from the University of Guelph.

Developing a reliable wind 'super grid' for Europe

Dec 17, 2014

EU researchers are involved in the development of a pan-European 'super grid' capable of dispersing wind power across Member States. This will bring more renewable energy into homes and businesses, help reduce ...

Boeing 737 factory to move to clean energy

Dec 16, 2014

Boeing said Tuesday it plans to buy renewable energy credits to replace fossil-fuel power at the factory in Washington state where it assembles its 737 commercial airplanes.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.