Junior researchers showing world the way to advanced nuclear fuel design

August 18, 2014 by Nicole Stricker, US Department of Energy
Junior researchers showing world the way to advanced nuclear fuel design
Dr. Melissa Teague, an INL materials engineer, pioneered advanced microscopy on irradiated nuclear fuel.

Two early-career researchers at DOE's Idaho National Laboratory are earning international attention for their groundbreaking work. They're getting a long-sought look into the 3-D microstructure of irradiated nuclear fuel, and then feeding that data into cutting-edge fuel behavior models. Their work will make the design and testing of even safer nuclear fuels more informed and efficient.

The distinctive collaboration stemmed from a fertile environment at the Department of Energy's lead laboratory for nuclear energy research and development. That environment enabled an engineer and a computational scientist to easily work hand-in-hand toward a common goal. Their collaboration is noteworthy "because computer people and experimental scientists don't tend to interact much," said Michael Tonks.

Tonks is an INL computational materials scientist who built a model of nuclear fuel microstructure. Melissa Teague is an INL materials engineer doing first-of-a-kind microscopic studies on nuclear fuel. Her work is helping refine his models and capturing attention from international scientists.

"We've had people from all over the world coming and asking, 'How do you do this?'" she said.

The intrigue centers around microscale glimpses of irradiated fuel, which researchers have long pondered but never seen in 3-D. Such information will lead to a more fundamental understanding of how irradiation affects nuclear fuel safety and performance.

INL has singular capabilities that enabled Teague to perform a common microanalysis technique on an uncommon material: irradiated nuclear fuel.

Electron Backscatter Diffraction (EBSD) shoots electrons at the surface of a material sample. Electrons that encounter atoms in the material scatter to form patterns on a detector screen. Skilled crystallographers interpret the patterns to reconstruct the atomic structure and glean insights.

"These were the first 3-D characterizations of irradiated fuel reported anywhere in the world," Teague said. "Before, no one really knew what it looked like in 3-D."

Around the time Teague was pioneering advanced microscopy on irradiated fuel, Tonks was developing a new model to simulate how irradiation changes on the microscopic level. Early versions of his MARMOT code incorporated limited published data about the texture of irradiated fuel, but made many assumptions.

Tonks started looking for research data that could fill in some of those gaps. He quickly learned of the work being done by Teague, whose desk he could walk to in less than a minute. The two applied for Laboratory Directed Research and Development funding and recruited an EBSD reconstruction expert.

The data they collected provided several important insights, such as revealing how solid particles form, grow and migrate along crystal boundaries inside the fuel during irradiation. It enabled modelers to replace assumptions in the code with real-world information, and also allows simulation outcomes to be compared with real-world data to ensure the model yields accurate predictions.

Explore further: Researcher uses code to test nuclear fuels

Related Stories

Researcher uses code to test nuclear fuels

June 24, 2014

When friends ask Idaho National Laboratory researcher Blaise Collin what his job entails, he compares his scientific simulation work to operating a flight simulator.

Understanding of radiation damage LEAPs forward

April 5, 2012

A faint nightclub beat greets visitors to a small room housing the Localized Electron Atom Probe (LEAP). But that’s no stereo cranking out house music; it’s a rhythmic pump cooling a tiny sample to more than 220 ...

Experiment enters next stage at new Idaho hot cell

June 2, 2014

To the average eye, the experimental specimens don't look like much: silver-colored squares about the size of a domino. But the samples represent several big milestones for Idaho National Laboratory, the Department of Energy ...

Reactor fuel behavior better understood with phonon insights

August 5, 2014

(Phys.org) —Nearly 20 percent of the electricity in the United States is generated by nuclear energy from uranium dioxide fuel, but mysteries still surround exactly how the material controls the electrical production: Poor ...

Uranium crystals could reveal future of nuclear fuel

June 25, 2013

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 ...

Recommended for you

Study suggests trees are crucial to the future of our cities

March 25, 2019

The shade of a single tree can provide welcome relief from the hot summer sun. But when that single tree is part of a small forest, it creates a profound cooling effect. According to a study published today in the Proceedings ...

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

Apple pivot led by star-packed video service

March 25, 2019

With Hollywood stars galore, Apple unveiled its streaming video plans Monday along with news and game subscription offerings as part of an effort to shift its focus to digital content and services to break free of its reliance ...


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.