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Professor collaborates with Department of Energy on a nuclear waste project

Professor collaborates with Department of Energy on a nuclear waste project

Professor collaborates with Department of Energy on a nuclear waste project
November 06
13:30 2021

Mechanical engineering professor Haifeng Zhang is working on an $800,000, three-year project for the U.S. Department of Energy, focused on finding new ways to monitor the storage of nuclear waste.

Zhang is the principal investigator for the project and will be working alongside co-principal investigators Jagannath Devkota and Pradeep Ramuhalli. The two are researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Energy Technology Laboratory. The funding for the project will be used to hire two graduate students along with purchasing new equipment.

“It’s all about monitoring the pressure and temperature of the stainless steel canisters,” Zhang said. “These canisters store nuclear waste such as fuel rods. It’s very important to monitor the temperature and pressure in the stainless steel container.”

If the temperature is too high in a container, Zhang said a crack would form, leaking poisonous gases into the air. The possibility of exposure to nuclear radiation is also present.

A Pew Research survey conducted in 2020 found that 55 percent of Americans oppose nuclear power plants, while 43 percent support the expansion of nuclear plant development. While 60 percent of Americans find climate change to be a major threat to the wellbeing of the country, a large portion are wary of nuclear energy being part of the solution, according to the survey.

“Nuclear research is incredibly important for our future,” said Abigail Falcon, a mechanical and energy engineering senior. “But it’s not widely used because there’s such a big stigma around it. Media has made such a big influence on how we see nuclear power sites […] Because of that, we have severely hindered our development of nuclear technology.”

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology energy initiative study released in 2018 found that the development of nuclear technology will be instrumental in combating climate change. The study also concluded that nuclear energy could decrease carbon production while fulfilling global energy needs at the same time.

“If we can simply handle nuclear waste and dispose of it properly it can be a large part of our future,” Zhang said. “With our research of container monitor technology, we can get a step closer to realizing that future.”

Zhang said nuclear energy can generate significantly more energy than other energy sources like wind, solar power and hydroelectricity. Nuclear energy can be used for spacecraft such as nuclear propulsion systems, Zhang said, allowing the crafts to fly faster and farther.

Zhang estimates the project will have a prototype within three years. Biology sophomore Mars Lewis is eager to see any movement in the opposite direction of fossil fuels.

“It’s too late to prevent global warming,” Lewis said. “But the rate at which it occurs could be slowed down if the right actions are taken.”

Featured Illustration by Miranda Thomas

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Alex Corey

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