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Developing the Next Generation of Safe, Cost-Effective Nuclear Energy

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Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering Team Receives $2.4 Million ARPA-E Award

The team in the Engineered Microstructures and Radiation Effects Laboratory (EMREL), led by Professor Lance Snead as the Principal Investigator (PI) and co-PI’s, Professor Jason Trelewicz and Professor David Sprouster, has been awarded $2.4 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) program, an agency tasked with promoting and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies. All three investigators are part of the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering, and Professor Trelewicz is also a core faculty member of the Institute for Advanced Computational Science.    

Pictured left to right: Dr. Jonathan Gentile, Dr. Bin Cheng, Prof. Lance Snead, Mary Botha, Dr. Dave Sprouster, Elinor Coats, Streit Cunningham and Prof. Jason Trelewicz
Pictured left to right: Dr. Jonathan Gentile, Dr. Bin Cheng, Prof. Lance Snead, Mary Botha, Dr. Dave Sprouster, Elinor Coats, Streit Cunningham and Prof. Jason Trelewicz

The award is part of a grant program focused on the development of fusion energy science and technologies that would lead to a safe, carbon-free, and abundant energy source for developed and emerging economies, specifically the joint Office of Fusion Energy and ARPA-E initiative Galvanizing Advances in Market-aligned Fusion for an Overabundance of Watts (GAMOW).

“The ARPA-E award process is extremely competitive and requires demonstrating leading-edge research and solutions,” said Fotis Sotiropoulos, Dean, College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “I’m incredibly proud of Lance and the EMREL team’s work in this important area of research for our College and the University.”

The project, ENHANCED Shield: A Critical Materials Technology Enabling Compact Superconducting Tokamaks, addresses a key issue facing the next generation of small, high-field fusion reactors. Specifically, with the significant progress made in the development of High Temperature Superconductor (HTS), the magnetic field strength required to drive a fusion plasma has been greatly enhanced allowing for much smaller, more economic systems. However, as the system becomes smaller, damage to magnets becomes a serious concern.  This Stony Brook project aims to solve that problem through development of a new class of shield materials to protect the magnets, thus enabling compact fusion systems.

According to Snead, the current superconducting magnets we know, the ones that work at cryogenic temperatures, are typically shielded by common engineering materials such as water and steel, perhaps with a bit of other materials layered in. The water, like any material with hydrogen, is good at shielding neutrons, while steel or heavy materials like lead are what you would use for X-rays or gamma rays.  

“It’s all pretty low-tech but works just fine for the larger machines. The problem comes in when you don’t have a lot of real estate to work with and water is not a coolant option,” he says.

The solution being proposed by the EMREL for compact fusion devices is to fabricate composited structures which simultaneously shield neutrons and gamma-rays.  

The proposed innovation will pursue two classes of engineered composite materials, one with a metal matrix and one with a ceramic matrix. The metal matrix is considered a more mature technology and will be applied in lower temperature application while the ceramic matrix composite is targeting higher temperature application. Of note is that the ceramic matrix composite owes its base technology to a breakthrough made by the Stony Brook team under an ongoing ARPA-E grant work which demonstrated fabrication of dense magnesia materials at temperatures hundreds of degrees lower than previously seen. This has allowed, as taken advantage of here, the inclusion of high neutron absorbing metal hydride materials within a magnesia composite structure.  

The team includes Professor Steve Zinkle in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and Dr. Ethan Peterson of the Massachusetts of Technology. The project is also joined by two privately funded commercial fusion ventures: Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Tokamak Energy.

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