Researchers get $1 million to study materials involved in nuclear energy
CLEMSON — The enduring importance of nuclear energy in South Carolina is underscored by two new grants that together total more than $1 million and bring Clemson University’s five-year tally to $3.9 million under a federal program that supports university research in the field.
Nuclear energy remains vital to South Carolina, where about half of electricity comes from seven nuclear power plants operating in the state. Another six are close to its borders, and the Savannah River National Laboratory near Aiken is a leader in nuclear energy research.
Brinkman’s grant funds research that could help dispose of tritium, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors. Jacobsohn’s grant pays for a specialty microscope that will be the only one of its kind in South Carolina. Collaborators are involved in both projects.
The grants, he said, allow Clemson to advance nuclear energy research while preparing the next generation of nuclear scientists, engineers and policymakers.
“I congratulate Drs. Brinkman and Jacobsohn on their success in securing these two grants,” Bordia said. “Their work bolsters Clemson’s reputation for scholarship in nuclear science and engineering, while enhancing the research capabilities for the state as a whole.”
The focus of Brinkman’s research is tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally and in the generation of nuclear power. It takes 12.3 years for its radioactivity to lose half its value, a measure known as half-life.
Environmental discharge is a concern because the tritium can make its way through the ecosystem into the water and food supply, posing a radioactive health hazard if ingested. Brinkman’s goal is to develop a membrane similar to an air or oil filter that would separate tritium from the water that is used in creating nuclear energy.
He and his team will experiment with different materials in the form of powders, primarily focusing on the naturally occurring mineral perovskite.
“We’re going to design not only the material, but the processing and the microstructure to get the right filter properties,” he said. “No one has ever used ceramics to do this. No one has ever used naturally occurring materials, such as perovskite. No one has taken these classes of materials, which have the ability to incorporate the hydrogen isotope tritium, and use them in this sort of capture process. We will be the first.”
The membrane would be used in reprocessing facilities, where spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors is recycled into new fuel. While the United States does not reprocess spent nuclear fuel, it is done in China, France, Japan, India, Russia and the United Kingdom.
The grant is the third round of funding Brinkman has received from the Nuclear Energy University Research Program since 2014, bringing his total to more than $1.9 million.
The co-principal investigator on the most recent grant is Joshua Tong of Clemson. Other collaborators include Jake Amoroso and Steven Serkiz of the Savannah River National Lab, which plays a key role in the nation’s tritium stewardship and environmental cleanup efforts, Brinkman said.
The Jacobsohn grant is funding a microscope that will allow researchers to examine ceramic materials with the technique of Raman spectroscopy.
That alone is not so rare, Jacobsohn said, but it’s much less common to use the technique with a combination of high temperatures and controlled atmosphere. The new microscope will have that capability.
It can heat materials as high as 1600 degrees Celsius, which is 2732 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Atoms in a solid are shaking because of thermal energy, you illuminate them with a laser beam and then you detect the light that is scattered,” said Jacobsohn, an assistant professor. “It essentially measures how much energy is acquired or lost, known as Raman shift.”
Faculty members and their students expect to use the microscope in a variety of nuclear-energy projects, especially those focused on nuclear fuel cladding, nuclear waste immobilization and radiation damage.
The materials they will examine are relevant to the Department of Energy’s mission on nuclear science and engineering, Jacobsohn said.
The microscope should arrive late this year or in early 2018 and will be housed in Clemson University’s Olin Hall.