CLEMSON — The gray, barrel-shaped instrument in Olin Hall may look like an oversized water heater, but what happens inside is helping South Carolina play a leading role in research that ensures nuclear waste is stored safely for generations to come.

The “high-temperature melt solution calorimeter” at Clemson University cost $400,000 and is up and running after a year of preparation. It’s the only one on the East Coast and one of five in the country.

Kyle Brinkman

Kyle Brinkman, left, and doctoral student Minyang Zhao prepare to take the temperature in a calorimeter, a $400,000 piece of lab equipment in Clemson University’s Olin Hall.

The custom-made instrument measures heat flow in various materials and is so sensitive that it can detect someone’s breath, even when it’s coming from just outside the room. Ceilings in a lab had to be raised and a platform was built to accommodate the calorimeter.

Several researchers are using the calorimeter to answer some the nation’s most perplexing questions about managing nuclear waste and to design new materials for energy conversion and storage, including batteries, fuel cells and thermoelectrics.

The data are helping the nation advance clean energy, an issue identified as a priority by the White House. It’s also a critical issue in South Carolina, where four nuclear power plants supplied more than half of the state’s electricity last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Kyle Brinkman, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, served as principal investigator on the grant that brought the calorimeter to Clemson. The $400,000 came through the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy University Program.

“Leveraging the programs that Clemson has in nuclear materials and management helped us land the grant,” Brinkman said. “South Carolina is playing a leading role in these areas, thanks to Clemson, the University of South Carolina and Savannah River National Lab.”

One of the Clemson researchers using the calorimeter is Brian Powell, who is overseeing a $5.25-million research project that spans the state and is aimed at finding the safest ways of remediating legacy nuclear waste sites and storing nuclear waste.

“The calorimeter is a welcome asset that adds not only to my research but to the world-class research infrastructure here in South Carolina,” Powell said. “We appreciate Dr. Brinkman taking the lead in helping bring this unique piece of lab equipment to Clemson.”

The calorimeter is allowing researchers to physically measure what they previously could only model on computers.

They pour powder samples into the top. The samples dissolve, decompose and release heat. The inside of the calorimeter reaches temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees.

Measurements appear on a line graph on a desktop computer about a half hour later.

Brinkman is using the calorimeter for his role in an $8 million research project that the University of South Carolina is leading. The Center for Hierarchical Waste Form Materials aims to  make it simpler and less costly to dispose of nuclear waste.

High-level waste and low-level waste must now be separated and sent to different processing sites. High-level waste is combined with glass, while low-low level waste is combined with cement.

Working with metal oxides, Brinkman hopes to create a new material that would allow for disposal of both types of waste and would eliminate the need to separate the two. Brinkman is focused on the pores in the material, changing their size and arrangement to see what designs are more stable.

Co-principal investigators on the calorimeter grant are: Powell, the Fjeld Professor in Nuclear Environmental Engineering and Earth Science; Lindsay Shuller-Nickles, an assistant professor of environmental engineering and earth science; Rajendra Bordia, chair of the department of materials science and engineering; and Jian He, an associate professor of physics and astronomy. All are on the faculty at Clemson.

“The calorimeter is a significant instrument not only for Clemson but for the entire state,” Bordia said. “It’s unique capabilities will allow us to conduct cutting-edge research that creates new knowledge and helps us develop the clean-energy solutions that will benefit many generations to come.”