Penn State receives $3 million to contribute to national Center of Excellence

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The national Center of Excellence (COE) for Thermal Fluids Applications in Nuclear Energy at Idaho National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory has a new member. Elia Merzari, associate professor in the Penn State Ken and Mary Alice Lindquist Department of Nuclear Engineering, received $3 million to lead a university consortium in partnership with the COE and industry members to accelerate the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors. 

The grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy, funds collaborative work with scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, Texas A&M University, North Carolina State University, Liberty University, Kairos Power, Westinghouse, General Atomics and TerraPower, as well as Idaho National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. 

“This team is exceptional,” Merzari said. “This collaborative group has the best people in the field. It’d be very hard to do better. I think we’re going to do some excellent work.”

The group will focus on advancing thermal-hydraulic modeling, simulation and experimentation of leading-edge reactor designs. 

“Advanced reactors have received a great deal of attention in recent years, with a wave of remarkably innovative designs introduced on the market,” Merzari said. “However, the unique design of advanced nuclear reactors presents many fluid-flow problems that hinder safety and performance.” 

By better understanding how temperature changes within the fluid, the researchers can design better and safer advanced reactors, Merzari said.

In nuclear fission reactors, neutrons collide with heavy atoms, causing a release of energy and excess neutrons. The excess neutrons trigger a chain reaction that can be moderated with cooling fluid circulating through the reactor core, as well as with chemical and mechanical controls. The fission reaction inside the core produces complex layering of ever-changing temperature profiles in the coolant fluid and the fuel. Such shifting temperatures cause material stresses that need to be understood and predicted to mitigate potential damage, according to Merzari.

Simulations of these phenomena, used to improve reactor design​ and ensure safe operation, are traditionally performed with empirical data that may not consider a wide range of designs and scenarios.  

Individual research teams have attempted to study and mitigate these issues, but ad-hoc efforts can be expensive, ineffective and time consuming, according to Merzari. The COE’s approach is to define specific thermal-hydraulic challenge problems, with industry input, and experimentally assess them. The results will contribute to a knowledge base for models and simulations that can be used as a standard reference while the thermal-hydraulic performance of advanced reactors is studied further.  

“Thermal flow phenomena are essential in the safety analysis and design of advanced reactors,” Merzari said. “This is of key interest for the U.S. Department of Energy and the country as a whole. Our contribution promises to be important for the accelerated deployment of [advanced] reactors while also improving economic competitiveness.” 

Merzari was also named as a collaborator on two other national projects, one led by Texas A&M University and one led by University of Michigan. The first focuses on computationally and experimentally understanding how material flows near the wall of a pebble bed reactor, while the second aims to improve traditional reactor models to better understand and mitigate potential design-based reactor accidents. 

“All three of these projects are founded in evaluating the safety of reactors,” Merzari said. “They’re all tied to advancing reactor technology while improving safety and decreasing cost.”

Merzari’s contributions to these projects helps cement Penn State’s position in the field of nuclear engineering, according to Jean Paul Allain, head of the Ken and Mary Alice Lindquist Department of Nuclear Engineering. 

“Elia’s work is exceptional; his expertise is sought across the country,” Allain said. “His home research program at Penn State contributes to the University’s place as a leader in advanced thermal-hydraulic modeling for advanced reactors.” 

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Last Updated October 06, 2020

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