Jun 29, 2017 | By David

The United States Department of Energy is renewing its funding into nuclear energy, with 3D printing technology set to play a key role in the latest research. A grant of $1.275 million was just awarded to the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering for a collaborative research project, which will be focused on the development of advanced sensors for nuclear reactors. The nuclear sensors will be fabricated using 3D printing, as well as other cutting-edge laser manufacturing technologies.

Improved safety and efficiency were most likely the motivating factors behind the award of this grant by the DoE, which came from the Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies (NEET) program, part of the the Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP). NEET has recently awarded a total of $66 million to various beneficiaries for projects that will contribute to the advancement of the nuclear industry.

The Swanson School of Engineering will be working in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Reactor Laboratory, Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and the National Energy Technology Laboratory. Kevin Chen, the Paul E. Lego Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, will be leading the study. 

The aim of the project is to develop radiation-hard, multi-functional, distributed fiber sensors, and sensor-fused components that can be placed in a nuclear reactor core. The group will use 3D printing technology and pioneering laser fabrication methods, hoping to produce both high-temperature stable point sensors and distributed fiber sensors for high spatial resolution measurements in radiation-hardened silica and sapphire fibers.

"This NEET grant will allow our lab to continue its partnerships with leading technological companies and national laboratories to develop solutions to some of the most pressing issues affecting nuclear energy production,’’ said Chen. "Advances in sensor technology can greatly enhance the sensitivity and resolution of data in harsh environments like a nuclear reaction, thereby improving safety operations."

Chen has previously garnered serious acclaim in this field, with his research into optical sensing technology leading to his being presented with a 2017 Carnegie Science Award. The "Innovation in Energy Award" recognized Dr. Chen's contributions to improving efficiency of energy production and safety of transportation infrastructures in the energy industry.

In addition to this recent NEET grant, the program also awarded him a $987,000 grant in 2014, to study high-sensitivity, high-accuracy sensor networks. Fiber optical sensor networks allow nuclear engineers to be much more responsive to problems in nuclear power reactors and other fuel cycle systems, which leads to increased safety as well as reducing operating cost.

According to Chen, "the networks we developed contain up to 100 sensors per meter and can be placed in critical locations to quickly relay information to the plant operators and isolate problems before they spread to other areas."

As for the University of Pittsburgh, it has benefitted from funding from various other parts of the Nuclear Energy University Program besides NEET, adding up to around $2.8 million overall. Between 2009 and 2016, NEUP awarded grants for two research and development projects totalling around $1.7 million, as well as general scientific infrastructure funding of around $300,000. Five fellowships were awarded by the program, coming to around $770,000 in total, as well as $70,000 for 11 scholarships.

This investment in nuclear research should pay off in a major way in the near future, as reliance on fossil fuels and other conventional energy sources is increasingly discouraged due to the undeniable facts of climate change. The role that 3D printing technology has to play in the development of new energy technology is likely to grow accordingly.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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