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$980K Department of Energy Grant to Support Study of Irradiated Materials

System will safely process samples at National Synchrotron Light Source II

Lynne Ecker

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. Lynne Ecker

Brookhaven National Laboratory has been awarded $980,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to help develop an automated system for acquiring synchrotron data on radioactive samples rapidly and safely. The award builds on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to continue America’s leadership in clean energy innovation.

The work will be performed at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), now under construction. At NSLS-II, an x-ray powder diffraction (XPD) beamline will be used to study different samples of irradiated steel, yielding data that will improve the understanding and performance predictions of these materials in nuclear-reactor environments.

The project, proposed by Lynne Ecker of the Nuclear Science and Technology Department (NSTD) and her co-investigators, Eric Dooryhee and Sanjit Ghose of the Photon Sciences Directorate, was one of 13 awarded a total of more than $9 million through the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies (NEET) program, which enables cross-cutting research that will fundamentally improve the safety and performance of nuclear reactors.

“This research will produce two very significant outcomes,” Ecker said. “It will develop an innovative new tool, fully automated and remotely controlled, that can address a gap in nuclear materials research by providing greater access to synchrotron data to the entire nuclear community. It will also directly contribute to the understanding of aging in steels and enhance material databases that can be used for materials modeling.”

“Brookhaven Lab has long supported the development of new capabilities in materials for radiation and other extreme environments,” said NSTD Chair Bill Horak. “These investments are starting to yield substantial results. Last year, we were one of nine awards in the radiation materials areas. This year, we again received an award in a very strong field with hundreds of competing proposals.”

The system will use a robot-like mechanism to enable the safe, unmanned manipulation of relatively large numbers of samples for measurement.

“We’re building the sample holders and a carousel to contain, store and manipulate the samples,” Ecker said. “The robot will pick up a sample from the carousel, expose it to the x-ray beam at the synchrotron and return it to the carousel, which is in a radiation-shielded box, and move on to the next sample, closing the box when all samples are done.” 

Access to a robotic sample changer will enable synchrotron data to be collected with high throughput, allowing the nuclear community to leverage large databases of irradiated materials that currently exist at facilities such as test reactors. Many of these samples required years of exposure in a reactor and were extremely expensive to produce. Obtaining additional data from them with state-of-the-art characterization techniques available at synchrotrons is an ideal way to maximize the investment in these samples. High-throughput experiments allow a significant number of samples to be characterized so that the results are statistically representative and can be incorporated into material models or used for model verification.

The project is an especially good fit for researchers at Brookhaven Lab’s NSLS-II.

“No other synchrotron beamline worldwide is equipped with an automated system that is optimized for nuclear applications,” Ecker said. “This research is an important step in gaining experience and familiarizing the nuclear user community with the potential of using robots to limit exposure to radioactive samples while still accessing the synchrotron. “It’s basically a new approach that hasn’t been tried before.”

The data generated will impact life extension for existing light-water reactors and the development of materials for advanced reactors.

The Jackson Hole, Wyoming, manufacturer of the robot specializes in the design and development of innovative automated systems, precision positioning devices, and robots for diverse industries. In coordination with Wayne Lewis of the controls group in the Photon Sciences Directorate, the contractor is developing the advanced, user-custom software with all required safety features to operate the robot in the environment of the beamline. Extensive testing of the hardware/software will be conducted next spring.

The University of California-Santa Barbara will provide samples of irradiated steels and expertise on the materials databases free of charge to this project. Measurements at the new XPD beamline are scheduled to start in early 2015 pending user proposal approval.

Ecker also credits her co-investigators for providing the robot for the project, Frank Zafonte from Brookhaven’s Radiological Control Division for assisting with beamline safety planning, and Robyn Rock of the Global and Regional Solutions Directorate’s proposal center for helping to secure the funds for the project.

The NSLS-II at Brookhaven Lab is supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. 

DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov

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