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NRC faculty development grant funds thorium research

Three men looking at a computer screen. Man on left (front) is pointing at something on the computer screen.

Chemical engineering graduate student Anthony Pace points out data to chemical engineering Professor Patrick Pinhero, center, and Assistant Professor Matthew Bernards.

In response to the MU College of Engineering’s expanding academic role in the field of nuclear science, chemical and nuclear engineering Professor Patrick Pinhero, applied for and was awarded a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Faculty Development Program grant.

Recognizing a need for qualified faculty to train tomorrow’s nuclear science workforce, the NRC makes grants for, among other things, the development of research in related areas. Funding targets junior, tenure-track faculty and the award to MU will be used to fund research conducted by Matthew Bernards, assistant professor of chemical engineering and nuclear engineering, with Pinhero serving as a mentor.

Bernards’ funded-research focus is an investigation into the development of a portable nuclear power generation system that would use thorium rather than uranium as a fuel.

“Dr. Bernards is a vibrant young engineer who is very ambitious,” Pinhero said. “Though he is not a nuclear expert, he is a quick learner and is not constrained by institutional biases about thorium. I find this refreshing and therefore involved him in developing a novel engineering-based thorium research program focused on developing a design basis and working prototype.”

There are many advantages to such a system including the fact that thorium is non-proliferative, Bernards said.

“And there is no danger of a runaway reaction,” he added.

Bernards explained that the research project utilizes an accelerator driven system. Thorium itself is not fissionable, but must be bombarded with neutrons to initialize the chain reaction that turns it into 233U, which is fissionable. A neutron generator will initiate the cascade or series of reactions responsible for thorium power generation. Such a device would therefore be operated with an on-off switch, further adding to its appeal.

A chemical engineering graduate student with a background in physics, Anthony Pace, works with Bernards on the project. He said thorium nuclear power generation is safer because of the significantly reduced radioactive waste produced from the reaction in the form of minor actinide bi-products — radioactive elements at the bottom of the periodic table.

“Thorium also has a long half life, so a thorium-powered device would run forever,” Pace said. “Right now, we’re looking at the amount of thorium we will need and characteristics of each daughter nuclide [isotope] produced in the burnup,” Pace said.

Research such as this is facilitated by the presence of the University of Missouri’s research reactor (MURR). Until now, Bernards and Pace have been running computational simulations to produce characterizations of the process.

“When we are ready to demonstrate it physically, we will use the cyclotron particle accelerator at MURR to test our simulations,” said Bernards.

Pace said thorium’s  “high terrestrial abundance” also is an advantage. Thorium deposits are several times more prevalent than uranium in the earth’s crust and one of the places it is especially abundant is southeastern Missouri.

Bernards said Pinhero hatched the idea for a portable thorium power source as he drove cross-country and began thinking how great it would be to have a thorium-powered car.

“You would never have to refuel,” Bernards said. “The technology has many potential applications,” he added, listing some additional possibilities. “It would be a great alternative power source for disaster relief. You could drive it into a place like Joplin [a Missouri town devastated by a tornado in 2011] to provide power for recovery efforts. It could be used in unmanned vehicles and has both military and space applications.

“There is a lot of interest overseas in India and China for macroscale power production using thorium,” Bernards said.

Because it would be costly to convert current uranium- and plutonium-fueled nuclear reactors to thorium-fueled facilities, broad adoption of the safer fuel option is uncertain.

“Products from this research are tangible and will carry significant weight in marketing a novel technology like this,” Pinhero said. “Matt is an engineer who understands this paradigm.”

Pace is enjoying the research project and working with Bernards, who was named MU’s 2013 Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor. In addition to conducting research, he has been a popular teacher in the Chemical Engineering Department, winning two teaching awards.

“Everything you learn is interconnected and you don’t see that until you get into grad school. It’s pretty cool,” Pace said.