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October 12, 2017

An aggressive approach to identifying strong, long-lasting reactor materials

Written By: Peter Jurich


Calvin Parkin’s graduate research interest is messing everything up.

Specifically, messing up high entropy alloys by blasting them with radiation. The first-year engineering physics graduate student recently received a Department of Energy (DOE) research fellowship from the Nuclear Energy University Program to fund his education and research in creating new alloys. He is one of eight recipients from UW-Madison.

The Nuclear Energy University Program, which seeks to maintain U.S. leadership in nuclear research through support of university-led research programs, has a long and robust record of funding research in UW-Madison’s College of Engineering.

Conventional alloys, Parkin says, are made up mostly of one material such as aluminum or iron. “The idea is if you design an alloy and then you hit it with a bunch of radiation, it’s just going to scramble everything up,” he explains. “You get defect formation that can mess with your macroscopic properties. We’re looking for alloys that can withstand high levels of radiation damage in fast reactors because the fast neutrons are much more damaging than in thermal reactors.”

Conventional alloys cannot withstand exposure to radiation for very long due to their finely tuned composition. Parkin hopes to discover a new alloy by combining many different elements to find just the right combination of equiatomic—or having an equal number of atoms—components.

“If you’re all equimolar to begin with and you’re hitting it with radiation, you’re messing everything up, but everything’s already kind of messed up anyway,” he says. “If you have your properties right, the radiation will not do as much damage to the alloys.”

Parkin, who is advised by Engineering Physics Assistant Professor Adrien Couet, will be using heavy ions instead of the neutrons in nuclear reactors because the ions will provide a much better idea of the amount of damage sustained after a 60- or 70-year lifetime in a shorter amount of time.

The three years of added tuition funding plus a stipend coming from the DOE will provide him with just the freedom he needs to find an alloy to sustain that kind of damage.

“You can get some really interesting properties from these new alloys and there’s so much variation possible in the composition ranges that you could run into properties you’d never expect,” he says. “We want to see if we can find something just crazy-good.”