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Pitt engineering and corporate research group receives nearly $1 million DOE grant for nuclear power safety research

PITTSBURGH (October 22, 2014) … Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh were awarded a $987,000 grant from the Department of Energy's Nuclear Energy University Programs (NEUP) to develop radiation-hard, multi-functional, distributed fiber optical sensor networks to improve safety and operational efficiency in nuclear power reactors and fuel cycle systems. The grant was awarded under NEUP's Nuclear Energy Enabling Technology (NEET) program.

The principal investigator is Kevin P. Chen, PhD , associate professor of electrical engineering and Paul E. Lego Faculty Fellow. Project collaborators include Corning Incorporated in Corning, NY and Westinghouse Electric Company LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.

"An important lesson of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 is the lack of situation awareness of nuclear power systems especially under stressed or severe situations," Dr. Chen says. "When the plant was evacuated following the earthquake and tsunami, we lost the ability to know what was happening in key systems. This information blackout prevented the implementation of proper control mechanisms, which then triggered a disastrous chain of events."

According to Dr. Chen, the fiber optical sensor networks will enable nuclear engineers to better monitor a number of parameters critical to the safety of nuclear power systems. The sensor networks will have high sensitivity, high accuracy, and high spatial resolutions, with up to 100 sensors per meter in critical locations. This high-resolution sensing data will provide operators with critical information to quickly isolate problems and implement solutions at minimal cost. Scientists at Corning, one of the world's leading innovators in materials science, will help to develop radiation-hard, application-specific air-hole microstructural fibers for multi-parameter measurements of temperature, pressure, and hydrogen concentration. Novel fiber structure designs and the integration of nano-composite coating will enhance functionalities of distributed fiber sensing schemes beyond traditional uses for temperature and strain measurements. Pitt's researchers will also work with engineers at Westinghouse Electric Company to academically evaluate performance in both normal and post-accident scenarios, and to assess practical applications for sensor implementation in nuclear power systems.

"This is a challenging project because we will be designing new radiation-robust sensors from the ground up," Dr. Chen says. "However, the success of this project will enable us to improve the reliability and safety of future nuclear systems, as well as existing nuclear power plants through retrofitting. Hopefully, our engineering work will make a difference"

Pitt's grant was part of $11 million awarded for 12 research and development projects led by U.S. universities, Department of Energy national laboratories and industry in support of the Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies Crosscutting Technology Development Program (NEET CTD) to address crosscutting nuclear energy challenges. Since 2009, the Energy Department's Office of Nuclear Energy has awarded approximately $350 million to 98 U.S. colleges and universities to continue American leadership in clean energy innovation and to train the next generation of nuclear engineers and scientists through its university programs.


Contact: Paul Kovach