Meeting Energy Challenges

As our nation faces ever-growing energy challenges, the University of Tennessee and its College of Engineering are on the forefront of efforts to use new sources of energy and to refine and improve current technologies.

With more than $56 million in research gifts, grants, and contracts (many of them focused on energy research), the college is committed to innovation in the energy market.

Making Fusion a Reality

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, researchers have theorized about the promise of nuclear fusion. Unlike nuclear fission, the reaction that powers today’s nuclear reactors, nuclear fusion would be a clean process, similar to that of the sun, producing ten times the energy it consumes. The scientific challenge is to create and control a fusion reaction on Earth.

A seven-nation consortium called International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is constructing a $16 billion tokamak fusion reactor, which uses magnetic fields to confine the hot, electrically charged gas called plasma, which serves as the reactor fuel.

Since 2008, Madhu Madhukar and David Irick—faculty members in UT’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering—along with their students, have been working inside UT’s Magnet Development Laboratory to develop technology that will insulate and provide structural integrity to the 60-foot-tall central solenoid, the backbone of the reactor, which has the job of igniting and steering the plasma by generating a magnetic field 280,000 times stronger than that of the Earth.

The key to unlocking the technology was finding the right material—a glass fiber and epoxy chemical mixture that is liquid at high temperatures and turns hard when cured—and the right process of inserting this material into all the necessary spaces inside the solenoid.

Madhukar, Irick, and their team are now working with engineers at General Atomics in San Diego to produce and deliver a central solenoid to the ITER project.

“The goal of ITER is to help bring fusion power to the commercial market,” says Madhukar. “Fusion power is safer and more efficient than fission power. There is no danger of runaway reactions like what happened in nuclear fission reactions in Japan and Chernobyl, and there is little radioactive waste.”

A Smarter Power Grid

In 2003, a single tree in northeastern Ohio touched a sagging, overloaded power line and triggered a cascading power outage that affected fifty million people in Canada and seven US states.

Yilu Liu, the UT–Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Power Systems in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, developed the Frequency Disturbance Recorder to help prevent such catastrophes from occurring to our power grid.

Installed at an electric-system substation, the FDR enables utility technicians to spot potential problems on a transmission line miles away—including sometimes as simple as a tree rubbing against a line, which, if caught in time, can be a minor, fixable disruption.

Liu’s FDR is to the nation’s power grid what an electrocardiogram is to a hospital patient. While the EKG measures the electrical activity of the human heart, a Frequency Monitoring Network of FDRs operated by Liu and her team at UT’s Power Information Technology Laboratory can register the electrical pulse moving through the wires. “We can detect disturbances that can cause major disruptions, like an EKG detects heart attacks,” says Liu.

Liu is co-director of the Center for Ultra-wide-area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT), funded by a five-year, $18 million award from the US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

Through CURENT, Liu and her colleagues are working to create a smarter national grid, one capable of, among other challenges, accommodating an ever-growing number of renewable power sources, from wind farms to rooftop solar.

Extending Nuclear Reactors

How long can a nuclear power plant last? How often should the components of a plant be replaced? Brian Wirth, Governor’s Chair for Computational Nuclear Engineering, is an authority on material behavior in extreme environments, notably in structural materials in advanced fission reactors, as well as plasma facing components and structural materials in future fission energy applications.

One goal is to extend the lives of old nuclear units by improving the ability to predict the operating lifespan of reactor components like a reactor pressure vessel.

“It is the number one safety-critical component in the power plant, and it is not easy to replace because it is embedded in a big concrete dome, has insulation on it, and has inlet and outlet piping attached to it,” Wirth explains. “So this is the component that will ultimately, in my mind, determine the safe operating lifetime of the nuclear unit.”

Wirth—who serves as deputy focus-area lead for materials performance and optimization in a $25 million-a-year effort among national laboratories, universities, and industry called the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL)—is also using his discoveries about processes and degradation mechanisms to develop high-performance radiation-resistant materials for advanced nuclear fission and fusion energy applications.

Read about more of the College of Engineering’s energy innovations in Power and Photosynthesis.

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