Florida State research group wins $1 million grant to study nuclear fuels

A Florida State University researcher has received a $1 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for a study that could lead to the design of better nuclear fuels and safer and more efficient reactors to generate nuclear power.

Anter El-Azab, an associate professor in the Department of Scientific Computing, and his Computational Materials Science Group at Florida State will conduct research as part of a new $10 million EFRC Center for Materials Science of Nuclear Fuels. The Department of Energy established the EFRC, or Energy Frontiers Research Centers, program in an effort to spur breakthroughs in fundamental energy science.

The mission of this particular center, led by the Idaho National Laboratory, is to use better computational models to learn more about nuclear reactor fuels. Florida State is a member of the center’s team along with the University of Florida, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“The Computational Materials Science Group at Florida State routinely conducts research on the microstructure of a wide range of materials,” El-Azab said. “Thus, we have the experience, tools and manpower to do first-rate research on fuel materials microstructure with this new $1 million grant. This funding complements other major research grants we already have in related areas of materials research.”

With the grant, El-Azab and the Computational Materials Science Group will develop new theoretical and computational models to study the microstructure changes in fuel in the extreme nuclear reactor environment. Nuclear reactors generate energy through the fission process that takes place in the reactor fuel. That energy is then converted into electricity.

Changes in the reactor fuel microstructure alter the fuel properties and can result in mechanical failure of the fuel, with the consequence of releasing harmful radioactive elements to the environment, El-Azab explained.

“Therefore, if we understand how the microstructure changes during reactor operation, the materials scientists and engineers can then design and fabricate fuels with higher reliability and performance,” he said.

El-Azab is one of four executive committee members of the EFRC Center for Materials Science of Nuclear Fuels. In this capacity, he will lead and coordinate the theory, modeling and simulation part of the center.