A faster way to monitor radiation damage to materials

Jan. 7, 2019
MIT, Sandia National Laboratories researchers develop new system to continuously monitor radiation-induced changes

The ion beamline at Sandia National Labs where the new radiation damage measurement system has been installed and tested. The radiation damage process is observed in a target chamber located behind the black-box laser enclosure on the right of the image. Source: MIT & Cody Dennett

Kicking off the new year, I thought I’d take a step into Bela Liptak’s territory and highlight some new research in the nuclear operations space, which was recently developed by researchers at MIT and Sandia National Laboratories.

MIT News’ David L. Chandler reported in December that the team developed, tested and made available a system that can continuously monitor radiation-induced changes to materials. Chandler notes that the traditional “cook and look” method is slow, making it harder to innovate new materials for future reactors, he reports.

The findings were published in the journal Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section Bin a paper by Cody A. Dennett, doctoral student; Michael P. Short, professor of nuclear science and engineering; Daniel L. Buller, technologist; and Khalid Hattar, a Sandia Laboratories scientist.

As a side note, if you haven’t seen it yet, check out this three-part video lecture from Bela Liptak about nuclear facility failures and what could have been done to prevent them. He touches on some important points about monitoring the health of these facilities.

As Liptak notes in the series and the MIT News article points out, many nuclear power plants are nearing the end of their operational lives. However, the researchers believe that their new laser-based system can help determine and monitor the conditions of materials inside of nuclear plants to help understand whether operation can continue, and if so, for how long.

According to the MIT News article, the new system can observe changes to materials, like elasticity and thermal diffusivity, without damage to the materials. Chandler explains how the system works, “The new system, based on a technology called transient grading spectroscopy, uses laser beams to probe minute changes at a material’s surface that can reveal details about changes in the structure of the material’s interior.”

Although the transient grating spectroscopy method was previously developed, it wasn’t before used to look for radiation damage in this way, Chandler notes. The researchers spent two years adapting the technique to work in radiation environments.

I won’t go into the full details of their research here, you can read that at MIT News, but the team was able to perform detailed studies of a material’s performance in just hours, and was able to find the point when degradation began, Chandler reports.

“One of the reasons we’re so excited here [is] everybody we’ve talked to says ‘can you try it on my material?’ everybody has an idea of what will happen if they can test their own thing, and then they can move much faster in their research,” Dennett said in the MIT News article.