Lei Zuo, associate professor of mechanical engineering, was recently awarded a Department of Energy Nuclear Engineering research grant to develop nuclear radiation energy harvesting and through-wall wireless communication for enclosed metal containers in nuclear environments, like pressure reactor vessels or nuclear spent-fuel canisters.

With the $1 million grant from the Department of Energy, Zuo is putting his energy harvesting research to use to create a way to monitor the contents of storage containers used for spent nuclear fuel rods. The containers, which typically include one-half inch metal shells, aren’t suited for standard wireless technology, nor, due to their contents, can holes be drilled into them for power or data cables. Zuo’s approach to the problem is novel.

“To provide in-situ monitoring of the interior conditions of enclosed metal or thick concrete canisters, we are building a system that will use the gamma and beta radiations found within the canisters themselves,” said Zuo, who is the John R. Jones III Faculty Fellow of Mechanical Engineering. “Then we will use ultrasound transmission to deliver temperature, humidity, and other data through the wall of the canister to receivers outside that can be transmitted to user data.”

Zuo’s harvesting system will use a tungsten plate, or a target, to absorb the gamma radiation within the canister to create a hot spot. The tungsten target then will create a pocket of temperature difference between the plate and the outside metal wall, which will enable Zuo’s team to harvest power within the differential temperature space.

The self-powered sensor and data communication could last for decades, potentially increasing the life expectancy of spent fuel canisters. Similar technology can also be applied to pressure nuclear reactor vessels.

As primary investigator, Zuo will collaborate with the University of North Texas, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Westinghouse Electric Company, to design the energy harvesters and coordinate the system integration. Co-principal investigator Haifeng Zhang, associate professor of mechanical engineering technology at the University of North Texas, will lead the ultrasound data transmission team.

With the support of Dong Ha, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory co-principal investigators will head the high-temperature electronics for energy storage, sensing, and data transmission team with the support of Dong Ha, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech. Westinghouse will provide guidelines from the nuclear power industry perspective and support the radiation tests and system validation.

This is a third project from Department of Energy Nuclear Engineering Program that Lei Zuo has won. He has an ongoing Nuclear Energy University Program project with collaborators at University of North Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on energy harvesting and temperature/pressure sensing in the extreme harsh environments of severe nuclear accidents.

Written by Rosaire Bushey

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