Electron microscope to simulate effects of radiation damage on materials
A £1million project at the University of Huddersfield is likely to provide the nuclear power industry with data to ensure that future generations of reactors and radioactive waste storage solutions are safe and reliable.
The University is home to an electron microscope named MIAMI – Microscope and Ion Accelerator for Materials Investigations facility – one of only two such facilities in Europe. It uses ion beams to simulate the effects of radiation damage on materials and to allow examinations to be carried out at the nanoscale.
Particles such as neutrons can weaken materials and alter their physical dimensions, whilst a build up of helium can result in them becoming brittle and likely to fracture. Now, Professor Stephen Donnelly – Dean of the School of Computing and Engineering, pictured with the microscope – and Senior Research Fellow Dr Jonathan Hinks will lead a group that will investigate these issues.
"The project is about producing a base line of experimental evidence," said Dr Hinks. "You have to have a very thin piece of material – typically 100nm or less – otherwise the electrons won't get through and you can't see anything." Using electrons, MIAMI researchers will 'see' inside the samples and witness changes caused by irradiation, including the build up of gas bubbles.
The amount of ion energy and temperatures can be varied during the experiments and the result will be a database of information about the effects of irradiation at the nanoscale which can be scaled up by scientists and engineers selecting materials for reactors and for waste disposal.
The findings of the project will be relevant to the Generation III+ reactors soon to be constructed in the UK and to the choice of materials for Generation IV reactors, due to come on stream from 2030 onwards.
Alongside the research, the project will help to train nuclear scientists, said Dr Hinks. "Because there was a lack of investment in nuclear research and development in the 80s and 90s, the demographic of the people who work in the industry has shifted towards retirement age. So there is a skill gap, particularly serious when you consider the expansion of the UK's nuclear capacity that is now planned."
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