Physics dept. receives grant for nuclear research

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Kayla Nguyen, Contributing Writer

As part of a grant from the Nuclear Energy University Programs of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for inter-university nuclear research, the University of Dallas Physics Department received a $192,000 grant last May toward its “Elastic/Inelastic Measurement Project.” The project aims to study the neutron-scattering probabilities of materials important in a fission reactor environment and analyzes the amount of energy loss in reactors.

The project is a joint effort among three schools: the University of Dallas, the University of Kentucky (UK) and the United States Naval Academy. The schools will work together to create a common proposal to send to the DOE.

“The goal of this project is to measure with high precision and accuracy the nuclear data of greatest importance to the Advanced Fuels Program of the DOE: scattered neutrons on coolants and structural materials,” UD physics professor Dr. Sally Hicks explained.

The research will be important for improving the efficiency of current nuclear reactors. Furthermore, all of the measurements taken will be used for developing new reactors that minimize nuclear waste.

“The safety of reactors is key,” Hicks said. “You want them to run in a critical mode where they are self-sustaining and with increased energy efficiency.”

The grant – which is part of a total grant of $880,000 from the DOE for collaborative research among UD, UK, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Idaho National Laboratory – will cover multiple costs associated with the project. Primarily, it will cover travel expenses for Dr. Hicks and the two to four UD physics majors, who have not yet been picked, who will work with her this summer. The 10-week research project will require students to travel to use the particle accelerator and lab at the University of Kentucky, where they will be lab assistants to the researchers. After three weeks of intensive research in the lab, which runs 24 hours a day, they will return to UD and analyze the data. With that data, they will compile a report to send to the DOE. The money will also be used to rent isotopically-enriched samples from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to provide summer salaries for the students and to purchase additional lab supplies.

Dr. Hicks, who received her master’s degree in physics at UK, has been funded to do research there ever since she came to UD. She has taken seven students to UK over the last three years for research, but is particularly enthusiastic about this summer because it is the first time the program has received a DOE grant. The students accompanying Hicks will work as research assistants at UK; the experience is often an assistant’s first exposure to a particle accelerator.

“University of Kentucky is a great place to send undergraduates because they get to participate in the process and all aspects of the experiment,” Hicks said. “[The students] can be very innovative, they are very good at data analysis, and I have learned many things from [them].”

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