Optimizing Nuclear Fuels For Next-generation Reactors

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In 2010, when Ericmoore Jossou was attending college in northern Nigeria, the lights would flicker in and out all day, sometimes lasting only for a couple of hours at a time. The frustrating experience reaffirmed Jossou's realization that the country's sporadic energy supply was a problem. It was the beginning of his path toward nuclear engineering.

Because of the energy crisis, "I told myself I was going to find myself in a career that allows me to develop energy technologies that can easily be scaled to meet the energy needs of the world, including my own country," says Jossou, an assistant professor in a shared position between the departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), where is the John Clark Hardwick (1986) Professor, and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Today, Jossou uses computer simulations for rational materials design, AI-aided purposeful development of cladding materials and fuels for next-generation nuclear reactors. As one of the shared faculty hires between the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and departments across MIT, his appointment recognizes his commitment to computing for climate and the environment.

A well-rounded education in Nigeria

Growing up in Lagos, Jossou knew education was about more than just bookish knowledge, so he was eager to travel and experience other cultures. He would start in his own backyard by traveling across the Niger river and enrolling in Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria. Moving from the south was a cultural education with a different language and different foods. It was here that Jossou got to try and love tuwo shinkafa, a northern Nigerian rice-based specialty, for the first time.

After his undergraduate studies, armed with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, Jossou was among a small cohort selected for a specialty master's training program funded by the World Bank Institute and African Development Bank. The program at the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria, is a pan-African venture dedicated to nurturing homegrown science talent on the continent. Visiting professors from around the world taught intensive three-week courses, an experience which felt like drinking from a fire hose. The program widened Jossou's views and he set his sights on a doctoral program with an emphasis on clean energy systems.

A pivot to nuclear science

While in Nigeria, Jossou learned of Professor Jerzy Szpunar at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, who was looking for a student researcher to explore fuels and alloys for nuclear reactors. Before then, Jossou was lukewarm on nuclear energy, but the research sounded fascinating. The Fukushima, Japan, incident was recently in the rearview mirror and Jossou remembered his early determination to address his own country's energy crisis. He was sold on the idea and graduated with a doctoral degree from the University of Saskatchewan on an international dean's scholarship.

Jossou's postdoctoral work registered a brief stint at Brookhaven National Laboratory as staff scientist. He leaped at the opportunity to join MIT NSE as a way of realizing his research interest and teaching future engineers. "I would really like to conduct cutting-edge research in nuclear materials design and to pass on my knowledge to the next generation of scientists and engineers and there's no better place to do that than at MIT," Jossou says.

Merging material science and computational modeling

Jossou's doctoral work on designing nuclear fuels for next-generation reactors forms the basis of research his lab is pursuing at MIT NSE. Nuclear reactors that were built in the 1950s and '60s are getting a makeover in terms of improved accident tolerance. Reactors are not confined to one kind, either: We have micro reactors and are now considering ones using metallic nuclear fuels, Jossou points out. The diversity of options is enough to keep researchers busy testing materials fit for cladding, the lining that prevents corrosion of the fuel and release of radioactive fission products into the surrounding reactor coolant.

The team is also investigating fuels that improve burn-up efficiencies, so they can last longer in the reactor. An intriguing approach has been to immobilize the gas bubbles that arise from the fission process, so they don't grow and degrade the fuel.

Since joining MIT in July 2023, Jossou is setting up a lab that optimizes the composition of accident-tolerant nuclear fuels. He is leaning on his materials science background and looping computer simulations and artificial intelligence in the mix.

Computer simulations allow the researchers to narrow down the potential field of candidates, optimized for specific parameters, so they can synthesize only the most promising candidates in the lab. And AI's predictive capabilities guide researchers on which materials composition to consider next. "We no longer depend on serendipity to choose our materials, our lab is based on rational materials design," Jossou says, "we can rapidly design advanced nuclear fuels."

Advancing energy causes in Africa

Now that he is at MIT, Jossou admits the view from the outside is different. He now harbors a different perspective on what Africa needs to address some of its challenges. "The starting point to solve our problems is not money; it needs to start with ideas," he says, "we need to find highly skilled people who can actually solve problems." That job involves adding economic value to the rich arrays of raw materials that the continent is blessed with. It frustrates Jossou that Niger, a country rich in raw material for uranium, has no nuclear reactors of its own. It ships most of its ore to France. "The path forward is to find a way to refine these materials in Africa and to be able to power the industries on that continent as well," Jossou says.

Jossou is determined to do his part to eliminate these roadblocks.

Anchored in mentorship, Jossou's solution aims to train talent from Africa in his own lab. He has applied for a MIT Global Experiences MISTI grant to facilitate travel and research studies for Ghanaian scientists. "The goal is to conduct research in our facility and perhaps add value to indigenous materials," Jossou says.

Adding value has been a consistent theme of Jossou's career. He remembers wanting to become a neurosurgeon after reading "Gifted Hands," moved by the personal story of the author, Ben Carson. As Jossou grew older, however, he realized that becoming a doctor wasn't necessarily what he wanted. Instead, he was looking to add value. "What I wanted was really to take on a career that allows me to solve a societal problem." The societal problem of clean and safe energy for all is precisely what Jossou is working on today.

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