UTA, Texas A&M aim to refine micro nuclear reactors

Dereje Agonafer (left) of UT Arlington and Yassin A. Hassan of Texas A&M
Dereje Agonafer (left) of UT Arlington and Yassin A. Hassan of Texas A&M.

Researchers from The University of Texas at Arlington and Texas A&M University have received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to conduct experiments and simulations of liquid metal heat pipes (LMHPs) for micro nuclear reactors.

The microreactor is a compact nuclear reactor design generating up to 20 megawatts of thermal energy that can be converted into electricity or used for a wide range of industrial applications, including hydrogen production. Most microreactors are designed to be portable; many are small enough to be transported by a semi tractor-trailer or cargo plane.

Microreactors could be deployed across the state and nation where energy shortages occur. One such case happened in February 2021 when a massive winter storm hit Texas, causing millions to lose electricity and heat.

Dereje Agonafer, UT Arlington Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Yassin A. Hassan, Texas A&M University Distinguished Professor and Regents Professor in the Departments of Nuclear and Mechanical Engineering, are leading the project.

Agonafer and Hassan are members of the National Academy of Engineering, the only two professors from Texas to be inducted in 2019.

“Microreactors can make an effective use of liquid metal heat pipe to transport heat from the nuclear core to the secondary system,” Agonafer said.

One of his major research areas is in design, modeling and cooling of electronic devices—everything from computer chips to computer servers. The team at UT Arlington will actively be involved in both the fabrication and modeling of LMHPs.

The UTA and Texas A&M University teams will produce unique sets of experimental data of internal thermal-hydraulic parameters using advanced measurements’ techniques, quantifying any measurement uncertainties. The datasets will address any technological gaps and could be used to develop physical models, ultimately advancing the predictive capabilities of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) codes and fast-running system codes adopted for heat pipe reactor technologies.

Hassan leads the Center for Advanced Small Modular and Micro Reactors, which focuses on developing and deploying advanced technologies for safer, reliable, sustainable, clean energy.

“We want to solve some of the challenges Texans have faced on the energy front. The center looks at various forms of energy to help the growing state needs for future demands,” Hassan said. “Our students are innovating today what will impact tomorrow’s global society with advancements in sustainability, safety and health.”

The project aligns with the federal government’s recent decision to fund nuclear energy technology with billions of dollars, as well as the White House’s broader aim of setting a net-zero emissions goal by 2050.

“We believe this research has opportunities down the road to expand because of the country’s movement toward all types of more sustainable energy,” Agonafer said.

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