The nuclear engineering program in Virginia Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering has been awarded two grants totaling $850,000 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Integrated University Program for faculty development and graduate student fellowships. The program was authorized by Congress in 2009 to enhance the nuclear workforce.

Since nuclear engineering was re-established at Virginia Tech in 2007, the program has been successful in obtaining funding totaling approximately $2.8 million.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Integrated University Program has been instrumental in attracting highly qualified faculty and graduate students to the nuclear engineering program,” said Alireza Haghighat, professor and director of mechanical engineering’s nuclear engineering program.

Faculty development

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has awarded a three-year grant of $450,000 to support faculty development for its nuclear engineering program. The commission’s program specifically targets tenure-track faculty in the first six years of their careers and includes support for developing proposals for research, initiating or continuing research projects, and other areas.

Azim Eskandarian, mechanical engineering department head and the Nicholas and Rebecca Des Champs Chaired Professor, will partner with Juliana P. Duarte, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, to help improve the modeling used in nuclear power plants, one of Duarte’s areas of expertise. Along with existing faculty, Duarte will expand the nuclear engineering program’s computational and experimental capabilities in thermal-hydraulics and safety of advanced nuclear reactors.

“We are delighted to have received these grants to enhance our nuclear engineering program, which has had a strong tradition of scholarship since its inception at Virginia Tech,” said Eskandarian. “We are building unique capabilities in nuclear engineering which is taking advantage of collaborations within VT, with ME faculty, and experts across the university, including material science and engineering, physics, and chemistry, among others, as well as partnering with regional universities and engaging with productive international exchanges,” Eskandarian said.

Duarte was hired in 2018 under the Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities Destination Area, a transdisciplinary initiative to balance technological advancement to a fair, equitable, and suitable society.

“In a carbon-constrained world, it’s important that nuclear energy is more advanced, more economical, proliferation resistant, and safer,” said Duarte. “In thermal-hydraulics, the research will focus on an experimental program to study post-critical heat flux, including transition and film boiling heat transfer regimes.”  

According to Duarte, the experiments will be used to improve the fundamental understanding of multi-phase problems and to develop semi-empirical correlations to improve modeling currently used in computational fluid dynamics and thermal-hydraulic system codes.

Duarte’s research interests include, nuclear safety analysis, thermal-hydraulic systems, experimental and computational two-phase flow, advanced light-water reactors, and small modular reactors. She is also interested in the heat transfer performance of accident tolerant fuels, particularly in the surface effect on the critical heat flux and minimum film boiling temperature at operating conditions. 

Duarte received her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and engineering physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2018.

Student fellowship

A fellowship grant of $400,000 over four years was awarded in support of Virginia Tech’s Multi-Campus Nuclear Engineering Fellowship Program that will provide graduate fellowships to students enrolled in the nuclear engineering program at both Blacksburg and the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area campuses.

According to primary investigator Haghighat, the program will include midshipmen enrolled in the Accelerated Masters of Engineering in Nuclear Engineering program for the U.S. Naval Academy.

“Fellows pursue graduate education in nuclear engineering with a focus on advanced simulation techniques and codes, nuclear materials chemistry and radiation effects, nuclear reactor design and simulation, nuclear security and nonproliferation, and reactor safety,” Haghighat said.

The fellowship will allow the nuclear program to recruit and educate highly qualified nuclear engineers and scientists who will contribute to the U.S. nuclear educational institutions, private organizations, and government agencies and laboratories.

Since 2009, 18 graduate students have benefited from the fellowship program with 14 students having completed master's and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering and who are successfully employed in different sectors including U.S. national labs, universities, nuclear vendors, and the U.S. Naval Academy. 

- Written by Rosaire Bushey

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