DOE Awards Reactor Corrosion Research Grant
An assistant professor from Penn State University recently received a $400,000 research and development award from the U.S. Department of Energy to study corrosive damage caused by salt in nuclear salt reactors.
FeiFei Shi from the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering was awarded the funding from the Nuclear Energy University Program.
About the Research
According to PSU, nuclear salt reactors offer benefits such as higher efficiency and less waste, compared to traditional reactors that require solid fuel. Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency suggests that there is a growing international interest in the process for sustainable clean energy transition.
However, corrosiveness caused by the molten salts can affect reactor reliability, along with high maintenance costs. Overcoming this corrosion is reportedly one of the primary challenges preventing further adoption of the energy source.
“Corrosion is always happening or initiating on the surface, and in this extreme, harsh environment, the all-chloride-based assault makes the problem more severe,” said Shi. “We need a better understanding of the whole process to develop informed preventative strategies that stop the corrosion from happening in the first place.”
While there is little moisture in an MSR environment, the primary oxidizer comes from the chloride, or chlorine, inside the molten salt. According to Shi, the inhospitable conditions and uncommon corrosive mechanisms pose a unique research challenge.
Nuclear salt reactors have many benefits, including higher efficiencies and less waste, compared to traditional reactors. Overcoming the corrosive effect of molten salt is one of the primary challenges. https://t.co/zv2dN29gIa— College of EMS (@PSUEMS) April 20, 2023
“Duplicating the very high temperature of a 700 degrees Celsius reactor is hard enough,” said Shi. “We also can't just take out our experiment to check it because the ambient air will affect the electrochemical and thermodynamic properties and destroy the results.”
The research team will reportedly use a mixture of emerging electrochemistry models in combination with reviving methods used in the 1950s to observe the interfacial phenomena. Factors such as penetration depth and magnification levels will be needed to find the molecular “sweet spot” on the models.
“As researchers, we have a lot of tools, but not all are useful,” said Shi. “When we have a liquid like molten salt, which is a very viscous, high-temperature liquid, traditional methods like ultra-high vacuum UV systems are very limited because the surface is buried.”
The university said that Shi hopes the team’s observations of the unpredictable, buried surface will lead to more accurate simulations. Additionally, Shi foresees that the foundational knowledge gained by this study will have a long-lasting impact, potentially leading to breakthroughs beyond nuclear energy applications.
“Currently, molten salts are like a black box,” Shi said. “Sometimes it's hard to see the impact, or the benefits are unclear, when you shine a light on such an interesting phenomenon. But I think the accumulation of knowledge and pushing the frontier of science is significant and will fuel exciting collaborations at Penn State for the next 30 or 50 years.”
The DOE has reportedly awarded more than $24.3 million through NEUP to support 38 university-led, nuclear energy research and development projects in 21 states last year. The NEUP seeks to maintain U.S. leadership in nuclear research across the country by providing schools with opportunities to develop innovative technologies and solutions for civil nuclear capabilities.