Nuclear science, engineering spark collaborations across Penn State and beyond

Ashley J. WennersHerron
July 20, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Radiation Science & Engineering Center (RSEC), home to the Breazeale Reactor — the nation’s first licensed and longest continuously operating nuclear research reactor, is expanding to accommodate an equipment donation valued at $9.8 million and to facilitate more advanced neutron beam research as well as the growth of nuclear engineering at Penn State. With the support of the College of Engineering, in partnership with the Ken and Mary Alice Lindquist Department of Nuclear Engineering, RSEC will launch a joint initiative as part of the expansion to support novel studies in fundamental and applied research for Penn State faculty and students, industry, and collaborative universities and institutes. 

“This is a very exciting time for RSEC, the nuclear engineering department and many other disciplines at Penn State,” said Kenan Ünlü, director of RSEC and professor of nuclear engineering. “Having access to an operating research reactor is a key strength for Penn State and allows us to harness research and educational opportunities rarely available in the United States.” 

The Breazeale Reactor 

The Breazeale Reactor, which generates an enormous number of neutrons per second and enables many different types of research, was established in 1955 after President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the “Atoms for Peace” initiative to use the relatively new-found control of the atom to benefit human life. 

“The Breazeale Reactor has had several upgrades since its founding,” Ünlü said. “A significant redesign and installation of five new beam ports was completed in 2018, but we needed a new and expanded neutron beam hall to make full use of the reactor’s capabilities and to establish state-of-the-art neutron beam facilities.”  

One of five neutron beam ports will be outfitted with an “extremely” cold moderator, measuring at a temperature of 20 Kelvin (-423 degrees Fahrenheit), that allows more effective transportation of low-energy neutrons to the experimental sample location via neutron guides. This port will be dedicated to the Small-Angle Neutron Scattering (SANS) instrument. The SANS instrument was donated by Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, Germany, where it was previously installed at a reactor. Ünlü learned of the instrument after giving a talk in 2018 at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, when a colleague from Germany mentioned equipment that was available in Berlin. Ünlü secured the donation, which will be transferred to Penn State in late spring of 2022 when the new beam hall construction is completed. 

“The Penn State RSEC’s Breazeale reactor will be the only university research reactor with a SANS facility in the United States,” Ünlü said.

The power of neutrons across disciplines 

The instrument will enable two research options in one beam line: continuous neutrons and pulsed neutrons. Both approaches allow researchers to measure how neutrons scatter when they interact with a variety of sample materials, as well as control which parameters the researchers choose to track when investigating different aspects of the samples.  

“Neutrons are an ideal probe for the investigation of complex materials, including biological materials at the atomic scale,” said Jean Paul Allain, head of the nuclear engineering department. “SANS is an excellent technique to probe many novel and complex materials systems including soft matter, glasses, biomimetic structural proteins, microemulsions, flexible electronics and many more systems.”  

To oversee the design, management and organization of the Penn State SANS facility, Allain and Ünlü convened leading neutron scientists to establish the first Penn State Neutron Science Advisory Council, chaired by Robert Dimeo, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Neutron Research. Dimeo is also a Penn State alumnus, who earned his master of science in electrical engineering in 1994 and his doctorate in physics in 1999. 

“The SANS facility has broad applicability across a wide swath of disciplines, and the facility at Penn State provides opportunities not just for research impact, but also for educating and training students,” Dimeo said. “When I was a graduate student, I would’ve loved to have had access to something like this right on campus.” 

According to Dimeo, at least half of all beamtime requests — the reservations to use neutron science facilities for various research purposes — across the country are rejected due to lack of resources. 

“This facility provides opportunities to expand research capabilities across Penn State and to help support operations for the scientific community across the United States,” Dimeo said.

The research capabilities go beyond nuclear science and engineering, according to Dimeo, Allain and Ünlü. Eberly College of Science and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, as well as the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences and the Materials Research Institute all have faculty eager to see what the SANS instrument might reveal about their subject matter of choice, Allain said. 

“The new SANS equipment will provide the opportunity to study the detailed atomic structure of glasses and other materials, providing key insights into the relationships between atomic structure and the macroscale properties of a wide range of materials,” said John C. Mauro, professor and associate head for graduate education in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the College of Earth and Mineral Science. “More broadly, SANS will provide a platform for cross-disciplinary collaboration among nuclear engineering, materials science and engineering, physics, chemistry and other departments at Penn State.” 

Premier neutron science destination 

The planned expansion also demonstrates a close collaboration and deep commitment between RSEC and the Ken and Mary Alice Lindquist Department of Nuclear Engineering, which is experiencing an unprecedented growth of faculty and students since its establishment in the summer of 2019, according to Allain. The expansion will include office spaces for RSEC staff, nuclear engineering faculty, graduate students and visiting scientists who will collaborate with Penn State faculty on the new SANS instrument and the Breazeale Reactor. 

“The education and research mission of the nuclear engineering department and RSEC have enjoyed a strategic partnership for many decades in the College of Engineering,” Allain said. “Strengthening already close ties, the college is making a significant investment in both the department of nuclear engineering and RSEC.”

The 10,000-square-foot expansion is a $9.5 million investment for the College of Engineering, excluding the value of the donated equipment. According to Allain, it is a worthwhile endeavor that will reap benefits for the University and beyond. He noted that Penn State’s expansion of nuclear science and engineering will also accommodate industry stakeholders for collaborative research projects, as well as serve as a key attraction in recruiting top faculty and students.

A groundbreaking event is planned for Oct. 22, where leadership from the two units will ceremoniously break first ground and commence construction. It serves as a symbolic demonstration of not only building toward a future of scientific advancement, but also highlighting the collaborative nature of Penn State, according to Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering.

“The partnership between Drs. Ünlü and Allain to not only organize the physical upgrades but to also initiate truly transformative research and curriculum efforts is a stellar example of the interdisciplinary work that positions the Penn State as a leader in nuclear research,” Schwartz said. “Penn State is becoming one of the nation’s premier neutron science destinations — a vibrant hub of students and researchers engaged in multidisciplinary education and research.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 23, 2021