Campus doctoral candidate receives award for nuclear engineering software

April Novak/Courtesy

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Campus doctoral candidate in nuclear engineering April Novak placed first in the advanced reactor systems category at the annual Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Awards in April.

Novak’s paper, “Pronghorn: A Porous Media Thermal-Hydraulics Core Simulator and its Validation with SANA experiments,” was presented at the International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants in April, according to a press release.

“I’m grateful to be able to share what I’m working on and get more people involved in the field of nuclear engineering as a whole or in the design of pebble-reactors,” Novak said.

The paper focused on pebble-bed reactors, which differ from conventional nuclear reactors. Most reactors use long and skinny reactor cores with uranium-oxide as fuel, according to Novak. Pebble-bed reactors, on the other hand, use tennis ball-sized pebbles that consist of uranium kernels, surrounded by layers of silicon carbide and pyrolytic carbon, in a mixture of graphite.

“The nuclear community is always striving to design reactors that are passively safe and economical,” Novak said.

Novak was awarded for creating a computer program that helps engineers better understand their reactive design before testing it. This program can predict the reactor’s temperature, pressure and flow rate, Novak said. She added that it can save millions of dollars in the nuclear reactor development process and help bring the product to market faster.

Novak explained that pebble-bed fuel is very resilient to high temperatures and unlikely to degrade, resulting in a lower probability of releasing radiation into the environment.

“With pebble-bed, there are more layers around uranium, isolating each piece of fuel a lot more than the conventional reactor field,” Novak said.

The paper consisted of two parts — developing the software and testing it against real-life pebble-bed reactors at the Selbsttätige Abfuhr von Nachwärme, or SANA, facility in Germany. Novak compared computer data on reactor temperature with the results from SANA.

“April is a very hard and dedicated worker; she really cares about impact and making a difference and doing high-quality work,” said Rachel Slaybaugh, campus professor in nuclear engineering and Novak’s thesis adviser.

The awards, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and administered by the University Research Alliance since 2010, seek to encourage and support students working in fields relevant to nuclear technology, according to Kim Dougherty, director of the University Research Alliance.

“We’ve had applicants in physics, environmental engineering, mechanical engineering and chemistry,” Dougherty said.

According to Dougherty, the applications are sent to independent reviewers from national labs or nuclear industries for scoring. Scoring is based on four criteria — innovation, applicant contribution, quality of communication and source of publication. The two highest scores are then selected to be winners for that specific category.

“It’s very exciting, and I’m very grateful to have received the award since I’m a young professional in the field,” Novak said. “It’s encouraging to be recognized by others in the nuclear engineering field.”

Contact Andreana Chou at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AndreanaChou.