In support of carbon-free energy sources, the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, has invested $61 million in projects that will foster nuclear research and development.
The DOE announced the investment Tuesday; the majority of the funds will be directed toward universities, including UC Berkeley. A DOE press release noted President Joe Biden’s administration’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 as a contributing factor in the investment.
According to Lee Bernstein, a past grant winner and UC Nuclear Data group leader, the funding directed from the federal government toward these projects is “essential.”
“This investment is primarily focused on reactors and the development of clean, safe nuclear power,” Bernstein said. “One of the biggest challenges that it lets you address is climate change, and maintaining our standard of living while not spewing endless carbon into the environment.”
Raluca Scarlat, assistant professor in the campus department of nuclear engineering and head of the Reactor Safety & Inorganic Chemistry of Light Elements at High Temperature research group, won two grants this year through the investment.
She noted that part of her research is focused on making nuclear reactors cheaper and providing a more diverse range of energy products by studying molten salt as a coolant.
“Nuclear energy today is very expensive,” Scarlat said. “We’re moving away from what we were building in the 70s to what we can do with today’s technologies for today’s energy needs and markets.”
Scarlat noted that the motivation for her work is to look toward a more compact energy source than fossil fuels to reduce the environmental burden caused by carbon emissions.
She added that as a technologist, the role that nuclear energy will play in the future is not dependent on her, but on society.
“It’s important that this dialogue with society doesn’t happen as an afterthought, but it happens from the very beginning,” Scarlat said. “The input from the general public and society is continuously being integrated into how the nuclear industry is designing technology.”
Massimiliano Fratoni, associate professor and vice-chair of the nuclear engineering department, has received two grants, one in coordination with the Georgia Institute of Technology and another with Virginia Commonwealth University.
According to the Berkeley Research website, Fratoni primarily studies sustainable nuclear energy by designing reactors that can minimize waste and run more efficiently.
He said nuclear energy is abundant and “highly reliable,” which is why it is viewed as a valuable source of clean energy.
“It is important to highlight that fundamentally, these funds that the DOE is providing to universities are going to support students and support the next generation of engineers and scientists,” Fratoni said.