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Clemson Researcher Studies Carbon Fibres for Nuclear Reactor Safety

19 December 2007

Carbon fibres may hold up to the intense heat and radiation of next-generation nuclear power generators, providing a safety mechanism.

The “Gen IV” power-generating reactors are being designed to provide low-cost electricity, but with a built-in safety mechanism current reactors do not have.

The Department of Energy (DoE) has awarded Clemson University chemical engineering professor Amod Ogale, deputy director of the Center for Advanced Engineering Fibers and Films (CAEFF), a $450,000 grant to research carbon fibres embedded into a carbon matrix that do not melt in extreme temperatures for potential use in Gen IV power generators. About 20 percent of electricity produced in the United States is from nuclear sources.

“One proposed design of the next generation of nuclear plants will consist of a helium-cooled generator that will operate in the range of 1,200 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit,” Ogale said. “A critical safety requirement for this reactor is that it can shut down safely in the event of a malfunction where coolant flow is interrupted. Steel alloys currently used internally in reactors melt at the peak temperature of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, where carbon-fibre composites do not.”

Carbon-fibre composites already are used successfully in jetliner brake systems because of their ability to withstand high temperatures without melting. However, their performance in a nuclear environment is not adequately understood.

Ogale and his team will study the neutron-radiation damage effects on carbon fibers.

His prior research has shown that including carbon nanotubes (large molecules of carbon that are tube-shaped and 30 nanometers in size) in carbon fibres leads to the development of a more uniform texture that improves the properties of the ultra-thin carbon fibres.

In his research, Ogale expects to generate high graphitic crystallinity, a solid-ordered pattern that is evenly distributed so that any changes in fibre properties due to radiation can be minimized.

Irradiation experiments will be conducted in collaboration with researchers at Oak Ridge National Labs. South Carolina State University researchers also will participate in the study.

“This research will lead to a fundamental understanding of how the nanotubes set themselves up to provide radiation-damage tolerance to carbon fibres,” said Ogale.





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