Take it to the limit: New LANL energy center peers over the edge

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By Roger Snodgrass

Extremity is the outermost environment. Beyond the limit looms the uncertain and the unknown. Extremity is also a boundary where what’s good enough today breaks down tomorrow. Future breakthroughs may still be possible, but researchers will have to take it to the limit to get there.

The Department of Energy last week announced the creation of 46 new Energy Frontier Research Centers, selected because they have unique perspectives at the leading edge of energy research. The centers can expect to be funded for five years at nearly $20 million apiece. Two of them will be hosted at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

One is the new Center for Advanced Solar Photophysics, seeking a way to multiply solar power with nano-crystal quantum dots. (See the Monitor, 5/3/09). It’s a complex idea, but the basic purpose, to get more electrons from each beam of light, is not so hard to grasp.

“This is more abstract,” said Michael Nastasi, director of the other researcher center. “This is more complex. It’s about materials under extreme environments.”

The project has to do with basic energy science rather than quick applications. Applications are 10 to 20 years out and may have potential for shielding fuel and waste forms in the next generation of nuclear power reactors designing structural materials down the road for transportation, energy and defense.

“This has nothing to do with where the rubber meets the road today,” Nastasi said.

Extreme environments include electromagnetic extremes and chemical extremes, but the LANL center’s two thrusts are directly related to irradiation and mechanical extremes.

A series of workshops sponsored by DOE in recent years developed five grand challenges underlying this new wave of energy research.

According to a project overview, the center on extreme environment-tolerant materials addresses two of them:

“How do we design and perfect atom and energy-efficient syntheses of revolutionary new forms of matter with tailored?” and “How do we characterize and control matter away – especially very far away – from equilibrium?”

The best analogy for extreme environments, Nastasi said, are those involving nuclear fusion or fission and the materials under development are those that are expected to “live” in that environment.

The existing generation of nuclear power reactors are engineered with materials from the 1960’s and are described, in the report on “Basic Research Needs for Materials Under Extreme Environments.

While these materials have contributed to keeping the current fleet of power plants available above 90 percent of the time, they are “performing near their maximum temperature and dose limits,” the report noted.

“Whereas only incremental changes are likely to be needed for continued satisfactory operation of existing and planned “Generation III” fission reactors, large-scale transformational changes are needed to develop the suite of materials for proposed “Generation IV” fission reactors that involve dramatic increases in operating temperatures and radiation exposures to reactor structural components.”

To reach the next plateau, Nastasi has been involved in exploratory work at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnology at LANL, leveraging materials that have already shown a high tolerance to radiation damage and then using advanced modeling to understand what enabled these results to occur.

The work will be performed in collaboration with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Beginning May 18, LANL’s Center for Non-Linear Studies will host a four-day conference on “Energy in the 21st Century” in Santa Fe. The conference will attract a number of players in the new global quest for secure and sustainable energy solutions.

LANL’s two EFRC directors will be making presentations.

Victor Klimov, director of the Center for Photophysics will speak on a day devoted to “solar energy harvesting,” and Nastasi will be one of the closers for the conference, addressing the final morning’s theme, “Path forward: resources, science and technologies.”

The great American rock band, the Eagles are not on the agenda, but the words to one of their songs may strike a useful note.

But the dreams I've seen lately

Keep on turning out and burning out

And turning out the same

So put me on a highway

And show me a sign

And take it to the limit one more time