left to right: Hunter B. Andrews, Daniell Tincher, Aaron W. Lam.

Engineering students receive more than $300,000 in fellowships from U.S. Department of Energy

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Three Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering students have received highly competitive awards in the 2016 round of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Integrated University Program.

Ph.D. candidates Hunter B. Andrews and Daniell Tincher are two of just 33 students in the country to receive DOE graduate fellowships this year. Aaron W. Lam is one of 57 undergraduates nationwide to receive a $7,500 undergraduate scholarship through this program.

The graduate fellowships provide each recipient $50,000 annually for three years, with an additional $5,000 for a summer internship. These awards will help Andrews and Tincher advance nuclear engineering projects.

Andrews will use his fellowship to develop safer – and more useful – ways to reprocess used nuclear fuel. When used nuclear fuel goes into storage, there’s a risk of unauthorized material extraction.

Andrews, a VCU senior who is entering the Ph.D. program this fall, hopes to mitigate that risk by combining two processes currently used to analyze nuclear fuel properties. Using an electrochemical technique called cyclic voltammetry, he will record changes in the current levels in surrogate materials that mimic stored used nuclear fuel.

He will subject the same surrogate material to laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, also known as LIBS, in which a high-energy laser is fired and releases energy in the form of light. When that light is captured, its components can be analyzed.

“When both of these tools are used, we can create a real-time database,” Andrews said. “We’ll be able to analyze the materials and see if anything is missing or anything is weird – it will be a way to see if anything has been stolen.”

The idea grew from Andrews’ experience working in the lab of Supathorn Phongikaroon, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering. In the lab, one Ph.D. student was working with electrochemistry and one was working with LIBS.

“Dr. Phongikaroon wanted me to be as versatile as possible – ‘a double-edge sword between LIBS and electrochemistry’ – so he seated me between those two students,” Andrews said. That kind of challenge is precisely what Andrews appreciates about the VCU School of Engineering.

“I like the VCU environment. It makes me think differently,” he said. “Instead of going away just to academia for nine months of the year, you’re imposed on the real world.”

I like the VCU environment. It makes me think differently.

Discoveries in nuclear engineering move fast. But the same can’t always be said of the cumbersome computer codes used in nuclear power plants. That presents engineering researchers with a barrier that Tincher wants to minimize.

Tincher will use his DOE fellowship to develop a nuclear reactor simulator that runs industry standard codes, but makes them more accessible. The device he is designing will also enable real-time, event-driven simulations. This means that instead of waiting hours or days for the complete process, the user will be able to make in-progress adjustments.

“You will be able to ask a student, ‘What do you think will happen if the coolant temperature increases?’ then make that adjustment, see it on the screen and get the data,” Tincher said. “It will offer students a more meaningful learning experience.”

The first step in his project is building the hardware, which comprises three large monitors that model the screens used in nuclear power plants. Next, he will code the simulator so that it can run on a variety of Nuclear Regulatory Commission-approved software suites. To ensure that software requirements are met and calculation results are accurate, Tincher will verify and validate the coding against RETRAN-3D, a current industry standard.

He emphasizes that the simulator he is designing adds to – rather than diminishes – what is currently available.

“Nothing is lost,” he said. “We’ll still have the big data output, but this adds event-driven use and visual assets like videos of the operations. The simulator is approachable from the outset. You will be able to wrap our simulator around your model and tinker with it in real time.”

Lam, a rising junior in VCU’s mechanical and nuclear engineering program, applied for the Department of Energy scholarship after learning about the opportunity from associate professor Sama Bilbao y León, Ph.D.

In addition to helping with expenses next academic year, the award will allow Lam to conduct nuclear-related research with engineering faculty this summer. He will research nanomaterials for applications in nuclear engineering with assistant professor Jessika Rojas, Ph.D.

After graduation from VCU, Lam hopes to enter the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate program.

“The U.S. Navy has nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated by how a relatively small yet complex system could power such a large vessel. I’d like to see how nuclear propulsion could help us discover the unknowns around us.”

Lam came to VCU as a biology major, but found that engineering was a better fit for his interest in how processes work. That interest was demonstrated early on when, as a child, he could often be found constructing mechanisms and figuring out how to make them work better. “I found out that you could enhance origami stars with tape and make them much stronger and faster when you threw them,” he said.

Now, instead of throwing stars, Lam is reaching for them. He just got help from the Department of Energy’s Integrated University Program.


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