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ISU researchers create uranium crystals

Researchers at Idaho State University have made a glowing discovery which might determine the way scientists see the future of nuclear fuel.

After years of research, ISU RISE Director of Research Eric Burgett finally created what are called cerium oxide crystals.

These crystals are surrogates, or exact models standing-in for uranium oxide or plutonium.

“To enhance our understanding of the accident tolerance and to understand the fundamental properties of uranium oxide, one of the things modelers want to use is pure crystal material, or one big crystal,” Burgett said.

The crystals act as a base model short of imperfections. This means, researchers can study the crystal and better understand how this uranium oxide works as a fuel for nuclear reactors, and that research will help them develop safer nuclear reactors.

First, the powder form of the basic substance is compressed and then placed into a crystal furnace where it is heated at at 3,260 degrees Celsius. Once liquefied at this temperature, it is re-crystallized.

Graduate student Scott McBeath is in charge of inscribing microscopic markings on portions of the crystals that can only be seen through a microscope. These markings will show how the material reacts after it is strained through a series of tests because the images will be morphed, so to speak.

Running these tests will help researchers determine how heat moves through the uranium oxide, how radiation interacts with it, and how and why cracks form within the substance.

Once the marking is placed on the crystal, a light beam (similar to a LASER) runs over it, and the marking will change color, reflecting light from the marking’s surface. From there, researchers can determine how light reacts with the crystal in real-time, which is a new technology McBeath believes will change the course of nuclear technology.

“No one has ever been able to do this before,” McBeath said. “Everything relies on simulations and measurements that you’ve done before and after. So, it’s going to be a big contribution to nuclear science to see what this fuel is doing the whole time in real time.”

Burgett said nuclear fleets are primarily powered by uranium oxide based fuels. With the crystals acting as replica’s with similar nuclear properties, researchers everywhere will now determine how to make nuclear reactors a safer environment while being perfectly compatible with the fuel that powers them.

He also said the last time anyone ever attempted to create uranium oxide crystals was over 50 years ago. However, today’s state of the art technology at the RISE facility has allowed ISU research teams to create these crystals in its purest form.

Follow Kaitlin on Twitter: @KaitlinLoukides

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