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    • 2019-03-28 11:05:21
    • Article ID: 710351

    Synergy for Storage: Containing Nuclear Waste for Thousands of Years

    The diverse team at the WastePD Energy Frontier Research Center is learning the secrets of storage materials to contain Cold War leftovers.

    • Credit: Center for Performance and Design of Nuclear Waste Forms and Containers

      Researchers determined the structures that sometimes form where water (blue) and glass (gray) meet. These water-filled cavities can cause the glass to corrode suddenly.

    Browsing the Gilcrease Museum's collection of pre-Columbian American art and tools in Tulsa, OK, one keeps coming back to the obsidian knives, arrowheads (or "projectile points," to anthropologists), and even ear ornaments—glossy black, smooth, and glassy. For tens of thousands of years, indigenous peoples fashioned these items out of cooled lava, beautiful but also able to hold a keen edge for millennia. The same museum collection also features metal knives, some only a few centuries old, already pitted and rusted, and a range of ceramic items in varying stages of deterioration from surprisingly pristine to faded and cracked. Clearly, these different materials—glassy obsidian, earthy ceramic, and metallic—have properties that influence how they stand the test of time.

    "There are difficult issues in understanding how materials corrode over really long time spans," said Gerald Frankel, director of the Center for Performance and Design of Nuclear Waste Forms and Containers (WastePD). "These are scientific issues," he continued. "That's why we need fundamental science."

    Frankel, an Ohio State University professor, focuses that scientific lens on glass, ceramics, and metals used to trap Cold War leftovers, including ~90 million gallons of radioactive liquid and sludge (like wet beach sand). Solidifying the waste as glass or ceramics keeps it from leaking into soil and groundwater. The solid form holds the waste in for thousands of years, giving the radioactive matter time to decay to safer levels.

    To solidify the waste, it's prepared and mixed into the recipes for glass or ceramics. The solidified waste, a.k.a. waste form, is then set in specially designed metal canisters and stored. Defense-related waste in South Carolina is already being glassified. Another such plant is under construction in Washington State.

    Although glass, ceramics, and metal forms have been around for ages, researchers don't yet know key details about how materials crumble, dissolve, or otherwise come undone. "Right now, we don't understand waste form corrosion enough to come up with a good model," said Frankel.

    You can't just go off and do your thing alone. To develop the underlying science necessary to model waste form corrosion, Frankel brought together materials scientists, engineers, computer modelers, and theorists as WastePD, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science.

    The different perspectives give the team a broad view of scientific questions. Even better, they offer more techniques, tools, and know-how to get answers. But collaborating, especially across nine time zones, has its challenges. "We spend a lot of time interacting," said Frankel. "You can't just go off and do your thing alone."

    An early win for the team was solving a particularly vexing problem involving water on glass waste forms.

    Time and tide wait for no waste. Researchers assume that during the thousands of years that the waste rests in storage, rainwater or groundwater will get in.

    When glass is covered in water, either a protective or an unstable layer forms. The unstable film speeds glass corrosion, causing the glass to crumble far faster than if it had a protecting film.

    "To determine what drives the formation, we have to look at it in detail," said John Vienna, who leads WastePD's glass thrust area and works at DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

    But the reactions occur underwater. While you could see the surface easily, conventional techniques aren't designed to get accurate data on an underwater surface. "It's been a Holy Grail of chemistry," said Vienna.

    The team found a way by collaborating. Each team member brought in ideas and applied them. It's like bringing together a dozen internationally renowned chefs and asking them to cook a fish, and then combining all that knowledge and techniques to do something nobody's seen before.

    They started by flash freezing pristine water on glass. It's like a frozen, frosted chocolate sheet cake with glass as the cake and water as the icing. They sliced a thin piece, like cutting a tiny serving, and analyzed it. They repeated the experiment every few seconds as the water caused an unstable porous layer to form on the glass, essentially creating a sophisticated flipbook.

    The troubling layer formed by the water and glass reacting scoops out tiny bits of glass from the surface and lets water get in, just as it could at a storage site. The film's structure—how many pores form, how deep, and how far apart—determines how fast the glass crumbles.

    The best is yet to be. "Our collaboration was something of a shotgun wedding at the start," said Vienna. The study of the glass corrosion in water is just one example of how bringing together different people, different instruments, and different ideas can lead a solution. "Now, we're making real progress by using techniques that were only used in one area and ways of looking at the problems."

    The Ohio State University leads WastePD, formed in 2016. It brings together scientists from Commissariat à l'Energie in France, Louisiana State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, QuesTek Innovations LLC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of North Texas, and University of Virginia. WastePD is one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers funded by the DOE's Office of Science. The centers mobilize the talents of experts and forge teams to lay the scientific groundwork to improve energy production and storage.

    This article is part of a series that explores how scientific teams come together in the Department of Energy's Energy Frontier Research Centers to solve intractable problems.

    The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information please visit https://science.energy.gov.

    Kristin Manke is a Communications Specialist on detail with the Office of Science, kristin.manke@science.doe.gov.

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    Found: New Bismuth Compounds in Well-Known Systems of Two Elements

    Found: New Bismuth Compounds in Well-Known Systems of Two Elements

    Scientists discover an unexpected source of new materials, with potential for energy applications.

    A quick liquid flip helps explain how morphing materials store information

    A quick liquid flip helps explain how morphing materials store information

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    Story Tips from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, June 17 2019

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    Scientists seeking to understand the mechanism underlying superconductivity in "stripe-ordered" cuprates--copper-oxide materials with alternating areas of electric charge and magnetism--discovered an unusual metallic state when attempting to turn superconductivity off. They found that under the conditions of their experiment, even after the material loses its ability to carry electrical current with no energy loss, it retains some conductivity--and possibly the electron (or hole) pairs required for its superconducting superpower.

    Parceling Particle Beams

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    Beam chopper cuts accelerator-generated ion beams under highly demanding conditions.

    An Interaction of Slipping Beams

    An Interaction of Slipping Beams

    Successful models of the fraught dynamics of two particle beams in close contact lead to smoother sailing in an area of particle acceleration.


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    Energy Department to Invest $32 Million in Computer Design of Materials

    The U.S. Department of Energy announced that it will invest $32 million over the next four years to accelerate the design of new materials through use of supercomputers.

    Demarteau to head ORNL Physics Division

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    The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory has named Marcel Demarteau as Physics Division Director, effective June 17.

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    ORNL welcomes seven new research fellows to Innovation Crossroads

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    Oak Ridge National Laboratory welcomed seven technology innovators to join the third cohort of Innovation Crossroads, the Southeast's only entrepreneurial research and development program based at a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory.

    New DOE program connects fusion companies with national labs, taps ORNL to lead

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    The Department of Energy has established the Innovation Network for Fusion Energy program, or INFUSE, to encourage private-public research partnerships for overcoming challenges in fusion energy development.

    Department of Energy Announces $75 Million for High Energy Physics Research

    The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $75 million in funding for 66 university research awards on a range of topics in high energy physics to advance knowledge of how the universe works at its most fundamental level.

    Ames Laboratory names James Morris Chief Research Officer

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    Four scientists at PPPL awarded national and international honors

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    Feature profiles four PPPL scientists who have received high honors.

    Brookhaven's Mircea Cotlet Named a Battelle "Inventor of the Year"

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    The global science and technology organization Battelle recognized materials scientist Mircea Cotlet of Brookhaven Lab's Center for Functional Nanomaterials for his research in applying self-assembly methods to control the interfaces between nanomaterials and other light-interacting components.

    Berkeley Lab Project to Pinpoint Methane 'Super Emitters'

    Berkeley Lab Project to Pinpoint Methane 'Super Emitters'

    Methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps about 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide, is commonly released from rice fields, dairies, landfills, and oil and gas facilities - all of which are plentiful in California. Now Berkeley Lab has been awarded $6 million by the state to find "super emitters" of methane in an effort to quantify and potentially mitigate methane emissions.


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    Found: New Bismuth Compounds in Well-Known Systems of Two Elements

    Found: New Bismuth Compounds in Well-Known Systems of Two Elements

    Scientists discover an unexpected source of new materials, with potential for energy applications.

    Flowing for Function

    Flowing for Function

    A flowing magnetically responsive liquid seamlessly regulates the shape and properties of solids, letting them perform an array of jobs.

    Superconducting Films for Particle Acceleration

    Superconducting Films for Particle Acceleration

    Researchers demonstrated record accelerating cavity performance using a technique that could lead to significant cost savings.

    Parceling Particle Beams

    Parceling Particle Beams

    Beam chopper cuts accelerator-generated ion beams under highly demanding conditions.

    An Interaction of Slipping Beams

    An Interaction of Slipping Beams

    Successful models of the fraught dynamics of two particle beams in close contact lead to smoother sailing in an area of particle acceleration.

    At DOE's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, science drives next-gen creations

    At DOE's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, science drives next-gen creations

    American ingenuity is providing radical productivity improvements from advanced materials and robotic systems developed at the Department of Energy's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    Computer Simulation Shows Astrophysical Particle Acceleration

    Computer Simulation Shows Astrophysical Particle Acceleration

    Particles act in a way that justifies extrapolating simulation results to astrophysical scales.

    High-Fidelity Multiphysics Simulations to Improve Nuclear Reactor Safety and Economics

    High-Fidelity Multiphysics Simulations to Improve Nuclear Reactor Safety and Economics

    Engineers can model heat distribution in reactor designs with fewer or no approximations.

    Simulations Shed Light on Self-Healing Cement

    Simulations Shed Light on Self-Healing Cement

    A first-of-its-kind computer simulation reveals self-healing cement for geothermal and oil and gas wells performs better than originally thought.

    Solving a Beta Decay Puzzle

    Solving a Beta Decay Puzzle

    Researchers use advanced nuclear models to explain 50-year mystery surrounding the process stars use to transform elements.


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