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    Lessons from Fukushima: Prepare for the unlikely

    When a devastating earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the protective systems at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant complex in Japan in March 2011, it triggered a sequence of events leading to one of the worst releases of radioactive materials in the world to date. Although nuclear energy is having a revival as a low-emissions energy source to mitigate climate change, the Fukushima accident is still cited as a reason for hesitancy in adopting it.

    A new study synthesizes information from multidisciplinary sources to understand how the Fukushima Dai’ichi disaster unfolded, and points to the importance of mitigation measures and last lines of defense — even against accidents considered highly unlikely. These procedures have received relatively little attention, but they are critical in determining how severe the consequences of a reactor failure will be, the researchers say.

    The researchers note that their synthesis is one of the few attempts to look at data across disciplinary boundaries, including: the physics and engineering of what took place within the plant’s systems, the plant operators’ actions throughout the emergency, actions by emergency responders, the meteorology of radionuclide releases and transport, and the environmental and health consequences documented since the event.

    The study appears in the journal iScience, in an open-access paper by postdoc Ali Ayoub and Professor Haruko Wainwright at MIT, along with others in Switzerland, Japan, and New Mexico.

    Since 2013, Wainwright has been leading the research to integrate all the radiation monitoring data in the Fukushima region into integrated maps. “I was staring at the contamination map for nearly 10 years, wondering what created the main plume extending in the northwest direction, but I could not find exact information,” Wainwright says. “Our study is unique because we started from the consequence, the contamination map, and tried to identify the key factors for the consequence. Other people study the Fukushima accident from the root cause, the tsunami.”

    One thing they found was that while all the operating reactors, units 1, 2, and 3, suffered core meltdowns as a result of the failure of emergency cooling systems, units 1 and 3 — although they did experience hydrogen explosions — did not release as much radiation to the environment because their venting systems essentially worked to relieve pressure inside the containment vessels as intended. But the same system in unit 2 failed badly.

    “People think that the hydrogen explosion or the core meltdown were the worst things, or the major driver of the radiological consequences of the accident,” Wainright says, “but our analysis found that’s not the case.” Much more significant in terms of the radiological release was the failure of the one venting mechanism.

    “There is a pressure-release mechanism that goes through water where a lot of the radionuclides get filtered out,” she explains. That system was effective in units 1 and 3, filtering out more than 90 percent of the radioactive elements before the gas was vented. However, “in unit 2, that pressure release mechanism got stuck, and the operators could not manually open it.” A hydrogen explosion in unit 1 had damaged the pressure relief mechanism of unit 2. This led to a breach of the containment structure and direct, unfiltered venting to the atmosphere, which, according to the new study, was what produced the greatest amount of contamination from the whole weeks-long event.

    Another factor was the timing of the attempt to vent the pressure buildup in the reactor. Guidelines at the time, and to this day in many reactors, specified that no venting should take place until the pressure inside the reactor containment vessel reached a specified threshold, with no regard to the wind directions at the time. In the case of Fukushima, an earlier venting could have dramatically reduced the impact: Much of the release happened when winds were blowing directly inland, but earlier the wind had been blowing offshore.

    “That pressure-release mechanism has not been a major focus of the engineering community,” she says. While there is appropriate attention to measures that prevent a core meltdown in the first place, “this sort of last line of defense has not been the main focus and should get more attention.”

    Wainwright says the study also underlines several successes in the management of the Fukushima accident. Many of the safety systems did work as they were designed. For example, even though the oldest reactor, unit 1, suffered the greatest internal damage, it released little radioactive material. Most people were able to evacuate from the 20-kilometer (12-mile) zone before the largest release happened. The mitigation measures were “somewhat successful,” Wainwright says. But there was tremendous confusion and anger during and after the accident because there were no preparations in place for such an event.

    Much work has focused on ways to prevent the kind of accidents that happened at Fukushima — for example, in the U.S. reactor operators can deploy portable backup power supplies to maintain proper reactor cooling at any reactor site. But the ongoing situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex in Ukraine, where nuclear safety is challenged by acts of war, demonstrates that despite engineers’ and operators’ best efforts to prevent it, “the totally unexpected could still happen,” Wainwright says.

    “The big-picture message is that we should have equal attention to both prevention and mitigation of accidents,” she says. “This is the essence of resilience, and it applies beyond nuclear power plants to all essential infrastructure of a functioning society, for example, the electric grid, the food and water supply, the transportation sector, etc.”

    One thing the researchers recommend is that in designing evacuation protocols, planners should make more effort to learn from much more frequent disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes. “We think getting more interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary knowledge from other kinds of disasters would be essential,” she says. Most of the emergency response strategies presently in place, she says, were designed in the 1980s and ’90s, and need to be modernized. “Consequences can be mitigated. A nuclear accident does not have to be a catastrophe, as is often portrayed in popular culture,” Wainright says.

    The research team included Giovanni Sansavini at ETH Zurich in Switzerland; Randall Gauntt at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico; and Kimiaki Saito at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. More

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    Future nuclear power reactors could rely on molten salts — but what about corrosion?

    Most discussions of how to avert climate change focus on solar and wind generation as key to the transition to a future carbon-free power system. But Michael Short, the Class of ’42 Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT and associate director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), is impatient with such talk. “We can say we should have only wind and solar someday. But we don’t have the luxury of ‘someday’ anymore, so we can’t ignore other helpful ways to combat climate change,” he says. “To me, it’s an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ thing. Solar and wind are clearly a big part of the solution. But I think that nuclear power also has a critical role to play.”

    For decades, researchers have been working on designs for both fission and fusion nuclear reactors using molten salts as fuels or coolants. While those designs promise significant safety and performance advantages, there’s a catch: Molten salt and the impurities within it often corrode metals, ultimately causing them to crack, weaken, and fail. Inside a reactor, key metal components will be exposed not only to molten salt but also simultaneously to radiation, which generally has a detrimental effect on materials, making them more brittle and prone to failure. Will irradiation make metal components inside a molten salt-cooled nuclear reactor corrode even more quickly?

    Short and Weiyue Zhou PhD ’21, a postdoc in the PSFC, have been investigating that question for eight years. Their recent experimental findings show that certain alloys will corrode more slowly when they’re irradiated — and identifying them among all the available commercial alloys can be straightforward.

    The first challenge — building a test facility

    When Short and Zhou began investigating the effect of radiation on corrosion, practically no reliable facilities existed to look at the two effects at once. The standard approach was to examine such mechanisms in sequence: first corrode, then irradiate, then examine the impact on the material. That approach greatly simplifies the task for the researchers, but with a major trade-off. “In a reactor, everything is going to be happening at the same time,” says Short. “If you separate the two processes, you’re not simulating a reactor; you’re doing some other experiment that’s not as relevant.”

    So, Short and Zhou took on the challenge of designing and building an experimental setup that could do both at once. Short credits a team at the University of Michigan for paving the way by designing a device that could accomplish that feat in water, rather than molten salts. Even so, Zhou notes, it took them three years to come up with a device that would work with molten salts. Both researchers recall failure after failure, but the persistent Zhou ultimately tried a totally new design, and it worked. Short adds that it also took them three years to precisely replicate the salt mixture used by industry — another factor critical to getting a meaningful result. The hardest part was achieving and ensuring that the purity was correct by removing critical impurities such as moisture, oxygen, and certain other metals.

    As they were developing and testing their setup, Short and Zhou obtained initial results showing that proton irradiation did not always accelerate corrosion but sometimes actually decelerated it. They and others had hypothesized that possibility, but even so, they were surprised. “We thought we must be doing something wrong,” recalls Short. “Maybe we mixed up the samples or something.” But they subsequently made similar observations for a variety of conditions, increasing their confidence that their initial observations were not outliers.

    The successful setup

    Central to their approach is the use of accelerated protons to mimic the impact of the neutrons inside a nuclear reactor. Generating neutrons would be both impractical and prohibitively expensive, and the neutrons would make everything highly radioactive, posing health risks and requiring very long times for an irradiated sample to cool down enough to be examined. Using protons would enable Short and Zhou to examine radiation-altered corrosion both rapidly and safely.

    Key to their experimental setup is a test chamber that they attach to a proton accelerator. To prepare the test chamber for an experiment, they place inside it a thin disc of the metal alloy being tested on top of a a pellet of salt. During the test, the entire foil disc is exposed to a bath of molten salt. At the same time, a beam of protons bombards the sample from the side opposite the salt pellet, but the proton beam is restricted to a circle in the middle of the foil sample. “No one can argue with our results then,” says Short. “In a single experiment, the whole sample is subjected to corrosion, and only a circle in the center of the sample is simultaneously irradiated by protons. We can see the curvature of the proton beam outline in our results, so we know which region is which.”

    The results with that arrangement were unchanged from the initial results. They confirmed the researchers’ preliminary findings, supporting their controversial hypothesis that rather than accelerating corrosion, radiation would actually decelerate corrosion in some materials under some conditions. Fortunately, they just happen to be the same conditions that will be experienced by metals in molten salt-cooled reactors.

    Why is that outcome controversial? A closeup look at the corrosion process will explain. When salt corrodes metal, the salt finds atomic-level openings in the solid, seeps in, and dissolves salt-soluble atoms, pulling them out and leaving a gap in the material — a spot where the material is now weak. “Radiation adds energy to atoms, causing them to be ballistically knocked out of their positions and move very fast,” explains Short. So, it makes sense that irradiating a material would cause atoms to move into the salt more quickly, increasing the rate of corrosion. Yet in some of their tests, the researchers found the opposite to be true.

    Experiments with “model” alloys

    The researchers’ first experiments in their novel setup involved “model” alloys consisting of nickel and chromium, a simple combination that would give them a first look at the corrosion process in action. In addition, they added europium fluoride to the salt, a compound known to speed up corrosion. In our everyday world, we often think of corrosion as taking years or decades, but in the more extreme conditions of a molten salt reactor it can noticeably occur in just hours. The researchers used the europium fluoride to speed up corrosion even more without changing the corrosion process. This allowed for more rapid determination of which materials, under which conditions, experienced more or less corrosion with simultaneous proton irradiation.

    The use of protons to emulate neutron damage to materials meant that the experimental setup had to be carefully designed and the operating conditions carefully selected and controlled. Protons are hydrogen atoms with an electrical charge, and under some conditions the hydrogen could chemically react with atoms in the sample foil, altering the corrosion response, or with ions in the salt, making the salt more corrosive. Therefore, the proton beam had to penetrate the foil sample but then stop in the salt as soon as possible. Under these conditions, the researchers found they could deliver a relatively uniform dose of radiation inside the foil layer while also minimizing chemical reactions in both the foil and the salt.

    Tests showed that a proton beam accelerated to 3 million electron-volts combined with a foil sample between 25 and 30 microns thick would work well for their nickel-chromium alloys. The temperature and duration of the exposure could be adjusted based on the corrosion susceptibility of the specific materials being tested.

    Optical images of samples examined after tests with the model alloys showed a clear boundary between the area that was exposed only to the molten salt and the area that was also exposed to the proton beam. Electron microscope images focusing on that boundary showed that the area that had been exposed only to the molten salt included dark patches where the molten salt had penetrated all the way through the foil, while the area that had also been exposed to the proton beam showed almost no such dark patches.

    To confirm that the dark patches were due to corrosion, the researchers cut through the foil sample to create cross sections. In them, they could see tunnels that the salt had dug into the sample. “For regions not under radiation, we see that the salt tunnels link the one side of the sample to the other side,” says Zhou. “For regions under radiation, we see that the salt tunnels stop more or less halfway and rarely reach the other side. So we verified that they didn’t penetrate the whole way.”

    The results “exceeded our wildest expectations,” says Short. “In every test we ran, the application of radiation slowed corrosion by a factor of two to three times.”

    More experiments, more insights

    In subsequent tests, the researchers more closely replicated commercially available molten salt by omitting the additive (europium fluoride) that they had used to speed up corrosion, and they tweaked the temperature for even more realistic conditions. “In carefully monitored tests, we found that by raising the temperature by 100 degrees Celsius, we could get corrosion to happen about 1,000 times faster than it would in a reactor,” says Short.

    Images from experiments with the nickel-chromium alloy plus the molten salt without the corrosive additive yielded further insights. Electron microscope images of the side of the foil sample facing the molten salt showed that in sections only exposed to the molten salt, the corrosion is clearly focused on the weakest part of the structure — the boundaries between the grains in the metal. In sections that were exposed to both the molten salt and the proton beam, the corrosion isn’t limited to the grain boundaries but is more spread out over the surface. Experimental results showed that these cracks are shallower and less likely to cause a key component to break.

    Short explains the observations. Metals are made up of individual grains inside which atoms are lined up in an orderly fashion. Where the grains come together there are areas — called grain boundaries — where the atoms don’t line up as well. In the corrosion-only images, dark lines track the grain boundaries. Molten salt has seeped into the grain boundaries and pulled out salt-soluble atoms. In the corrosion-plus-irradiation images, the damage is more general. It’s not only the grain boundaries that get attacked but also regions within the grains.

    So, when the material is irradiated, the molten salt also removes material from within the grains. Over time, more material comes out of the grains themselves than from the spaces between them. The removal isn’t focused on the grain boundaries; it’s spread out over the whole surface. As a result, any cracks that form are shallower and more spread out, and the material is less likely to fail.

    Testing commercial alloys

    The experiments described thus far involved model alloys — simple combinations of elements that are good for studying science but would never be used in a reactor. In the next series of experiments, the researchers focused on three commercially available alloys that are composed of nickel, chromium, iron, molybdenum, and other elements in various combinations.

    Results from the experiments with the commercial alloys showed a consistent pattern — one that confirmed an idea that the researchers had going in: the higher the concentration of salt-soluble elements in the alloy, the worse the radiation-induced corrosion damage. Radiation will increase the rate at which salt-soluble atoms such as chromium leave the grain boundaries, hastening the corrosion process. However, if there are more not-soluble elements such as nickel present, those atoms will go into the salt more slowly. Over time, they’ll accumulate at the grain boundary and form a protective coating that blocks the grain boundary — a “self-healing mechanism that decelerates the rate of corrosion,” say the researchers.

    Thus, if an alloy consists mostly of atoms that don’t dissolve in molten salt, irradiation will cause them to form a protective coating that slows the corrosion process. But if an alloy consists mostly of atoms that dissolve in molten salt, irradiation will make them dissolve faster, speeding up corrosion. As Short summarizes, “In terms of corrosion, irradiation makes a good alloy better and a bad alloy worse.”

    Real-world relevance plus practical guidelines

    Short and Zhou find their results encouraging. In a nuclear reactor made of “good” alloys, the slowdown in corrosion will probably be even more pronounced than what they observed in their proton-based experiments because the neutrons that inflict the damage won’t chemically react with the salt to make it more corrosive. As a result, reactor designers could push the envelope more in their operating conditions, allowing them to get more power out of the same nuclear plant without compromising on safety.

    However, the researchers stress that there’s much work to be done. Many more projects are needed to explore and understand the exact corrosion mechanism in specific alloys under different irradiation conditions. In addition, their findings need to be replicated by groups at other institutions using their own facilities. “What needs to happen now is for other labs to build their own facilities and start verifying whether they get the same results as we did,” says Short. To that end, Short and Zhou have made the details of their experimental setup and all of their data freely available online. “We’ve also been actively communicating with researchers at other institutions who have contacted us,” adds Zhou. “When they’re planning to visit, we offer to show them demonstration experiments while they’re here.”

    But already their findings provide practical guidance for other researchers and equipment designers. For example, the standard way to quantify corrosion damage is by “mass loss,” a measure of how much weight the material has lost. But Short and Zhou consider mass loss a flawed measure of corrosion in molten salts. “If you’re a nuclear plant operator, you usually care whether your structural components are going to break,” says Short. “Our experiments show that radiation can change how deep the cracks are, when all other things are held constant. The deeper the cracks, the more likely a structural component is to break, leading to a reactor failure.”

    In addition, the researchers offer a simple rule for identifying good metal alloys for structural components in molten salt reactors. Manufacturers provide extensive lists of available alloys with different compositions, microstructures, and additives. Faced with a list of options for critical structures, the designer of a new nuclear fission or fusion reactor can simply examine the composition of each alloy being offered. The one with the highest content of corrosion-resistant elements such as nickel will be the best choice. Inside a nuclear reactor, that alloy should respond to a bombardment of radiation not by corroding more rapidly but by forming a protective layer that helps block the corrosion process. “That may seem like a trivial result, but the exact threshold where radiation decelerates corrosion depends on the salt chemistry, the density of neutrons in the reactor, their energies, and a few other factors,” says Short. “Therefore, the complete guidelines are a bit more complicated. But they’re presented in a straightforward way that users can understand and utilize to make a good choice for the molten salt–based reactor they’re designing.”

    This research was funded, in part, by Eni S.p.A. through the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s Laboratory for Innovative Fusion Technologies. Earlier work was funded, in part, by the Transatomic Power Corporation and by the U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Energy University Program. Equipment development and testing was supported by the Transatomic Power Corporation.

    This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Optimizing nuclear fuels for next-generation reactors

    In 2010, when Ericmoore Jossou was attending college in northern Nigeria, the lights would flicker in and out all day, sometimes lasting only for a couple of hours at a time. The frustrating experience reaffirmed Jossou’s realization that the country’s sporadic energy supply was a problem. It was the beginning of his path toward nuclear engineering.

    Because of the energy crisis, “I told myself I was going to find myself in a career that allows me to develop energy technologies that can easily be scaled to meet the energy needs of the world, including my own country,” says Jossou, an assistant professor in a shared position between the departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), where is the John Clark Hardwick (1986) Professor, and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

    Today, Jossou uses computer simulations for rational materials design, AI-aided purposeful development of cladding materials and fuels for next-generation nuclear reactors. As one of the shared faculty hires between the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and departments across MIT, his appointment recognizes his commitment to computing for climate and the environment.

    A well-rounded education in Nigeria

    Growing up in Lagos, Jossou knew education was about more than just bookish knowledge, so he was eager to travel and experience other cultures. He would start in his own backyard by traveling across the Niger river and enrolling in Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria. Moving from the south was a cultural education with a different language and different foods. It was here that Jossou got to try and love tuwo shinkafa, a northern Nigerian rice-based specialty, for the first time.

    After his undergraduate studies, armed with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Jossou was among a small cohort selected for a specialty master’s training program funded by the World Bank Institute and African Development Bank. The program at the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria, is a pan-African venture dedicated to nurturing homegrown science talent on the continent. Visiting professors from around the world taught intensive three-week courses, an experience which felt like drinking from a fire hose. The program widened Jossou’s views and he set his sights on a doctoral program with an emphasis on clean energy systems.

    A pivot to nuclear science

    While in Nigeria, Jossou learned of Professor Jerzy Szpunar at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, who was looking for a student researcher to explore fuels and alloys for nuclear reactors. Before then, Jossou was lukewarm on nuclear energy, but the research sounded fascinating. The Fukushima, Japan, incident was recently in the rearview mirror and Jossou remembered his early determination to address his own country’s energy crisis. He was sold on the idea and graduated with a doctoral degree from the University of Saskatchewan on an international dean’s scholarship.

    Jossou’s postdoctoral work registered a brief stint at Brookhaven National Laboratory as staff scientist. He leaped at the opportunity to join MIT NSE as a way of realizing his research interest and teaching future engineers. “I would really like to conduct cutting-edge research in nuclear materials design and to pass on my knowledge to the next generation of scientists and engineers and there’s no better place to do that than at MIT,” Jossou says.

    Merging material science and computational modeling

    Jossou’s doctoral work on designing nuclear fuels for next-generation reactors forms the basis of research his lab is pursuing at MIT NSE. Nuclear reactors that were built in the 1950s and ’60s are getting a makeover in terms of improved accident tolerance. Reactors are not confined to one kind, either: We have micro reactors and are now considering ones using metallic nuclear fuels, Jossou points out. The diversity of options is enough to keep researchers busy testing materials fit for cladding, the lining that prevents corrosion of the fuel and release of radioactive fission products into the surrounding reactor coolant.

    The team is also investigating fuels that improve burn-up efficiencies, so they can last longer in the reactor. An intriguing approach has been to immobilize the gas bubbles that arise from the fission process, so they don’t grow and degrade the fuel.

    Since joining MIT in July 2023, Jossou is setting up a lab that optimizes the composition of accident-tolerant nuclear fuels. He is leaning on his materials science background and looping computer simulations and artificial intelligence in the mix.

    Computer simulations allow the researchers to narrow down the potential field of candidates, optimized for specific parameters, so they can synthesize only the most promising candidates in the lab. And AI’s predictive capabilities guide researchers on which materials composition to consider next. “We no longer depend on serendipity to choose our materials, our lab is based on rational materials design,” Jossou says, “we can rapidly design advanced nuclear fuels.”

    Advancing energy causes in Africa

    Now that he is at MIT, Jossou admits the view from the outside is different. He now harbors a different perspective on what Africa needs to address some of its challenges. “The starting point to solve our problems is not money; it needs to start with ideas,” he says, “we need to find highly skilled people who can actually solve problems.” That job involves adding economic value to the rich arrays of raw materials that the continent is blessed with. It frustrates Jossou that Niger, a country rich in raw material for uranium, has no nuclear reactors of its own. It ships most of its ore to France. “The path forward is to find a way to refine these materials in Africa and to be able to power the industries on that continent as well,” Jossou says.

    Jossou is determined to do his part to eliminate these roadblocks.

    Anchored in mentorship, Jossou’s solution aims to train talent from Africa in his own lab. He has applied for a MIT Global Experiences MISTI grant to facilitate travel and research studies for Ghanaian scientists. “The goal is to conduct research in our facility and perhaps add value to indigenous materials,” Jossou says.

    Adding value has been a consistent theme of Jossou’s career. He remembers wanting to become a neurosurgeon after reading “Gifted Hands,” moved by the personal story of the author, Ben Carson. As Jossou grew older, however, he realized that becoming a doctor wasn’t necessarily what he wanted. Instead, he was looking to add value. “What I wanted was really to take on a career that allows me to solve a societal problem.” The societal problem of clean and safe energy for all is precisely what Jossou is working on today. More

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    Tests show high-temperature superconducting magnets are ready for fusion

    In the predawn hours of Sept. 5, 2021, engineers achieved a major milestone in the labs of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), when a new type of magnet, made from high-temperature superconducting material, achieved a world-record magnetic field strength of 20 tesla for a large-scale magnet. That’s the intensity needed to build a fusion power plant that is expected to produce a net output of power and potentially usher in an era of virtually limitless power production.

    The test was immediately declared a success, having met all the criteria established for the design of the new fusion device, dubbed SPARC, for which the magnets are the key enabling technology. Champagne corks popped as the weary team of experimenters, who had labored long and hard to make the achievement possible, celebrated their accomplishment.

    But that was far from the end of the process. Over the ensuing months, the team tore apart and inspected the components of the magnet, pored over and analyzed the data from hundreds of instruments that recorded details of the tests, and performed two additional test runs on the same magnet, ultimately pushing it to its breaking point in order to learn the details of any possible failure modes.

    All of this work has now culminated in a detailed report by researchers at PSFC and MIT spinout company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), published in a collection of six peer-reviewed papers in a special edition of the March issue of IEEE Transactions on Applied Superconductivity. Together, the papers describe the design and fabrication of the magnet and the diagnostic equipment needed to evaluate its performance, as well as the lessons learned from the process. Overall, the team found, the predictions and computer modeling were spot-on, verifying that the magnet’s unique design elements could serve as the foundation for a fusion power plant.

    Enabling practical fusion power

    The successful test of the magnet, says Hitachi America Professor of Engineering Dennis Whyte, who recently stepped down as director of the PSFC, was “the most important thing, in my opinion, in the last 30 years of fusion research.”

    Before the Sept. 5 demonstration, the best-available superconducting magnets were powerful enough to potentially achieve fusion energy — but only at sizes and costs that could never be practical or economically viable. Then, when the tests showed the practicality of such a strong magnet at a greatly reduced size, “overnight, it basically changed the cost per watt of a fusion reactor by a factor of almost 40 in one day,” Whyte says.

    “Now fusion has a chance,” Whyte adds. Tokamaks, the most widely used design for experimental fusion devices, “have a chance, in my opinion, of being economical because you’ve got a quantum change in your ability, with the known confinement physics rules, about being able to greatly reduce the size and the cost of objects that would make fusion possible.”

    The comprehensive data and analysis from the PSFC’s magnet test, as detailed in the six new papers, has demonstrated that plans for a new generation of fusion devices — the one designed by MIT and CFS, as well as similar designs by other commercial fusion companies — are built on a solid foundation in science.

    The superconducting breakthrough

    Fusion, the process of combining light atoms to form heavier ones, powers the sun and stars, but harnessing that process on Earth has proved to be a daunting challenge, with decades of hard work and many billions of dollars spent on experimental devices. The long-sought, but never yet achieved, goal is to build a fusion power plant that produces more energy than it consumes. Such a power plant could produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gases during operation, and generating very little radioactive waste. Fusion’s fuel, a form of hydrogen that can be derived from seawater, is virtually limitless.

    But to make it work requires compressing the fuel at extraordinarily high temperatures and pressures, and since no known material could withstand such temperatures, the fuel must be held in place by extremely powerful magnetic fields. Producing such strong fields requires superconducting magnets, but all previous fusion magnets have been made with a superconducting material that requires frigid temperatures of about 4 degrees above absolute zero (4 kelvins, or -270 degrees Celsius). In the last few years, a newer material nicknamed REBCO, for rare-earth barium copper oxide, was added to fusion magnets, and allows them to operate at 20 kelvins, a temperature that despite being only 16 kelvins warmer, brings significant advantages in terms of material properties and practical engineering.

    Taking advantage of this new higher-temperature superconducting material was not just a matter of substituting it in existing magnet designs. Instead, “it was a rework from the ground up of almost all the principles that you use to build superconducting magnets,” Whyte says. The new REBCO material is “extraordinarily different than the previous generation of superconductors. You’re not just going to adapt and replace, you’re actually going to innovate from the ground up.” The new papers in Transactions on Applied Superconductivity describe the details of that redesign process, now that patent protection is in place.

    A key innovation: no insulation

    One of the dramatic innovations, which had many others in the field skeptical of its chances of success, was the elimination of insulation around the thin, flat ribbons of superconducting tape that formed the magnet. Like virtually all electrical wires, conventional superconducting magnets are fully protected by insulating material to prevent short-circuits between the wires. But in the new magnet, the tape was left completely bare; the engineers relied on REBCO’s much greater conductivity to keep the current flowing through the material.

    “When we started this project, in let’s say 2018, the technology of using high-temperature superconductors to build large-scale high-field magnets was in its infancy,” says Zach Hartwig, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Hartwig has a co-appointment at the PSFC and is the head of its engineering group, which led the magnet development project. “The state of the art was small benchtop experiments, not really representative of what it takes to build a full-size thing. Our magnet development project started at benchtop scale and ended up at full scale in a short amount of time,” he adds, noting that the team built a 20,000-pound magnet that produced a steady, even magnetic field of just over 20 tesla — far beyond any such field ever produced at large scale.

    “The standard way to build these magnets is you would wind the conductor and you have insulation between the windings, and you need insulation to deal with the high voltages that are generated during off-normal events such as a shutdown.” Eliminating the layers of insulation, he says, “has the advantage of being a low-voltage system. It greatly simplifies the fabrication processes and schedule.” It also leaves more room for other elements, such as more cooling or more structure for strength.

    The magnet assembly is a slightly smaller-scale version of the ones that will form the donut-shaped chamber of the SPARC fusion device now being built by CFS in Devens, Massachusetts. It consists of 16 plates, called pancakes, each bearing a spiral winding of the superconducting tape on one side and cooling channels for helium gas on the other.

    But the no-insulation design was considered risky, and a lot was riding on the test program. “This was the first magnet at any sufficient scale that really probed what is involved in designing and building and testing a magnet with this so-called no-insulation no-twist technology,” Hartwig says. “It was very much a surprise to the community when we announced that it was a no-insulation coil.”

    Pushing to the limit … and beyond

    The initial test, described in previous papers, proved that the design and manufacturing process not only worked but was highly stable — something that some researchers had doubted. The next two test runs, also performed in late 2021, then pushed the device to the limit by deliberately creating unstable conditions, including a complete shutoff of incoming power that can lead to a catastrophic overheating. Known as quenching, this is considered a worst-case scenario for the operation of such magnets, with the potential to destroy the equipment.

    Part of the mission of the test program, Hartwig says, was “to actually go off and intentionally quench a full-scale magnet, so that we can get the critical data at the right scale and the right conditions to advance the science, to validate the design codes, and then to take the magnet apart and see what went wrong, why did it go wrong, and how do we take the next iteration toward fixing that. … It was a very successful test.”

    That final test, which ended with the melting of one corner of one of the 16 pancakes, produced a wealth of new information, Hartwig says. For one thing, they had been using several different computational models to design and predict the performance of various aspects of the magnet’s performance, and for the most part, the models agreed in their overall predictions and were well-validated by the series of tests and real-world measurements. But in predicting the effect of the quench, the model predictions diverged, so it was necessary to get the experimental data to evaluate the models’ validity.

    “The highest-fidelity models that we had predicted almost exactly how the magnet would warm up, to what degree it would warm up as it started to quench, and where would the resulting damage to the magnet would be,” he says. As described in detail in one of the new reports, “That test actually told us exactly the physics that was going on, and it told us which models were useful going forward and which to leave by the wayside because they’re not right.”

    Whyte says, “Basically we did the worst thing possible to a coil, on purpose, after we had tested all other aspects of the coil performance. And we found that most of the coil survived with no damage,” while one isolated area sustained some melting. “It’s like a few percent of the volume of the coil that got damaged.” And that led to revisions in the design that are expected to prevent such damage in the actual fusion device magnets, even under the most extreme conditions.

    Hartwig emphasizes that a major reason the team was able to accomplish such a radical new record-setting magnet design, and get it right the very first time and on a breakneck schedule, was thanks to the deep level of knowledge, expertise, and equipment accumulated over decades of operation of the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory, and other work carried out at PSFC. “This goes to the heart of the institutional capabilities of a place like this,” he says. “We had the capability, the infrastructure, and the space and the people to do these things under one roof.”

    The collaboration with CFS was also key, he says, with MIT and CFS combining the most powerful aspects of an academic institution and private company to do things together that neither could have done on their own. “For example, one of the major contributions from CFS was leveraging the power of a private company to establish and scale up a supply chain at an unprecedented level and timeline for the most critical material in the project: 300 kilometers (186 miles) of high-temperature superconductor, which was procured with rigorous quality control in under a year, and integrated on schedule into the magnet.”

    The integration of the two teams, those from MIT and those from CFS, also was crucial to the success, he says. “We thought of ourselves as one team, and that made it possible to do what we did.” More

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    Soaring high, in the Army and the lab

    Starting off as a junior helicopter pilot, Lt. Col. Jill Rahon deployed to Afghanistan three times. During the last one, she was an air mission commander, the  pilot who is designated to interface with the ground troops throughout the mission.

    Today, Rahon is a fourth-year doctoral student studying applied physics at the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). Under the supervision of Areg Danagoulian, she is working on engineering solutions for enforcement of nuclear nonproliferation treaties. Rahon and her husband have 2-year-old twins: “They have the same warm relationship with my advisor that I had with my dad’s (PhD) advisor,” she says.

    Jill Rahon: Engineering solutions for enforcement of nuclear nonproliferation treaties

    A path to the armed forces

    The daughter of a health physicist father and a food chemist mother, Rahon grew up in the Hudson Valley, very close to New York City. Nine-eleven was a life-altering event: “Many of my friends’ fathers and uncles were policemen and firefighters [who] died responding to the attacks,” Rahon says. A hurt and angry teenager, Rahon was determined to do her part to help: She joined the Army and decided to pursue science, becoming part of the first class to enter West Point after 9/11.

    Rahon started by studying strategic history, a field that covers treaties and geopolitical relationships. It would prove useful later. Inspired by her father, who works in the nuclear field, Rahon added on a nuclear science and engineering track.

    After graduating from West Point, Rahon wanted to join active combat and chose aviation. At flight school in Fort Novosel, Alabama, she discovered that she loved flying. It was there that Rahon learned to fly the legendary Chinook helicopter. In short order, Rahon was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and deployed to Afghanistan quickly thereafter.

    As expected, flying in Afghanistan, especially on night missions, was adrenaline-charged. “You’re thinking on the fly, you’re talking on five different radios, you’re making decisions for all the helicopters that are part of the mission,” Rahon remembers. Very often Rahon and her cohorts did not have the luxury of time. “We would get information that would need to be acted on quickly,” she says. During the planning meetings, she would be delighted to see a classmate from West Point function as the ground forces commander. “It would be surprising to see somebody you knew from a different setting halfway around the world, working toward common goals,” Rahon says.

    Also awesome: helping launch the first training program for female pilots to be recruited in the Afghan National Air Force. “I got to meet [and mentor] these strong young women who maybe didn’t have the same encouragement that I had growing up and they were out there hanging tough,” Rahon says.

    Exploring physics and nuclear engineering

    After serving in the combat forces, Rahon decided she wanted to teach physics at West Point. She applied to become a part of the Functional Area (FA52) as a nuclear and countering weapons of mass destruction officer.

    FA52 officers provide nuclear technical advice to maneuver commanders about nuclear weapons, effects, and operating in a nuclear environment or battlefield. Rahon’s specialty is radiation detection and operations in a nuclear environment, which poses unique threats and challenges to forces.

    Knowing she wanted to teach at West Point, she “brushed up extensively on math and physics” and applied to MIT NSE to pursue a master’s degree. “My fellow students were such an inspiration. They might not have had the same life experiences that I had but were still so mature and driven and knowledgeable not only about nuclear engineering but how that fits in the energy sector and in politics,” Rahon says.

    Resonance analysis to verify treaties

    Rahon returned to NSE to pursue her doctorate, where she does a “lot of detection and treaty verification work.”

    When looking at nuclear fuels to verify safeguards for treaties, experts search for the presence and quantities of heavy elements such as uranium, plutonium, thorium, and any of their decay products. To do so nondestructively is of high importance so they don’t destroy a piece of the material or fuel to identify it.

    Rahon’s research is built on resonance analysis, the fact that most midrange to heavy isotopes have unique resonance signatures that are accessed by neutrons of epithermal energy, which is relatively low on the scale of possible neutron energies. This means they travel slowly — crossing a distance of 2 meters in tens of microseconds, permitting their detection time to be used to calculate their energy.

    Studying how neutrons of a particular energy interact with a sample to identify worrisome nuclear materials is much like studying fingerprints to solve crimes. Isotopes that have a spike in likelihood of interaction occurring over a small neutron energy are said to have resonances, and these resonance patterns are isotopically unique. Experts can use this technique to nondestructively assess an item, identifying the constituent isotopes and their concentrations.

    Resonance analysis can be used to verify that the fuels are what the nuclear plant owner says they are. “There are a lot of safeguards activities and verification protocols that are managed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that a state is not misusing nuclear power for ulterior motives,” Rahon points out. And her method helps.

    “Our technique that leverages resonance analysis is nothing new,” Rahon says, “It’s been applied practically since the ’70s at very large beam facilities, hundreds of meters long with a very large accelerator that pulses neutrons, and then you’re able to correlate a neutron time of flight with a resonance profile. What we’ve done that is novel is we’ve shrunk it down to a 3-meter system with a portable neutron residence generator and a 2-meter beam path,” she says.

    Mobility confers many significant advantages: “This is something that could be conceivably put on the back of a truck and moved to a fuel facility, then driven to the next one for inspections or put at a treaty verification site. It could be taken out to a silo field where they are dismantling nuclear weapons,” Rahon says. However, the miniaturization does come with significant challenges, such as the neutron generator’s impacts on the signal to noise ratio.

    Rahon is delighted her research can ensure that a necessary fuel source will not be misused. “We need nuclear power. We need low-carbon solutions for energy and we need safe ones. We need to ensure that this powerful technology is not being misused. And that’s why these engineering solutions are needed for these safeguards,” she says.

    Rahon sees parallels between her time in active duty and her doctoral research. Teamwork and communication are key in both, she says. Her dad is her role model and Rahon is a firm believer in mentorship, something she nurtured both in the armed forces and at MIT. “My advisor is genuinely a wonderful person who has always given me so much support from not only being a student, but also being a parent,” Rahon adds.

    In turn, Danagoulian has been impressed by Rahon’s remarkable abilities: “Raising twins, doing research in applied nuclear physics, and flying coalition forces into Taliban territory while evading ground fire … [Jill] developed her own research project with minimal help from me and defended it brilliantly during the first part of the exam,” he says. 

    It seems that Rahon flies high no matter which mission she takes on. More

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    Making nuclear energy facilities easier to build and transport

    For the United States to meet its net zero goals, nuclear energy needs to be on the smorgasbord of options. The problem: Its production still suffers from a lack of scale. To increase access rapidly, we need to stand up reactors quickly, says Isabel Naranjo De Candido, a third-year doctoral student advised by Professor Koroush Shirvan.

    One option is to work with microreactors, transportable units that can be wheeled to areas that need clean electricity. Naranjo De Candido’s master’s thesis at MIT, supervised by Professor Jacopo Buongiorno, focused on such reactors.

    Another way to improve access to nuclear energy is to develop reactors that are modular so their component units can be manufactured quickly while still maintaining quality. “The idea is that you apply the industrialization techniques of manufacturing so companies produce more [nuclear] vessels, with a more predictable supply chain,” she says. The assumption is that working with standardized recipes to manufacture just a few designed components over and over again improves speed and reliability and decreases cost.

    As part of her doctoral studies, Naranjo De Candido is working on optimizing the operations and management of these small, modular reactors so they can be efficient in all stages of their lifecycle: building; operations and maintenance; and decommissioning. The motivation for her research is simple: “We need nuclear for climate change because we need a reliable and stable source of energy to fight climate change,” she says.

    Play video

    A childhood in Italy

    Despite her passion for nuclear energy and engineering today, Naranjo De Candido was unsure what she wanted to pursue after high school in Padua, Italy. The daughter of a physician Italian mother and an architect Spanish father, she enrolled in a science-based high school shortly after middle school, as she knew that was the track she enjoyed best.

    Having earned very high marks in school, she won a full scholarship to study in Pisa, at the special Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies. Housed in a centuries-old convent, the school granted only masters and doctoral degrees. “I had to select what to study but I was unsure. I knew I was interested in engineering,” she recalls, “so I selected mechanical engineering because it’s more generic.”

    It turns out Sant’Anna was a perfect fit for Naranjo De Candido to explore her passions. An inspirational nuclear engineering course during her studies set her on the path toward studying the field as part of her master’s studies in Pisa. During her time there, she traveled around the world — to China as part of a student exchange program and to Switzerland and the United States for internships. “I formed a good background and curriculum and that allowed me to [gain admission] to MIT,” she says.

    At an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, she met an MIT mechanical engineering student who encouraged her to apply to the school for doctoral studies. Yet another mentor in the Italian nuclear sector had also suggested she apply to MIT to pursue nuclear engineering, so she decided to take the leap.

    And she is glad she did.

    Improving access to nuclear energy

    At MIT, Naranjo De Candido is working on improving access to nuclear energy by scaling down reactor size and, in the case of microreactors, making them mobile enough to travel to places where they’re needed. “The idea with a microreactor is that when the fuel is exhausted, you replace the entire microreactor onsite with a freshly fueled unit and take the old one back to a central facility where it’s going to be refueled,” she says. One of the early use cases for such microreactors has been remote mining sites which need reliable power 24/7.

    Modular reactors, about 10 times the size of microreactors, ensure access differently: The components can be manufactured and installed at scale. These reactors don’t just deliver electricity but also cater to the market for industrial heat, she says. “You can locate them close to industrial facilities and use the heat directly to power ammonia or hydrogen production or water desalinization for example,” she adds.

    As more of these modular reactors are installed, the industry is expected to expand to include enterprises that choose to simply build them and hand off operations to other companies. Whereas traditional nuclear energy reactors might have a full suite of staff on board, smaller-scale reactors such as modular ones cannot afford to staff in large numbers, so talent needs to be optimized and staff shared among many units. “Many of these companies are very interested in knowing exactly how many people and how much money to allocate, and how to organize resources to serve more than one reactor at the same time,” she says.

    Naranjo De Candido is working on a complex software program that factors in a large range of variables — from raw materials cost and worker training, reactor size, megawatt output and more — and leans on historical data to predict what resources newer plants might need. The program also informs operators about the tradeoffs they need to accept. For example, she explains, “if you reduce people below the typical level assigned, how does that impact the reliability of the plant, that is, the number of hours that it is able to operate without malfunctions and failures?”

    And managing and operating a nuclear reactor is particularly complex because safety standards limit how much time workers can work in certain areas and how safe zones need to be handled.

    “There’s a shortage of [qualified talent] in the industry so this is not just about reducing costs but also about making it possible to have plants out there,” Naranjo De Candido says. Different types of talent are needed, from professionals who specialize in mechanical components to electronic controls. The model that she is working on considers the need for such specialized skillsets as well as making room for cross-training talent in multiple fields as needed.

    In keeping with her goal of making nuclear energy more accessible, the optimization software will be open-source, available for all to use. “We want this to be a common ground for utilities and vendors and other players to be able to communicate better,” Naranjo De Candido says, Doing so will accelerate the operation of nuclear energy plants at scale, she hopes — an achievement that will come not a moment too soon. More

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    New study shows how universities are critical to emerging fusion industry

    A new study suggests that universities have an essential role to fulfill in the continued growth and success of any modern high-tech industry, and especially the nascent fusion industry; however, the importance of that role is not reflected in the number of fusion-oriented faculty and educational channels currently available. Academia’s responsiveness to the birth of other modern scientific fields, such as aeronautics and nuclear fission, provides a template for the steps universities can take to enable a robust fusion industry.

    Authored by Dennis Whyte, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering and director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at MIT; Carlos Paz-Soldan, associate professor of applied physics and applied mathematics at Columbia University; and Brian D. Wirth, the Governor’s Chair Professor of Computational Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee, the paper was recently published in the journal Physics of Plasmas as part of a special collection titled “Private Fusion Research: Opportunities and Challenges in Plasma Science.”

    With contributions from authors in academia, government, and private industry, the collection outlines a framework for public-private partnerships that will be essential for the success of the fusion industry.

    Now being seen as a potential source of unlimited green energy, fusion is the same process that powers the sun — hydrogen atoms combine to form helium, releasing vast amounts of clean energy in the form of light and heat.

    The excitement surrounding fusion’s arrival has resulted in the proliferation of dozens of for-profit companies positioning themselves at the forefront of the commercial fusion energy industry. In the near future, those companies will require a significant network of fusion-fluent workers to take on varied tasks requiring a range of skills.

    While the authors acknowledge the role of private industry, especially as an increasingly dominant source of research funding, they also show that academia is and will continue to be critical to industry’s development, and it cannot be decoupled from private industry’s growth. Despite the evidence of this burgeoning interest, the size and scale of the field’s academic network at U.S.-based universities is sparse.

    According to Whyte, “Diversifying the [fusion] field by adding more tracks for master’s students and undergraduates who can transition into industry more quickly is an important step.”

    An analysis found that while there are 57 universities in the United States active in plasma and fusion research, the average number of tenured or tenure-track plasma/fusion faculty at each institution is only two. By comparison, a sampling of US News and World Report’s top 10 programs for nuclear fission and aeronautics/astronautics found an average of nearly 20 faculty devoted to fission and 32 to aero/astro.

    “University programs in fusion and their sponsors need to up their game and hire additional faculty if they want to provide the necessary workforce to support a growing U.S. fusion industry,” adds Paz-Soldan.

    The growth and proliferation of those fields and others, such as computing and biotechnology, were historically in lockstep with the creation of academic programs that helped drive the fields’ progress and widespread acceptance. Creating a similar path for fusion is essential to ensuring its sustainable growth, and as Wirth notes, “that this growth should be pursued in a way that is interdisciplinary across numerous engineering and science disciplines.”

    At MIT, an example of that path is seen at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

    The center has deep historical ties to government research programs, and the largest fusion company in the world, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), was spun out of the PSFC by Whyte’s former students and an MIT postdoc. Whyte also serves as the primary investigator in collaborative research with CFS on SPARC, a proof-of-concept fusion platform for advancing tokamak science that is scheduled for completion in 2025.

    “Public and private roles in the fusion community are rapidly evolving in response to the growth of privately funded commercial product development,” says Michael Segal, head of open innovation at CFS. “The fusion industry will increasingly rely on its university partners to train students, work across diverse disciplines, and execute small and midsize programs at speed.”

    According to the authors, another key reason academia will remain essential to the continued growth and development of fusion is because it is unconflicted. Whyte comments, “Our mandate is sharing information and education, which means we have no competitive conflict and innovation can flow freely.” Furthermore, fusion science is inherently multidisciplinary: “[It] requires physicists, computer scientists, engineers, chemists, etc. and it’s easy to tap into all those disciplines in an academic environment where they’re all naturally rubbing elbows and collaborating.”

    Creating a new energy industry, however, will also require a workforce skilled in disciplines other than STEM, say the authors. As fusion companies continue to grow, they will need expertise in finance, safety, licensing, and market analysis. Any successful fusion enterprise will also have major geopolitical, societal, and economic impacts, all of which must be managed.

    Ultimately, there are several steps the authors identify to help build the connections between academia and industry that will be important going forward: The first is for universities to acknowledge the rapidly changing fusion landscape and begin to adapt. “Universities need to embrace the growth of the private sector in fusion, recognize the opportunities it provides, and seek out mutually beneficial partnerships,” says Paz-Soldan.

    The second step is to reconcile the mission of educational institutions — unconflicted open access — with condensed timelines and proprietary outputs that come with private partnerships. At the same time, the authors note that private fusion companies should embrace the transparency of academia by publishing and sharing the findings they can through peer-reviewed journals, which will be a necessary part of building the industry’s credibility.

    The last step, the authors say, is for universities to become more flexible and creative in their technology licensing strategies to ensure ideas and innovations find their way from the lab into industry.

    “As an industry, we’re in a unique position because everything is brand new,” Whyte says. “But we’re enough students of history that we can see what’s needed to succeed; quantifying the status of the private and academic landscape is an important strategic touchstone. By drawing attention to the current trajectory, hopefully we’ll be in a better position to work with our colleagues in the public and private sector and make better-informed choices about how to proceed.” More

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    Celebrating five years of MIT.nano

    There is vast opportunity for nanoscale innovation to transform the world in positive ways — expressed MIT.nano Director Vladimir Bulović as he posed two questions to attendees at the start of the inaugural Nano Summit: “Where are we heading? And what is the next big thing we can develop?”

    “The answer to that puts into perspective our main purpose — and that is to change the world,” Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technologies, told an audience of more than 325 in-person and 150 virtual participants gathered for an exploration of nano-related research at MIT and a celebration of MIT.nano’s fifth anniversary.

    Over a decade ago, MIT embarked on a massive project for the ultra-small — building an advanced facility to support research at the nanoscale. Construction of MIT.nano in the heart of MIT’s campus, a process compared to assembling a ship in a bottle, began in 2015, and the facility launched in October 2018.

    Fast forward five years: MIT.nano now contains nearly 170 tools and instruments serving more than 1,200 trained researchers. These individuals come from over 300 principal investigator labs, representing more than 50 MIT departments, labs, and centers. The facility also serves external users from industry, other academic institutions, and over 130 startup and multinational companies.

    A cross section of these faculty and researchers joined industry partners and MIT community members to kick off the first Nano Summit, which is expected to become an annual flagship event for MIT.nano and its industry consortium. Held on Oct. 24, the inaugural conference was co-hosted by the MIT Industrial Liaison Program.

    Six topical sessions highlighted recent developments in quantum science and engineering, materials, advanced electronics, energy, biology, and immersive data technology. The Nano Summit also featured startup ventures and an art exhibition.

    Watch the videos here.

    Seeing and manipulating at the nanoscale — and beyond

    “We need to develop new ways of building the next generation of materials,” said Frances Ross, the TDK Professor in Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “We need to use electron microscopy to help us understand not only what the structure is after it’s built, but how it came to be. I think the next few years in this piece of the nano realm are going to be really amazing.”

    Speakers in the session “The Next Materials Revolution,” chaired by MIT.nano co-director for Characterization.nano and associate professor in DMSE James LeBeau, highlighted areas in which cutting-edge microscopy provides insights into the behavior of functional materials at the nanoscale, from anti-ferroelectrics to thin-film photovoltaics and 2D materials. They shared images and videos collected using the instruments in MIT.nano’s characterization suites, which were specifically designed and constructed to minimize mechanical-vibrational and electro-magnetic interference.

    Later, in the “Biology and Human Health” session chaired by Boris Magasanik Professor of Biology Thomas Schwartz, biologists echoed the materials scientists, stressing the importance of the ultra-quiet, low-vibration environment in Characterization.nano to obtain high-resolution images of biological structures.

    “Why is MIT.nano important for us?” asked Schwartz. “An important element of biology is to understand the structure of biology macromolecules. We want to get to an atomic resolution of these structures. CryoEM (cryo-electron microscopy) is an excellent method for this. In order to enable the resolution revolution, we had to get these instruments to MIT. For that, MIT.nano was fantastic.”

    Seychelle Vos, the Robert A. Swanson (1969) Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, shared CryoEM images from her lab’s work, followed by biology Associate Professor Joey Davis who spoke about image processing. When asked about the next stage for CryoEM, Davis said he’s most excited about in-situ tomography, noting that there are new instruments being designed that will improve the current labor-intensive process.

    To chart the future of energy, chemistry associate professor Yogi Surendranath is also using MIT.nano to see what is happening at the nanoscale in his research to use renewable electricity to change carbon dioxide into fuel.

    “MIT.nano has played an immense role, not only in facilitating our ability to make nanostructures, but also to understand nanostructures through advanced imaging capabilities,” said Surendranath. “I see a lot of the future of MIT.nano around the question of how nanostructures evolve and change under the conditions that are relevant to their function. The tools at MIT.nano can help us sort that out.”

    Tech transfer and quantum computing

    The “Advanced Electronics” session chaired by Jesús del Alamo, the Donner Professor of Science in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), brought together industry partners and MIT faculty for a panel discussion on the future of semiconductors and microelectronics. “Excellence in innovation is not enough, we also need to be excellent in transferring these to the marketplace,” said del Alamo. On this point, panelists spoke about strengthening the industry-university connection, as well as the importance of collaborative research environments and of access to advanced facilities, such as MIT.nano, for these environments to thrive.

    The session came on the heels of a startup exhibit in which eleven START.nano companies presented their technologies in health, energy, climate, and virtual reality, among other topics. START.nano, MIT.nano’s hard-tech accelerator, provides participants use of MIT.nano’s facilities at a discounted rate and access to MIT’s startup ecosystem. The program aims to ease hard-tech startups’ transition from the lab to the marketplace, surviving common “valleys of death” as they move from idea to prototype to scaling up.

    When asked about the state of quantum computing in the “Quantum Science and Engineering” session, physics professor Aram Harrow related his response to these startup challenges. “There are quite a few valleys to cross — there are the technical valleys, and then also the commercial valleys.” He spoke about scaling superconducting qubits and qubits made of suspended trapped ions, and the need for more scalable architectures, which we have the ingredients for, he said, but putting everything together is quite challenging.

    Throughout the session, William Oliver, professor of physics and the Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, asked the panelists how MIT.nano can address challenges in assembly and scalability in quantum science.

    “To harness the power of students to innovate, you really need to allow them to get their hands dirty, try new things, try all their crazy ideas, before this goes into a foundry-level process,” responded Kevin O’Brien, associate professor in EECS. “That’s what my group has been working on at MIT.nano, building these superconducting quantum processors using the state-of-the art fabrication techniques in MIT.nano.”

    Connecting the digital to the physical

    In his reflections on the semiconductor industry, Douglas Carlson, senior vice president for technology at MACOM, stressed connecting the digital world to real-world application. Later, in the “Immersive Data Technology” session, MIT.nano associate director Brian Anthony explained how, at the MIT.nano Immersion Lab, researchers are doing just that.

    “We think about and facilitate work that has the human immersed between hardware, data, and experience,” said Anthony, principal research scientist in mechanical engineering. He spoke about using the capabilities of the Immersion Lab to apply immersive technologies to different areas — health, sports, performance, manufacturing, and education, among others. Speakers in this session gave specific examples in hardware, pediatric health, and opera.

    Anthony connected this third pillar of MIT.nano to the fab and characterization facilities, highlighting how the Immersion Lab supports work conducted in other parts of the building. The Immersion Lab’s strength, he said, is taking novel work being developed inside MIT.nano and bringing it up to the human scale to think about applications and uses.

    Artworks that are scientifically inspired

    The Nano Summit closed with a reception at MIT.nano where guests could explore the facility and gaze through the cleanroom windows, where users were actively conducting research. Attendees were encouraged to visit an exhibition on MIT.nano’s first- and second-floor galleries featuring work by students from the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) who were invited to utilize MIT.nano’s tool sets and environments as inspiration for art.

    In his closing remarks, Bulović reflected on the community of people who keep MIT.nano running and who are using the tools to advance their research. “Today we are celebrating the facility and all the work that has been done over the last five years to bring it to where it is today. It is there to function not just as a space, but as an essential part of MIT’s mission in research, innovation, and education. I hope that all of us here today take away a deep appreciation and admiration for those who are leading the journey into the nano age.” More