University of North Texas Associate Professor Haifeng Zhang, together with researchers in the Pacific Northwest National Lab, earned a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy to work on a solution for what he believes is a critical sensor problem in nuclear power plants.
“The inside of a nuclear reactor is a very harsh environment. It is very hot, very humid and very radioactive. It must be monitored constantly,” said Zhang. “The sensors in use today don’t last long and are not easy to replace. This can make it difficult to detect atypical operating conditions in the power plant, increasing the risk of problems.”
Zhang’s sensors will couple light and sound waves to measure different physical parameters in a reactor’s core using the latest in piezoelectric technology. Piezoelectric sensors use the ability of certain materials to generate an electrical charge in response to applied mechanical stress to measure changes in pressure, acceleration, temperature, strain and/or force. This technology can be found in radios, televisions, mobile phones, touch screens and other everyday electronics.
To test the sensors, Zhang will simulate a reactor environment in his laboratory in the Department of Mechanical and Energy and Engineering at UNT’s College of Engineering. The simulated environment will not involve the radioactive aspects of a nuclear reactor, but Zhang is working with researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, to add that aspect of a core environment.
“These sensors will be really helpful for the nuclear power industry. The resulting increase in safety and operating margins is expected to enhance the long-term viability and economic competitiveness of power plants and directly support the Department of Energy’s mission,” Zhang said.