Thomas J. McKrell, a research scientist in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), passed away on June 9 at the age of 47.
An expert in materials behavior, especially corrosion of metallic alloys used in nuclear and conventional power plants, he came to MIT in 2006 after serving as a consultant in the power industry for more than a decade.
During his time at MIT, McKrell focused primarily on nuclear engineering, in particular, thermal-hydraulics. He became a technical leader in the area of heat transfer enhancement through the use of nanofluids, on which he organized sessions and gave invited lectures at domestic and international conferences. In 2011 he was appointed to the editorial board of the Journal of Nanofluids.
McKrell was a prolific contributor to a diverse range of other subjects, including the study of oxidation of accident-tolerant fuel (ATF) for nuclear reactors, the mitigation of tube fouling in geothermal power systems, and the probing of fundamental mechanisms in boiling heat transfer using advanced infra-red diagnostics. He also helped to advance the testing of cruciform rods for advanced nuclear power systems, the measurement of optical properties in molten salts for nuclear and solar applications, and the development of drag-reducing coatings for torpedoes.
“Tom was one of the best people and scientists I met at MIT,” says MIT research scientist Bren Phillips. “His personal commitment and dedication was focused not only on the results of the research, but also on the personal growth of the individual students working with him. His colleagues all saw him as essential, both in terms of his scientific knowledge and for his daily enthusiasm and effort.”
Notably, McKrell served as director of the Thermal Hydraulics and Materials in Extreme Environments Laboratory (known as the “Green Lab” to everyone in NSE), within the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, from May 2006 onward. He led the transformation of the lab into a flexible multiuse tool, supporting up to eight different simultaneous experiments — all carefully maintained and orchestrated to be safe and efficient.
In addition to his research and leadership, McKrell was praised as a teacher and mentor of MIT students. He introduced dozens of graduate and undergraduate students to the challenges and joys of experimental work, offering advice on their experiments, including the design of new facilities, help with ordering parts, and interpretation of data.
One student said he always looked forward “to going to the lab to work because of the friendly, fun, exciting, cooperative, and safe culture he has fostered in the laboratory.” Another student commented on the ways that McKrell remained influential even to those he no longer directly mentored, saying, “Tom continues to provide me with personal and professional insight that nurtures my progress even though I no longer work under his cognizance. I have … known no other research scientist to be as important and involved in student progress as Tom.”
Such contributions did not go unnoticed by his colleagues in NSE, at MIT, and beyond. “Simply put, McKrell was an invaluable contributor to NSE’s successful experimental fission research program. His dedication helped advance NSE’s fission research and helped it to become the recognized program it is today,” says Jacopo Buongiorno, associate head of NSE.
In an NSE profile about McKrell written in 2015, he admitted that while mentoring could often take over his days, he still found the time to explore his own research interests. As a child growing up in New Hampshire, McKrell said he noticed cars bellowing exhaust on the highway. “I could see the toll that people were having on the environment, and their disregard for nature. I always thought it would be great to make some sort of meaningful contribution, to have a huge positive impact on the environment in some way.” At MIT, he said, “I’ve been able to contribute to the clean energy sector more than that inquisitive child could have ever imagined.”
McKrell’s love of nature, which began during his childhood years living in a rural area, never subsided. In his adult years, McKrell carved out time for lingering in the woods near his home. “I like to sit quietly and wait for animals, like deer, to come and bed for the night,” he said. “I’ve always had that connection with the environment.”
McKrell is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and two children, Grace and John. A memorial service to celebrate his life will be held in the fall.