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Tracking bubbles for improved nuclear safety

Nuclear science and engineering grad student Rosemary Sugrue explores thermal hydraulics in nuclear reactors
Rosemary Sugrue
Rosemary Sugrue
Photo: Justin Knight

Whether soloing on tenor saxophone in a jazz band, souping up a racing coupe, or serving as the lone woman operator at a nuclear power plant, Rosemary Sugrue seizes opportunities to stretch herself and learn. This second-year graduate student, who says she has always “enjoyed problem-solving, critical thinking and mechanical things,” arrived at MIT as a freshman in 2007 restless to explore new domains.

All it took was one class in Course 22, and Sugrue leapt, saying, “I declared nuclear; I was sold on it.” This was the start of a long-term commitment to a discipline that offers a wealth of exciting challenges for her. “I am passionate about doing research in this field, helping the broader community understand the continued need for nuclear power, and recruiting other students to work in the field,” she says.

Sugrue’s current research focus dates back to her sophomore year, when she became intrigued by experiments in Associate Professor Jacopo Buongiorno’s lab that explored thermal hydraulics in nuclear reactors. An invitation to participate in these studies through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) proved a turning point for her. “I’d never known that research could be so exciting, and the experience changed my life,” she states.

Sugrue committed to a five-year combined undergraduate and master’s program in nuclear engineering. While tackling regular course requirements, she spent as many hours in the lab as she could, engaged in detailed examination of the boiling process inside a flow loop, an experimental device used to simulate the way a pressurized water nuclear reactor heats water to produce energy.

Using a high-speed camera shooting 6000 frames per second, Sugrue investigated the ways bubbles departed off a heated surface inside the loop, measuring their size and departure characteristics. She focused on specific nucleation sites, “those distinct spots,” explains Sugrue, “where streams of bubbles form.” Altering different parameters such as fluid flow rate as well as the fluid’s temperature and pressure, Sugrue could study the resulting behavior and size of these bubbles.

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