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MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory launches seed grant program

New program eases access to the MIT Reactor for MIT faculty and research staff.
The blue glow of Cerenkov radiation emanates from the core of MIT's reactor.
The blue glow of Cerenkov radiation emanates from the core of MIT's reactor.
Photo: MIT Nuclear Reactor Lab

The MIT Reactor (MITR), built in the 1950s and a long-time presence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, serves as a valuable test bed for research that might have significant impacts on the future. The mission of this nuclear fission reactor is not to generate electricity; rather, it serves as an experimental environment to irradiate materials and characterize their modified properties — critical steps in the development of materials that can withstand radiation for many applications. The current version of the six-megawatt reactor (MITR-II), redesigned and rebuilt in the 1970s, is the second-largest university research reactor in the U.S. and the only one located on the campus of a major research university.

The reactor is operated by the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL), an interdepartmental center that has long supported education and research in areas such as nuclear fission engineering, materials science, radiation effects in biology and medicine, neutron physics, geochemistry, and environmental studies.

Lin-wen Hu, NRL director of research and services and senior research scientist, says that although the reactor is available to MIT researchers — she used it for her own doctoral thesis research, for example — the majority of current users are from industry, national labs, and other academic institutions.

“We’re very fortunate that the MIT administration has supported the reactor since its inception,” says Hu. “We want to broaden the user base of the reactor — including increasing access for the MIT community.”

The new NRL Seed Program will give a few selected projects of MIT faculty and research staff cost-free access to the reactor’s experimental facilities, instruments, and technical support. This program has two main goals: to cultivate new research areas and to generate data in support of pursuing externally funded research proposals. The ability to use the reactor free-of-cost is a tremendous opportunity, as running an experiment in a nuclear reactor can cost from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.

Hu says that the NRL research and services group she started to assist users for research projects “has reached critical mass,” and has the infrastructure and expertise in place to work with more MIT faculty and research staff.

Four different categories of experiments, described in detail on the program webpage, will be considered for funding. These include: small-scale dedicated irradiation experiments, shared use in-core experiments, neutron beams and instruments, and materials characterization and post-irradiation evaluation.

A variety of different research applications might benefit from experiments using the reactor. For example, it could be used for testing a wide range of materials or sensors — such as those proposed for a next-generation reactor or for a robot that might be built to clean up after a nuclear incident — to understand how their properties change in a radiation environment. Research might involve using a neutron beam port, which provides neutrons to probe a material structure, or neutron activation analysis to detect even very small amounts of an element in a material.

Research submitted for the grant program can be done in collaboration with industry, national labs, or other universities, but the lead researcher submitting the project must be an MIT faculty or research staff member. Projects should demonstrate that early results or data will lead to proposals for external funding. Submission deadlines are Oct. 15, 2017 and April 15, 2018, and selected proposals will be announced a few weeks after each deadline.

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