Almost three decades after its founding in 1986, the Michigan Ion Beam Laboratory (MIBL) has undergone a major expansion in capability and capacity, making it a one-of-a-kind “triple-beam” facility for studying how irradiation affects materials in reactor cores.
“The driving force for the MIBL expansion has been the potential to momentously accelerate the pace of materials development for next-generation reactors with improved safety, security and efficiency,” said Professor Gary Was, MIBL founding director.
Traditionally, researching radiation effects involves placing materials in test reactors and evaluating the effects of irradiation using post-irradiation analysis. But test reactors can’t irradiate samples much faster than commercial reactors, and experiments on the resulting radioactively “hot” materials are complex, time-consuming and expensive.
“We’re talking about a 15- or 20-year cycle to get to the necessary damage regime and another five years to extract information on the effect of irradiation on the materials,” Was said. “It’s a glacially slow process.”
By contrast, accelerator-based ion beam irradiation serving as a surrogate for neutron irradiation can shorten the irradiation time from years to days. The post-irradiation analysis can be whittled to weeks.
“We can cut down the time and cost by a factor of 1000,” said Was. And accelerator-based experiments have a much higher degree of control than those conducted in test reactors.
“That’s the real key to success — to get to the right dose level and to have the capability to monitor and control temperature and environment during irradiations,” said Was, who has developed the methodologies to achieve an unprecedented degree of control.
In addition to controlling dose, temperature and the environment, other processes take place during irradiation in reactors, including the conversion of elements into gases such as hydrogen and helium. The MIBL can emulate those reactions as well, using a second and third accelerator.
Work in the lab so far has focused primarily on structural materials, but its capabilities also can be leveraged to investigate the effects of radiation on a range of fuels and other materials.
Was initially founded the lab for research on the use of ion beam irradiation for surface analysis and modification. But recent, growing interest in using ion beam accelerators for radiation damage studies made him realize the importance to the nuclear industry of expanding the state-of-the-art laboratory with the capabilities to emulate the environment inside reactor cores — and train future scientists in radiation damage in the process.
“We expect the expanded MIBL will have a large, positive impact on manpower in the nuclear field, especially in turning out bright, energetic and motivated scientists to continue this type of work,” Was said.
MIBL is one of only a handful of facilities worldwide with similar capabilities and attracts researchers globally, including two doctoral investigators from Pakistan. Their work on carbon ion implantation in PMMA (acrylic) resulted in an article, recently published in Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms.
Not surprisingly, MIBL is busy. The lab logs close to 7,000 hours annually. In just one year, staff conducted irradiations for researchers that included five national laboratories and over 20 universities and other institutions in seven countries.
In addition, Was also directs a vibrant research program and heads the Integrated Research Program (IRP), a consortium of 19 institutions, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The goal of the IRP is to accelerate reactor materials development for advanced nuclear energy. The MIBL expansion is part of the IRP.
Support from the NERS department and Michigan Engineering as well as investors from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and TerraPower, Inc., made the expanded triple-beam MIBL facility a reality.
“We’re very grateful — a lot of people have shared the vision and see the potential of MIBL as the hub of radiation materials science in the United States,” Was said.
A rededication and Open House for the newly expanded and renovated MIBL facility took place on October 26th.