The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has awarded The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) a $1.4 million grant to establish new courses in nuclear engineering and to conduct research on next-generation materials for nuclear reactors.
“This project will promote more education and research opportunities in nuclear engineering and advanced structural materials here at UTEP,” explained Ramana Chintalapalle , Ph.D., an associate professor of mechanical engineering and the lead principal investigator of the grant. “Nuclear energy programs and courses do not exist anywhere close by geographically; this will provide our students with the opportunity to specialize in the field.”
With the funds, the College of Engineering will create a minimum of two to three courses related to nuclear energy and power plant design for senior-level undergraduates, master’s or doctoral students. While the courses will be offered for mechanical and civil engineering students during the first year, courses will be offered across disciplines and colleges at a later stage of the grant. UTEP currently offers one nuclear engineering course, which began in 2015.
Chintalapalle expects these courses will create a new pipeline of talent for the U.S. nuclear energy workforce.
“This is going to reflect UTEP’s capabilities and show our engineering talent to the nation as we expand our research and education portfolio in various aspects of energy science and engineering,” he said.
The four-year grant will fund multiple internships for UTEP students to participate in nuclear energy research at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Davis; or the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Each houses a nuclear reactor to further energy research.
UTEP engineers also will use the grant to study novel materials for nuclear reactors, which need to be tough enough to withstand extreme environments, like high temperatures and pressure, corrosive atmospheres and high intensity radiation. Chintalapalle’s team is currently investigating promising high-strength, durable structural alloys and ceramics for use in nuclear reactor applications.
Soheil Nazarian, Ph.D., a UTEP professor of civil engineering, is the co-principal investigator of the grant. He said, “We are very excited to join with our colleagues in mechanical engineering to build UTEP’s capacity in building the nuclear power plants program in a truly multidisciplinary problem.”
Carlos Ferregut, interim dean of the College of Engineering, added, “This grant shows how the expertise of our faculty from different disciplines can be combined to successfully address challenges in a variety of industries. The nuclear energy industry is coming back and we expect to play a significant role in the education of the engineers that will face the nuclear engineering challenges of the future.”
The UTEP-led team also includes collaborators from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, EPRI and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).
“There is a national need for enhancing the curriculum in nuclear science and engineering at our universities,” said Mani Tripathi, Ph.D., a professor and assistant dean at UC Davis. “Under Professor Ramana’s leadership, UTEP is going to play an important role in this regard. The partnership between UC Davis and UTEP is an excellent model for promoting education in nuclear science and engineering.”
Chintalapalle said UTEP’s progress in nuclear engineering is all thanks to the very first grant he received from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to join the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium (NSSC) in 2013. Consortium members focus on developing a new generation of nuclear experts through hands-on training in nuclear science, technology and policy.
“UTEP has been an outstanding partner in the Consortium,” said Karl van Bibber, Ph.D., chair of the Nuclear Engineering Department at the UC Berkeley and executive director of the NSSC. “This is a great success story for the NSSC, which was established to recruit and train a new generation of experts in the nonproliferation mission. The nation cannot meet its manpower needs simply by drawing from the existing pipeline; we need to create new capacity. And by leveraging the NSSC grant and winning this curriculum development award from the NRC, that’s exactly what we’re seeing here today. Berkeley looks forward to a great partnership with UTEP in the nuclear materials domain.”
UTEP currently does not offer a degree in nuclear engineering, but Chintalapalle said, “That’s the dream for the future.”