The environment inside nuclear systems is, unsurprisingly, extremely harsh. Even materials that work well in other difficult environments, like aerospace applications, can degrade very quickly in a nuclear reactor.
Simon Middleburgh, Reader in Nuclear Materials in the Nuclear Futures Institute at Bangor University is using the Supercomputing Wales cluster to study the impact of the next generation of materials for nuclear power systems and also gaining a better mechanistic understanding of the current generation of materials to improve their reliability.
“Instead of making expensive mistakes by putting novel but un-tested materials inside nuclear reactors, we do simulations on them beforehand so that we understand how they are likely to behave,” Middleburgh says.
Middleburgh’s group is involved in an international initiative devoted to developing Accident Tolerant Fuels, aiming to develop new fuels that are both safer and more economically viable, and is also working on next generation energy plants using alternative coolants.
“We use Supercomputing Wales to help us make the first steps in designing the materials, so that we can understand things that are happening at the atomic scale, things like radiation damage effects.
“When you hit a material with a neutron it’s like a break-off shot in snooker – in the ideal material, you hit the snooker balls (atoms) and after knocking into each other and transferring all of their kinetic energy they end up in the same triangle back in the middle of the table! Lots of materials do this, but you have to be careful not to choose the ones that don’t,” he says.
Computer simulation is vital in gaining a mechanistic overview of what is happening within the materials because any mistakes are so serious, and predicting unknowns is important for improving safety in what Middleburgh stresses is already an incredibly safety conscious industry.
Research Software Engineers at Supercomputing Wales help the Bangor project team to keep their code up to date and working optimally.
“Whenever there are new nodes and things like that, they do the testing and make sure it all works. From our end, all we need to worry about is the input files – they tell us the best way to submit them. We’ve never had any problems, it’s a super team,” Middleburgh says.
“Like a lot of things in academia, you can have the best mind in the world, and the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t have the equipment that’s what stops you making progress. And that’s not the case here. It levels the playing field in Wales, which is fantastic.”