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UK-US partnership to test fusion power plant materials

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David Bowden, UKAEA; Yutai Kato (Katoh), ORNL; Prof Steve Zinkle, ORNL and University of Tennessee; Dr Amanda Quadling, UKAEA (Credit: UKAEA)
David Bowden, UKAEA; Yutai Kato (Katoh), ORNL; Prof Steve Zinkle, ORNL and University of Tennessee; Dr Amanda Quadling, UKAEA (Credit: UKAEA)

A new five-year partnership between the UK and US will test materials that could be used in future nuclear fusion power plants.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) will collaborate on the £3m project, they announced today (13 March).

The partnership aims to improve understanding of the performance and behaviour of materials required for use in future commercial fusion power plants. It will involve irradiating materials using neutrons at the ORNL High Flux Isotope Reactor in Tennessee, and then testing those materials at ORNL and at UKAEA’s Materials Research Facility at its Culham Campus in Oxfordshire.

One of the major challenges in harnessing fusion energy is developing materials to cope in extreme environments. This is because high energy neutrons and extreme temperatures can weaken or change the desired mechanical, thermal, optical or electronic properties of materials, which can reduce the lifetime of fusion machines.

The research will attempt to understand how certain materials respond to irradiation over extended periods, in order to increase their longevity.

“The partnership will allow UKAEA access to ORNL’s archive of existing irradiated materials, which include binary iron-chromium alloys, advanced steels, silicon carbide composites and copper alloys,” said Dr Amanda Quadling, UKAEA’s director of materials research.

“Alongside this, UKAEA will also be placing entirely new materials into the ORNL High Flux Isotope Reactor, including new high-temperature steels developed by both UKAEA and wider UK industry, permeation barrier coatings and welded materials.”

The work will primarily focus on materials for the ‘breeder blanket’ – a component that provides the fusion fuel, tritium, to make powerplants self-sufficient.   

Post irradiation testing will include tensile and hardness property measurements, to understand both the effect and extent of radiation-induced hardening and concurrent loss of ductility in these materials. 

Advanced microstructural analysis will also be carried out to understand effects of neutron radiation on chemical segregation and precipitate stability. “These assessments are critical to provide assurance that these alloys will be sufficiently durable and reliable to support a fusion power plant throughout the expected lifetime of each component,” the UKAEA said.

In 2021, UKAEA launched the UK Fusion Materials Roadmap, aiming to deliver new neutron-resilient materials as well as a ‘suite’ of irradiation and post-irradiation test work to provide design engineers with data to build future fusion power plants. 

The results of the partnership will be shared with the wider industry to accelerate the development of new materials for fusion applications.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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