Teams led by University of California, Irvine chemists have received a combined $25 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for three branches of research, including one that may affect the future of nuclear power.
The money comes as part of the federal
department’s Energy Frontier Research Centers program and Clean Energy Manufacturing initiative.
Among the funding announcements, Sarah Finkeldei, a UCI assistant professor of chemistry, received a $4.3 million grant from the DOE Basic Energy Sciences program for a project to improve the safety and durability of the nation’s nuclear power facilities.
Many next-generation reactors, including small modular reactors, are expected to operate for longer periods under more extreme temperature and radiation exposure conditions.
“Nuclear is going to play a significant role when it comes to decarbonizing the energy sector by 2035 and 2050 in the United States and worldwide,” Finkeldei told the Business Journal on Sept. 8.
She added: “It is extremely important that we have a healthy mix of different energy conversion methods.”
Finkeldei acknowledged that nuclear energy can be a “delicate” topic to discuss, especially in her native Germany.
Her research is focused on advanced nuclear fuels, the materials used in reactors and making sure that they are safe under high-stress environments.
Finkeldei’s team, which includes Shen Dillon, UCI professor of materials science and engineering, and scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, will conduct atomic- and molecular-scale examinations of the way defects form in advanced nuclear materials.
Dillon is a co-principal investigator on the $4.3 million DOE-funded project.
Based on their investigations about the nuclear materials’ behavior under extreme conditions, they aim to contribute to the development of new fuel types for next-generation nuclear power plants.
“Nuclear power, which currently supplies about 20% of our electricity, is a broadly deployable source of continuous and stable energy and will play a key role for decarbonizing the energy sector,” Finkeldei said. “With this project, we hope to provide a strong basis of knowledge upon which to build a safe, efficient and reliable source of power.”
Nuclear energy is one of the energy sources the DOE expects will play a major role in helping society make the switch to carbon-free energy conversion methods.
Reducing harmful carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is another pillar of a cleaner energy future.
Jenny Yang, a UCI professor of chemistry, is the director of 4C, the Center for Closing the Carbon Cycle, which seeks to advance the fundamental science behind carbon dioxide capture and conversion.
With a DOE grant of more than $10 million, Yang will direct researchers from 15 universities and three national laboratories as they work to gain a thorough understanding of the chemicals needed to absorb carbon dioxide from various emissions sources.
The researchers will also look at how to link processes of carbon capture and conversion to make useful products, such as fuels and industrial chemicals from acquired carbon dioxide.
In the third area, Shane Ardo, a UCI professor of chemistry, directs the Ensembles of Photosynthetic Nanoreactors Center, which is being launched with a $10 million grant from the Department of Energy.
UCI Vice Chancellor for Research Pramod Khargonekar said “our institution has also made a financial commitment to the success of these projects.”
Its Department of Chemistry is one of the nation’s largest producers of graduates with B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry, and is home to four Nobel laureates.