Research at the Birmingham Centre for Nuclear Education and Research has ensured that nuclear power is used peacefully and safely; we are making significant contributions in the extension of the lifetime of reactor materials and in the study of effects of radiation damage to nuclear material. The Centre’s research develops and supports the UK nuclear industries; pushing back the frontiers of scientific knowledge. This includes fundamental nuclear science, understanding the nucleus and its structure and its role as one of the fundamental building blocks in nature, through to the characterisation of materials used in the nuclear industry and management of nuclear waste, remediation of radionuclides in the environment. The Centre draws together scientists across the campus and disciplines to deliver joined up solutions to the contemporary challenges of the sector.
We are also helping develop the latest in robotic techniques for the use in safe handling of nuclear waste decommissioning. The research draws in academics from Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Earth and Biosciences, Electric and Mechanical Engineering and Metallurgy and Materials. This breadth provides integrated, cross-disciplinary expertise to provide the creativity to drive nuclear energy into the next generation of technology.
Robotic Manipulation for Nuclear Sort and Segregation (RoMaNs)
The University of Birmingham is leading the largest robotics research project in Europe, aimed at developing the smartest robotic manipulators ever devised, for handling dangerous nuclear waste too hazardous for humans. Research will involve utilising robotics to manipulate hazardous material, operate robotics in extreme environments, and develop novel low maintenance sensor and analysis systems for extreme environmental monitoring, such as those within a reactor.
RoMaNS is a three-year project and funded through a €6.4m grant from the European Commission’s Horizon2020 programme and an extra €400,000 investment from UK agencies. It spans five institutions in three countries, and is coordinated by Birmingham. The project’s driver is the vast, challenging job of cleaning up more than half a century of nuclear waste, which in the UK alone – mostly at the Sellafield site – represents the largest environmental remediation problem in the whole of Europe, expected to cost up to £220 billion over the next 100 years.
The University of Birmingham is leading a second major nuclear decommissioning robotics project, working with South Korean nuclear agency, KAERI, which has a large number of nuclear reactors due for decommissioning in 20years. This project focuses on ‘mobile manipulation’, i.e. robotic arms and hands mounted on a robotic vehicle. The mobile manipulator will also be used to deploy a pipe-climbing robot (developed by KAERI), which can scale the complex pipework that fills many nuclear installations. Such robots could be used to enter Fukushima or parts of old nuclear plants in order to locate, model, monitor, cut and remove contaminated legacy plant parts.
Our research will enable robots to autonomously assist human operators. An operator will be able to mouse-click on an object in a camera view. A computational vision system will reason about the object’s position, size and shape and advanced AI algorithms will plan safe trajectories to move a robot arm and hand on to the object to achieve a stable grasp. This will be a huge leap forward, as current state-of-the-art only allows human operators to slowly control the joints of the robots directly via joysticks, while viewing scenes through CCTV cameras with limited depth perception and situational awareness.
Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
The MC40 Cyclotron is used for the production of medical isotopes for hospitals and to produce short-lived positron emitting isotopes for positron emission tomography (PET) and positron emission particle tracking (PEPT) studies within the Nuclear Physics Group. The Positron Imaging Centre, located at the University, allows the study of flow using positron emitting radioactive tracers. The techniques used are variants of the medical technique of positron emission tomography (PET), adapted by Birmingham for engineering applications. This technique has allowed industrial partners to optimise their mechanical processes for mixing and manufacturing of a variety of products from food to minerals.
Decommissioning and Disposal
New nuclear plants should be designed with decommissioning in mind and with a whole systems approach. Experts at the Centre have a wealth of experience in manyaspects of decommissioning and disposal and have collaborated with stakeholders across the globe including the UK, US and Switzerland; often employing novel and advanced techniques to solve specific challenges related to corrosion, materials performance, ion-exchange and sub-surface remediation and monitoring.
Projects have included:
- Materials synthesis - improving selectivity, rate of uptake and irreversibility of exchange for specific radionuclides; exploring new routes of production such as biomineralisation.
- Materials characterisation - determining how structures change with temperature, pressure and radiation damage; use of synchrotron X-ray and neutron facilities worldwide.
- Environmental impact - exploring how exchanged materials can be made into better (more dense, less leachable) waste forms for storage/burial.
- Corrosion - reviewing corrosion issues relating to canisters for disposal of spent fuel and high level waste in clay, and research on the reaction kinetics of pitting of stainless steels for intermediate level waste storage.
- Infrastructure - remote performance monitoring of underground structures and tunnels and the development of micro electrical mechanical sensors for smart infrastructure.
Current challenges for stainless steel and other alloy components include surface degradation through wear and corrosion. We are investigating and developing novel surface engineering technologies that will significantly increase hardness enhance corrosion resistance and increase wear resistance by up to two orders of magnitude.
Corrosion and Cracking
We have significant experience and capability in understanding and developing materials to limit corrosion and cracking both in a nuclear plant and a nuclear waste storage context. The majority of the Centre’s activity in this area is in collaboration with national and international stakeholders and by its very nature is truly interdisciplinary.
The Centre, through the experience and expertise of its materials scientists, has historically played an important role in understanding the basis for the long-term continued operation of nuclear plant. This expertise will be vital in developing the next generation of materials for reactors of the future. We also have significant chemical engineering expertise that is being utilised to understand and mitigate the development of sludge pile that can cause tube fouling and pose a threat to the safe and continuous operation of some plant.
Fundamental Nuclear Physics
We focus on understanding the properties of nuclei over a range of scales, from atoms, to nuclei, the protons and neutrons within all the way down to quarks. Our research is helping understand the fundamental forces at play inside the nucleus, in particular the strong interaction and the processes by which the elements in the world around us are formed through stellar nature and the stellar environment which has created organic life.
With very high collisions of nuclei, our research focuses on the study of nuclear matter under extreme conditions of high temperature and high density. The important degrees of freedom are thought to be quarks and gluons, rather than hadrons. This state of matter, known as a quark gluon plasma (or QGP), is described by Quantum Chromodynamics.
Work in this field is currently being performed at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN using the ALICE detector.