Major grant award for Felix Hofmann

Trinity Lecturer in Engineering Felix Hofmann will lead a team to develop materials for next-generation nuclear fission reactors thanks to a major EPSRC grant.

Working with US partners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Professor Hofmann and his colleagues in the Departments of Engineering Science and Materials at Oxford will address some of the key materials challenges for the successful development of liquid lead cooled reactors.

Nuclear fission power provides the UK with low carbon footprint electricity, generating around 20% of the total UK electricity supply. The current UK fleet of nuclear reactors is rapidly ageing, and all of these reactors are scheduled to be removed from service within the next 12 years. Without replacement, the electricity they generate would need to be provided by other sources, such as fossil fuel power stations.

Professor Hofmann says, ‘Moving to fossil fuels would be detrimental to UK greenhouse gas emissions and make a significant contribution to climate change. For successful decarbonisation by the 2050s, new build of fission reactors in the UK is urgently needed.’

Liquid lead (Pb) or lead-bismuth eutectic (LBE) cooled fast reactors potentially offer dramatically improved efficiency over current water-cooled designs. However, for decades their development has been stuck because of concerns about the corrosion these high temperature liquid coolants might cause in the structural materials used. This project aims to better understand the specific corrosion mechanisms, which are very different to those in more common water-cooled reactors, and how they are affected by simultaneous irradiation.

Professor Hofmann explains, ‘A much faster way of studying combined irradiation and corrosion of materials for Pb/LBE cooled fast reactors is needed. This grant will allow us to address this using a new combined in situ irradiation and corrosion facility at MIT.’

‘These experiments are much quicker and cheaper than in-reactor material testing. Using this new tool, we will explore the performance of five of the current front-runner alloys for cladding and structural components in Pb/LBE fast reactors. We will also compare the results against more traditional Pb/LBE corrosion tests to make sure the new combined irradiation and corrosion facility performs as anticipated. Using world-class microscopy facilities here in Oxford will allow us to understand right down to the atomic scale what mechanisms control corrosion, and how materials might be improved to enhance their performance in this extreme environment.’

Posted: 2 September 2019

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