Pacific Northwest National Laboratory gave assignments to two groups of Washington State University seniors studying mechanical engineering in Pullman in September:
Make devices to serve as prototypes for the national lab’s research to safeguard nuclear materials.
Friday they wheeled their completed designs into the Consolidated Information Center at the WSU Tri-Cities campus near PNNL.
This is the 13th semester that researchers at the Department of Energy national laboratory in Richland have worked with mechanical engineering students in Pullman, piquing student interest in the field of nuclear safeguards.
The lab gains design prototypes at little cost and has hired several of the students who participated in the lab’s Next Generation Safeguards Initiative Human Capital Development.
The students see how their hard work studying engineering can be put to use to help make the nation and the world safer.
The 10 students who worked in teams on two projects this semester completed months of trial and error to get their projects right.
It wasn’t a classroom testing kind of thing. We actually got to interact with a sponsor, a company, and take specifications from paper and turn it into an object that will actually be used.
Dylan Delay, WSU student
“It wasn’t a classroom testing kind of thing,” said Dylan Delay, a WSU student from Royal City. “We actually got to interact with a sponsor, a company, and take specifications from paper and turn it into an object that will actually be used.”
They brainstormed solutions together, said Sam Heyd, a WSU student from Tacoma.
“It was fun to be able to tackle on our own,” Heyd said. “We did not have a teacher telling us what to do.”
The assignment for Delay and Heyd’s team came from Bruce Bernacki, a PNNL senior research scientist. He is looking at ways to detect tampering in containers, such as those holding stored nuclear weapons covered under treaty requirements.
PNNL researchers are investigating using a laser to scan the gaskets at the containers’ closures to detect if they have been opened since the last check, a possible sign of tampering and potential removal of nuclear material.
It was fun to be able to tackle on our own. We did not have a teacher telling us what to do.
Sam Heyd, WSU student
The WSU students created a way to conveniently conduct the scan using a portable cart.
The cart needed to be stable to help get measurements of changes to the gasket as small as a tenth the width of a human hair. And it needed to adjust to take measurements of containers with different heights.
Students came up with a system that allows the container to be placed on the cart. Then the laser instrument can be put on a tray mounted on one end and moved up and down with a pulley.
The tray is counterbalanced with an 85-pound steel weight to keep the tray in place. Another counterweight has been added to the back of the cart to keep it from tipping.
“We made our own mistakes and recovered from our mistakes,” Delay said.
That included making sure weights were correctly engineered to maintain stability and the bearings did not bind up as the tray is moved up and down.
The second group of students devised a cart to allow a gamma ray detector to scan used nuclear fuel assemblies to check for tampering. Their device will be used at PNNL as researchers take radiation measurements on mock fuel to test the accuracy of the method.
It was definitely a refreshing experience to actually put ideas to work.
Justin Stanton, WSU student
The toughest part was finding a way to rotate the detector to get the best and maximum data, students said.
The mock fuel, which is about 6-feet tall, will be placed in a hole in the center of the cart and then the gamma detector will rotate around the fuel assembly.
Laboratory researchers have done computer simulations to test the idea of using gamma ray tomography to look inside used fuel assemblies, said Eric Smith, PNNL’s principal investigator on the research.
Now the cart developed by students will be put to work as they take radiation measurements from mock fuel.
“It was definitely a refreshing experience to actually put ideas to work,” said Justin Stanton, a WSU student from Des Moines, Wash.