DOE to use supercomputers to model materials in molten salt reactors

December 20, 2021, 3:00PMNuclear News
The Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory began operations in 2018. (Photo: ORNL)

The Department of Energy has announced $9.25 million for research into the behavior and properties of structural materials under molten salt reactor conditions through collaborations using the DOE’s high-performance supercomputers.

Framework: The DOE’s Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) program will provide the framework to bring together research scientists and engineers with experts in software development, applied mathematics, and computer science. A previous SciDAC partnership with the Office of Nuclear Energy modeled how fission gases behave in nuclear fuel. The new partnership, sponsored by the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program within the Department’s Office of Science, and the Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation program within the Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy, will model corrosion behavior in molten salt reactors—a complex problem that involves chemistry, material properties, and the effects of radiation.

Under the funding opportunity announcement issued on December 14, national laboratories are invited to serve as the lead institution for projects, partnering with U.S. colleges and universities, other national laboratories, nonprofits, and private sector companies. The total planned funding of up to $9.25 million includes $1.85 million in fiscal year 2022 funds, and outyear funding is contingent upon congressional appropriations.

Built-in flexibility: Traditionally, the simulation of nuclear energy systems has been based on empirical models, which requires extensive experimental data. While simulations based on empirical models can be run quickly, their use is constrained by the conditions of the experiments that provided the data. New multiscale/multiphysics modeling and simulation tools that rely more on underlying physics than on empirical models offer a more flexible approach. Given the wide range of proposed fission and fusion designs that could make use of molten salt, that flexibility is in demand.

Assessing tradeoffs: In defining the program’s objectives, the FOA puts it this way: “A particular challenge in designing and deploying advanced reactor systems is determining the tradeoffs between competing safety and lifetime issues. For instance, a structural material with good mechanical performance when exposed to radiation may be very susceptible to corrosion or other phenomena when exposed to a particular reactor coolant. Therefore, we are seeking a collaboration that will leverage existing knowledge, develop additional insight, and ultimately provide a predictive tool to assist with alloy design that would account for modeling corrosion, high temperature behavior and radiation effects (and the interplay between them) at the interface of a salt coolant with structural materials under molten salt reactor conditions.”

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