May 2, 2018

Ep 17: Rita Baranwal - Director, GAIN Program

GAIN Program
Play audio

Show notes

"0:00 - Materials Engineering

Bret Kugelmass: What is materials engineering?

Rita Baranwal: Materials engineering is the study of materials or components that makes up everything people use. Rita Baranwal first wanted to go into fashion, but wasn’t sure about the career prospects. She looked for schools that had good art and engineering programs, leading her to tour a materials engineering laboratory that had a scanning electron microscope. Rita Baranwal pursued her undergraduate degree in materials engineering at MIT with a focus on ceramics and polymers. During graduate school at the University of Michigan, Baranwal did her dissertation on synthesis of nanoparticles, specifically synthesizing ceramic particles from a pre-ceramic polymer route. The goal was to understand the characteristics of the particles as well as what heat treatments and thermocycling do to it when you make the material into something.

5:03 - Advanced Materials for the Navy and NASA

Bret Kugelmass: What did you after your studies in materials engineering?

Rita Baranwal: Rita Baranwal was approached by a headhunter who told her about Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, which she was not familiar with. Bettis and its sister lab, Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, are the two labs that support the U.S. Navy with design, development, and support for the Navy’s nuclear reactors. Baranwal was hired because of some of the work she did on her dissertation and started doing advanced fuel development in the materials technology division, where she stayed during her entire time at Bettis. About five or six years in, Naval Reactors embarked on a project with NASA to help develop a reactor that would power a spacecraft to explore Jupiter’s moons. NASA cancelled the project after a year and Baranwal was asked to manage the closeout of the space reactor materials work. She was promoted to a permanent management position and started looking for new opportunities, leading her to take a job with Westinghouse in their fuel fabrication facility. Toward the end of her time at Westinghouse, Baranwal became Director of Technology Development in the Engineering organization, responsible for overseeing technologies such as advanced reactors, advanced chemical engineering processes, and advanced manufacturing.

10:21 - Advanced Technologies in Nuclear

Bret Kugelmass: How would advanced technologies like robotics play into reactor operation?

Rita Baranwal: One aspects Rita Baranwal worked on in advanced technologies was mapping out a reactor compartment or the internals of the plant before it gets started up. Coordinates are used so that, if there is an issue or a maintenance update needed, a hardened robot can go in instead of a human. The team tried to understand if there could be radiation hardened sensors and equipment. It is a long development timeline and there must be patience to develop this type of technology. Nuclear is a conservative sector, but it is starting to hinder progress to the point where the U.S. is lagging behind other countries in the world. Rita Baranwal is excited about using additive manufacturing to provide improved performance where it’s reasonable. Component that can be 3D printed with a novel material could provide better characteristics in some instances. The challenge is understanding the behavior of that material because it will behave differently than traditionally fabricated metals and ceramic. Irradiation tests are just now being done. There is currently not a robust set of standards for this material. Rita Baranwal also worked on shifting from analog operator of a reactor in the control room to digital instrumentation and controls.

18:50 - Gateway Advancing Nuclear Innovation (GAIN)

Bret Kugelmass: How did you end up as Director of Gateway Advancing Nuclear Innovation (GAIN) at Idaho National Lab?

Rita Baranwal: During Rita Baranwal’s time at Westinghouse, she visited Oak Ridge National Lab and Idaho National Lab frequently. Baranwal was already working in the advanced reactor arena at Westinghouse, including a micro reactor called eVinci and a lead-cooled fast reactor. If reactors are operated at ambient pressure, there are reduced safety requirements. Smaller reactors also have a smaller footprint and emergency planning zone. Some reactors run hotter and more efficiently, but the true balance comes in making advanced reactors economical. Baranwal transitioned from Westinghouse to Idaho National Laboratory, where she serves as the Director of Gateway Advancing Nuclear Innovation (GAIN). GAIN awards a voucher to companies to work for 12 months at a National Lab. A company puts forth a proposal which includes cost share, and the remaining part of the money is given straight to the Lab. GAIN holds workshops introducing industry to the capabilities that the National Labs have, including modeling simulation workshops. The three major technologies being explored right now include fast reactor technologies, molten salt reactor technologies, and high temperature gas technologies, in addition to advanced light water reactor technologies. Startups and large corporations are involved in GAIN and there has been participation across the spectrum. During development of a new fuel concept, one must understand how the new fuel will behave before you irradiate it, while you irradiate it, and after you irradiate it as a requirement of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). There are relatively few places to irradiate new fuels in a test environment. There is a study underway to look at the development of a versatile test reactor. U.S.-based companies are spending their money elsewhere because the U.S. does not have the right capabilities.

30:02 - GAIN’s Collaboration Programs

Bret Kugelmass: Are their money opportunities that GAIN provides?

Rita Baranwal: GAIN provides vouchers, which is money that goes to the Lab that performs work for that industrial company. GAIN has provided a substantial amount of feedback to the Department of Energy (DOE) on the research and development needs they have of the DOE Labs, specifically what the Labs could be working on to help industry commercialize their technology faster. DOE announced a funding announcement of $30 million per year, intended to be a five year, open-ended funding opportunity announcement that has quarterly deadlines. This money could go towards all sizes of companies, sizes of reactors, types of reactor concepts, and advanced nuclear technologies, as long as it advances the current state of technology. Several years ago, the DOE offered several workshops across the company and brought in representatives from all across the industry to determine what the Labs and DOE could be doing better. GAIN was one output of these workshops. GAIN was going to have some workshops for advanced manufacturing, but it was determined that was not the top priority and groups wanted to learn more about modeling simulation tools specific to a technology.

35:36 - Economics and Licensing of Advanced Nuclear Technology

Bret Kugelmass: What’s coming next from GAIN?

Rita Baranwal: GAIN is working on shifting the vouchers from an annual award to quarterly. They recently hosted the Enabling Advanced Reactors for Market workshop focused on the economics and marketability of advanced reactors. GAIN is also working with the Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and Atomic Nuclear Society (ANS) to hold a standards workshop to understand gaps in advanced reactor technologies. In a separate effort, the modernization of the licensing framework is taking place with collaboration between Labs, industry, and the NRC. GAIN and DOE have a very open dialogue with the NRC so that developers understand what the expectations are when they meet with the NRC. Nuclear energy is a very reliable, clean, powerful energy source. It is vital to the U.S. energy portfolio. Nuclear technology needs to be more attractive to a consumer who is going to build and operate these plants, especially on the side of economics. A lot of the technologies exist, but advancements occurring outside of the nuclear industry need to be leveraged, exploited and applied to advanced nuclear technologies.

Sign up for our newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.