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Cover of the Fall 2010 Annual Report issue


FALL 2010


Engineering Physics

Fusion for energy — and medicine

Greg Piefer. Photo by David Nevala.

Greg Piefer, president of Phoenix Nuclear Labs. Photo by David Nevala. view larger image

The UW-Madison Fusion Technology Institute and Middleton, Wisconsin-based Phoenix Nuclear Labs (PNL) share an ambitious long-term goal: clean, abundant and affordable nuclear fusion power. To fund the pursuit, PNL is developing nuclear technologies into near-term solutions for modern-day global problems, including mitigating the risk of nuclear attack, producing state-of-the-art high-voltage power systems, and generating critical medical isotopes.

Radioactive isotopes allow doctors to see inside a patient non-invasively. The isotopes (tracers) emit a wavelength of light that special cameras can detect. By attaching tracers to drugs, physicians could diagnose and treat cancers, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and other ailments. The isotopes have an extremely short half-life and disappear from the body within hours, but this also means that they cannot be stockpiled. Because most of these isotopes currently are created in old, overused nuclear reactors, there is now a critical worldwide shortage, pushing the price of some isotopes as high as $200 million per gram.

Working with the Morgridge Institute for Research, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and the departments of Engineering Physics and Medical Physics, PNL President Greg Piefer plans to build a new isotope generator that is compact, relatively inexpensive and does not require a nuclear reactor. The device instead relies on nuclear fusion reactions to create neutrons and protons, which in turn create radioisotopes such as molybdenum-99, iodine-131, and iodine-125.

Because it does not require a nuclear reactor, the PNL process has several advantages over conventional isotope production. Piefer says he could build a production facility for $50 million to $80 million, compared with the cost of a new nuclear reactor which costs about $1 billion. The PNL process would generate nearly no nuclear waste and would reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism posed by current methods that produce highly enriched uranium.

Piefer, who earned his doctorate in engineering physics under Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering Gerald Kulcinski, has enlisted several UW-Madison advisors to PNL, including Medical Physics, Human Oncology, Engineering Physics and Biomedical Engineering Professor T. Rockwell Mackie, Engineering Physics Adjunct Professor and Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt, and UW-Madison Provost and Professor of Medical Physics, Radiology, Human Oncology, Engineering Physics and Physics Paul DeLuca, Jr.

Salt of the earth: Extracting oil, with heat


With a material as simple as salt, engineering physics scientists and students are testing ways to store and transport heat for applications as diverse as storing solar energy and extracting oil. Their expertise is useful for oil companies such as Shell, which someday could use the powerful heat-transferring properties of molten salt to produce oil and gas from oil shale deposits.

The United States is home to about 60 percent of the world’s deposits of oil shale, a fine-grained sedimentary rock that contains kerogen. For decades, oil companies have tried to find an economically sustainable way to develop oil shale. Historically, these attempts have occurred through mining, an endeavor that includes environmental effects and considerations.

One alternative is to raise the temperature of the oil shale in the field via hot liquid circulated through pipes installed in the field. The heat could release kerogen from the oil shale and enable oil companies to transport it to the surface, much like they do conventional oil and gas.

On a much smaller scale, the technology underlying that system is being tested on campus. With funding from Shell and the U.S. Department of Energy, Senior Scientist Mark Anderson, Research Professor Kumar Sridharan and Associate Professor Todd Allen and their students have built a molten salt test loop. This unique system enabled the researchers to study such aspects of molten salt as heat transfer, flow-induced corrosion, static corrosion, and system startup. In addition, also with Shell funding, the team has developed an extensive, easily searchable database at

Based on 19 salt properties, including melting and boiling points, corrosion, and thermal conductivity, the database can help researchers choose a salt or salt combination for any application.

Over the past five years, UW-Madison has become a leader in molten salt research, having recently launched collaborations with Albuquerque, Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge, Idaho, and Sandia National Laboratories. “We have some of the largest capabilities for working with liquid salts, and part of this was due to the work we did with Shell,” says Anderson.

Engineers receive $3.7 million for nuclear research

Nuclear reactor

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded UW-Madison engineering researchers nine of 42 total grants distributed through its Nuclear Energy University Program. The researchers received $3.7 million to advance nuclear education and develop the next generation of nuclear technologies. The research includes projects in fuel cycle research and development, generation IV reactor research and development, and innovative research in nuclear science and engineering. UW-Madison is among 23 U.S. universities to lead projects, which include:

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