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Engineers will be called upon to find solutions for the challenges the world will face in the 21st century. These articles highlight the diversity of the work which continues in the search for those solutions.

Researchers Study Waste Form Corrosion
April 2019

Browsing the Gilcrease Museum’s collection of pre-Columbian American art and tools in Tulsa, OK, one keeps coming back to the obsidian knives, arrowheads (or “projectile points,” to anthropologists), and even ear ornaments—glossy black, smooth, and glassy. For tens of thousands of years, indigenous peoples fashioned these items out of cooled lava, beautiful but also able to hold a keen edge for millennia. The same museum collection also features metal knives, some only a few centuries old, already pitted and rusted, and a range of ceramic items in varying stages of deterioration from surprisingly pristine to faded and cracked. Clearly, these different materials—glassy obsidian, earthy ceramic, and metallic—have properties that influence how they stand the test of time.

“There are difficult issues in understanding how materials corrode over really long time spans,” said Gerald Frankel, director of the Center for Performance and Design of Nuclear Waste Forms and Containers (WastePD). “These are scientific issues,” he continued. “That’s why we need fundamental science.”

Researchers determined the structures that sometimes form where water (blue) and glass (gray) meet. These water-filled cavities can cause the glass to corrode suddenly. Credit: Center for Performance and Design of Nuclear Waste Forms and Containers.

According to information, Frankel, an Ohio State University professor, focuses that scientific lens on glass, ceramics, and metals used to trap Cold War leftovers, including ~90 million gallons of radioactive liquid and sludge (like wet beach sand). Solidifying the waste as glass or ceramics keeps it from leaking into soil and groundwater. The solid form holds the waste in for thousands of years, giving the radioactive matter time to decay to safer levels.

To solidify the waste, it’s prepared and mixed into the recipes for glass or ceramics. The solidified waste, a.k.a. waste form, is then set in specially designed metal canisters and stored. Defense-related waste in South Carolina is already being glassified. Another such plant is under construction in Washington State.

Although glass, ceramics, and metal forms have been around for ages, researchers don’t yet know key details about how materials crumble, dissolve, or otherwise come undone. “Right now, we don’t understand waste form corrosion enough to come up with a good model,” said Prof. Frankel.

To develop the underlying science necessary to model waste form corrosion, Prof. Frankel brought together materials scientists, engineers, computer modelers, and theorists as WastePD, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science.

An early win for the team was solving a particularly vexing problem involving water on glass waste forms.

Researchers assume that during the thousands of years that the waste rests in storage, rainwater or groundwater will get in.

When glass is covered in water, either a protective or an unstable layer forms. The unstable film speeds glass corrosion, causing the glass to crumble far faster than if it had a protecting film.

“To determine what drives the formation, we have to look at it in detail,” said John Vienna, who leads WastePD’s glass thrust area and works at DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

But the reactions occur underwater. While you could see the surface easily, conventional techniques aren’t designed to get accurate data on an underwater surface. “It’s been a Holy Grail of chemistry,” said Vienna.

The team found a way by collaborating. Each team member brought in ideas and applied them. It’s like bringing together a dozen internationally renowned chefs and asking them to cook a fish, and then combining all that knowledge and techniques to do something nobody’s seen before.

They started by flash freezing pristine water on glass. It’s like a frozen, frosted chocolate sheet cake with glass as the cake and water as the icing. They sliced a thin piece, like cutting a tiny serving, and analyzed it. They repeated the experiment every few seconds as the water caused an unstable porous layer to form on the glass, essentially creating a sophisticated flipbook.

The troubling layer formed by the water and glass reacting scoops out tiny bits of glass from the surface and lets water get in, just as it could at a storage site. The film’s structure—how many pores form, how deep, and how far apart—determines how fast the glass crumbles.

The Ohio State University leads WastePD, formed in 2016. It brings together scientists from Commissariat à l’Energie in France, Louisiana State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, QuesTek Innovations LLC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of North Texas, and University of Virginia. WastePD is one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers funded by the DOE’s Office of Science. The centers mobilize the talents of experts and forge teams to lay the scientific groundwork to improve energy production and storage.

Feature Articles
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Researchers Study Waste Form Corrosion
April 2019

Although glass, ceramics, and metal forms have been around for ages, researchers don’t yet know key details about how materials crumble, dissolve, or otherwise come undone.

Technology Protects The Power Grid By Hacking Would-be Hackers
March 2019

Milos Manic, Ph.D., professor of computer science and director of VCU’s Cybersecurity Center, along with colleagues at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), has developed a protection system that…

NASA’s Webb Telescope To Study Cosmic Jets and Stellar Outflows
February 2019

Webb’s exquisite angular resolution will allow it to pick up the tiniest details.

High-Tech Heating Patches Created
January 2019

What if, instead of turning up the thermostat, you could warm up with high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes – while significantly reducing your electric bill and carbon footprint?

Virginia Tech Innovation Campus Helps Attract Amazon
December 2018

Virginia Tech is making a historic commitment to build a revolutionary 1 million-square-foot, technology-focused campus in Alexandria…

Improving Smart-Window Energy Efficiency With Nanoparticles
November 2018

U.S. buildings leak an estimated 30 percent of their energy through inefficient windows, costing consumers an estimated $42 billion annually.

Biosensor Technology For Wearable Devices Invented
October 2018

Engineers have created a smart wristband with a wireless connection to smartphones that will enable a new wave of personal health…

Parker Solar Probe Launched On Historic Journey
September 2018

Hours before the rise of the very star it will study, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched from Florida Sunday, August 12th, to begin its journey to the Sun, where it will undertake a landmark mission.

Possible Treatment Target Identified For Alzheimer’s, Age-related Cognitive Decline
August 2018

Now research from a collaborative team of neuroscientists and engineers at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia is shedding light on the underlying mechanisms of brain aging, along with associated neurological diseases.

New and Improved Version of Phased Array Feed Developed
July 2018

To accelerate the pace of discovery and exploration of the cosmos, a multi-institution team of astronomers and engineers has developed a new and improved version of an unconventional radio-astronomy imaging system…

FIRST® Announces Landmark 2019 Season Theme
June 2018

FIRST ® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international K-12 not-for-profit organization founded by prolific inventor Dean Kamen, recently announced that more than 575,000 students will explore space across all four FIRST programs…

Researchers Study Upcycling Manure Into Paper Products
May 2018

It’s likely not the first thing you think of when you see elephant dung, but this material turns out to be an excellent source of cellulose for paper manufacturing…

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