Fall 2010 Issue | By Andrew Taylor
There has been a renaissance in nuclear science nationally and the manifestation of that is pronounced at Idaho State University. ISU's nuclear science and engineering programs and research are gaining prominence on three fronts.
Those fronts are:
- A physics department that largely specializes in applied nuclear physics;
- The Idaho Accelerator Center research center that provides a wide assortment of research opportunities for a variety of scientific disciplines and attracts funding for those ventures;
- A growing undergraduate and graduate nuclear engineering program.
All facets of ISU's nuclear programs are bolstered by the University's relationship with the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) and relationships with other national laboratories, including the Jefferson Lab in Newport, Virginia.
Idaho State University's nuclear engineering program has boomed in recent years for both undergraduate and graduate students. ISU has had a master's level nuclear engineering program since 1966 and has offered a Ph.D. in the field since 1991. It wasn't until 2005, however, that ISU offered an undergraduate degree solely in nuclear engineering, although it did previously offer nuclear engineering as an emphasis in its mechanical engineering program. ISU's efforts to create the undergraduate program were encouraged by the nuclear energy office in the Department of Energy, and its Idaho National Laboratory, the lab with the major mission involving utilization of nuclear energy.
There are now about 90 undergraduate students at ISU who have declared nuclear engineering as their major and there are about 35 graduate students pursing nuclear engineering degrees at ISU.
"It has been a great ride the last five or six years," said Michael Lineberry, director of the ISU Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering. "We've built enrollments and dramatically increased research funding."
"Students are aware of the revival in nuclear engineering and are expressing much interest in it," said Jay Kunze, interim chair of the ISU nuclear engineering department. "It is a good thing we started the program because there is a lot of demand for graduates with a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering and our students have had no problem getting jobs. Nuclear engineers are also among the highest paid engineers upon graduation."
The job market is up for nuclear engineering for several reasons. There was a lull in the nuclear industry for about 25 years. During that time many universities eliminated or downsized their nuclear engineering curriculum. Now many engineers, nuclear plant operators, technicians and administrators are at or are nearing retirement age so there is high demand for those types of jobs. There is also a broad spectrum of new jobs, such as designing and testing new reactors, due to the revived interest in nuclear power.
"Right now nuclear is in vogue and very popular and our graduates are doing very well in the job market and we are very proud of that," Lineberry said. "We're in the process of building a nuclear engineering program that will take us over the highs and lows. We'll continue to bring in research money and win competitive grants that will fund the graduate program. We've also been very successful, and it has been very important to us, to have a lot of undergraduate scholarships available to our students."
One of those students, senior Amanda Finkes from St. Louis, Mo., touted ISU's nuclear engineering program.
"It is a growing program, our professors are doing impressive research and we have great connections with the INL," Finkes said. "But the program is still small enough that our professors are able to know us and help us individually, whereas at larger schools you're more easily lost in the crowd."
Finkes, who is scheduled to graduate in December after just 3-1/2 years at ISU, has been remarkably active and is in her third year as secretary of the ISU chapter of the American Nuclear Society, was president last year of the ISU chapter of Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society, and is current president of the ISU chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
"The opportunities and mentorship I have received here are just so much larger than anywhere else I looked at," Finkes said. "The first year I was here I was able to work in the physics department on a Ph.D.'s research and after that I was offered an internship with a subcontractor at the INL, where I currently work."
The relationship between the INL and ISU is an important one.
"It doesn't take a lot for our graduate students to understand the opportunities at the INL, which is designed to become the premier U.S. civilian nuclear energy research and development lab in the country, " Lineberry said. "We intend to make the most of our charter with the INL through our partnership with the Center for Advanced Energy Studies."
"The opportunities provided to us through the physics department and the Idaho Accelerator Center were amazing," said Scott Thompson, a former physics graduate student who now works at the INL. "These are opportunities that really aren't provided anywhere else at other facilities. We received hands-on opportunities with machinery and all kinds of electronics that grad students usually don't get."
In the last five years the number of graduate students in the ISU physics department has doubled to more than 70 students and the number of undergraduate students has increased 2-1/2 times to about 100. The department offers a variety of degrees in nuclear physics and in health physics. About 75 percent of students in physics are in the nuclear physics programs, the other 25 percent in health physics, although the latter discipline incorporates nuclear physics into its curriculum and there are common research projects between the two emphases of the department.
"Most physics programs cover a broad spectrum," said Douglas Wells, physics professor and director of the Idaho Accelerator Center. "We don't do that. We specialize in nuclear, and that makes us fundamentally different than most (physics) departments in the country."
Furthermore, ISU's physics program is geared more towards applications and offers students experience in research, another reason it is popular.
"Our department emphasizes hands-on experience and we offer great research experience for both our graduate and undergraduate students," said Daniel Dale, ISU professor of physics. "Our students learn to run accelerators, build particle detectors, analyze data and put together sophisticated electronics. Students find that interesting and there are a lot of good job opportunities."
Career fields are varied for graduates, including jobs in the nuclear power industry, medical isotope production, homeland security, and material science.
Research opportunities, and the ability to fund them, are key to the physics department's success. Physics department and Idaho Accelerator Center faculty have pulled in about $8 million in research funding in the last year and expect to do about the same in the upcoming year.
"If you look at the external funding we're receiving, we must be doing something right," Dale said. "External agencies continue to fund us, and we'd like to think that is because we produce."
The Idaho State University physics department and the IAC now employ five researchers - Dale, Tony Forest, Dustin McNulty, Philip Cole and Yujong Kim - who also do research at the prestigious Jefferson Lab in Virginia. The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab, www.jlab.org), primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is, according to Dale, one of the best places in the world to study fundamental particle physics and for developing applications for nuclear accelerators.
"Despite all the research we do and are involved in, we are still an educational institution and our students are very important to us," Dale said. "We include students in our research and our research bolsters their education. We are not a research institute."
Wade Scates and Charles Taylor work on a beam line.
Many of ISU's research opportunities come through the Idaho Accelerator Center.
Idaho Accelerator Center
The subject of an Idaho State University Magazine (then called ISU Outlook) story in fall 2004, the Idaho Accelerator has continued to grow. At that time its funding was about $5 million annually; now it attracts $7 to $8 million in research dollars annually, according to Accelerator Director Doug Wells.
The IAC supports the research work of about 30 undergraduate students and 50 graduate students, from a variety of disciplines including physics, nuclear engineering, biological sciences, anthropology and chemistry. The IAC is almost entirely funded by external grant funding.
Nuclear accelerators are machines that speed up sub-atomic particles and elementary particles such as electrons and protons. The ones at the IAC can deliver as much as 44 million volts, and are used for basic scientific and applied research, as well as for development of a variety of high-tech industrial applications. The IAC has its main laboratories at its large research center off of Alvin Ricken Drive in Pocatello, at the Pocatello Regional Airport and at the ISU Physical Science Building.
ISU researchers have used the IAC's accelerators for everything from dating prehistoric spear points to studying radiation resistant microbes. There are, however, five major areas of study currently taking place at the IAC:
- Medical isotope production. The IAC received about $1 million in funding for medical isotope production in fiscal year 2009; about $1.5 million in 2010; and hopes to receive about $2 million in 2011. Medical isotopes are used for a variety of medical imaging and treatment procedures in the United States. Traditionally most have been produced with nuclear reactors, but the IAC is experimenting with producing them with nuclear accelerators.
- National security. The IAC is testing the use of accelerators to detect nuclear, chemical and biological materials. "We're now focusing more on basic research of new technologies that could be used for detection," Wells said.
- Nondestructive materials testing. Accelerators are being used to test the integrity of a variety of materials such as commercial aircraft wings, to see if they are sound and safe.
"Lives are lost and billions of dollars are lost because of structural failure and the failure to detect it," said Wells.
- Fundamental particle physics. ISU researchers are using accelerators to help understand fundamental physics.
- Pulse power. ISU researchers are examining high energy density physics. Pulse power has applications in space electronics ("NASA kind of stuff," according to Wells), fusion power, medical imaging and medical treatments.