a midcentury modern building facade

Nuclear Engineering Laboratory dedication: Connecting the past and future

The newly renovated Nuclear Engineering Laboratory (NEL) building, the site of the former Ford Nuclear Reactor, officially opened in April to a standing-room-only crowd of over 140. The event celebrated the continued legacy of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, bridging the past with the future.

by Kim Roth

brick building exterior with trees and fountain
The Nuclear Engineering Laboratory on North Campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI on September 12, 2017. Photo: Joseph Xu/Senior Multimedia Content Producer, University of Michigan – College of Engineering

Seven years in the making, the $13 million facility was designed to accommodate the tremendous growth of the NERS department. In the past 10 years alone, sponsored research has tripled, reaching $21 million. With 13,000 square-feet, the new building provides laboratory and office space for seven faculty, nine research scientists, two staff and many graduate students.

“In keeping with the mission of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, the NEL enables the NERS department to further our work in thermal hydraulics and nuclear detection, measurements, and nonproliferation as well as materials science,” said Ron Gilgenbach, department chair and Chihiro Kikuchi Collegiate Professor. “These expanding research programs are critical to a new era of exploration of nuclear science for peaceful applications.”

Realizing a vision

The NEL has been enabled by funding from the University, the College of Engineering and several generous donors. During the dedication ceremony, Gilgenbach recalled how, considering the site some seven years ago, alumnus Dr. J. Robert Beyster recommended building an accelerator facility. Dr. Beyster earned bachelor’s degrees from U-M in engineering physics and engineering math in 1945 and master’s and doctoral degrees in physics in 1947 and 1950.

“In his signature get-it-done spirit, Dr. Beyster subsequently initiated this building project with his and wife Betty’s generous contribution,” Gilgenbach said. The Beyster family also provided many commemorative items for a display case on the NEL’s second floor, including his U-M degrees, handwritten research notes, and photographs.

Advancing nuclear science research and application

The newly installed particle accelerator and beamline envisioned by Dr. Beyster will be used for homeland security and nuclear nonproliferation research conducted by Professor Sara Pozzi and her research group.

Pozzi and her staff and students will use a newly acquired linear accelerator to explore active interrogation techniques for detecting and characterizing special nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons. “Gamma rays and neutrons from our accelerator can penetrate shielding and induce fission in these materials, generating the signatures we’re looking for,” Pozzi said.

Pozzi’s lab, in collaboration with the Consortium for Verification Technology she leads, are also developing gamma and neutron detectors that can detect particles with time scales on the order of fission events.

For Pozzi, the new NEL space represents opportunity. “Now we have the space to be able to place our target and our detectors in a geometry that’s representative of what happens in the field,” she said. “It’s also a great opportunity for students in our department to play an active role in R&D activities, since they’ll be major contributors to some of these projects.”

Other state-of-the-art lab space includes the Glenn F. Knoll Nuclear Measurements Laboratory, which will build upon Professor Knoll’s groundbreaking nuclear measurements work.

Professor Knoll was a beloved faculty member, department chair and interim dean who served the college for over 50 years. His wife, Gladys Hetzner Knoll, said she was inspired to support the laboratory since, “The faculty that my husband so respected and admired will be working there, teaching students about radiation and measurements.”

The laboratory will house novel gamma-ray camera research being conducted by professors Zhong He and David Wehe. He’s team will be developing the first three-dimensional CZT (cadmium zinc telluride) detector system, expected to reach an energy resolution of 0.5 percent FWHM (full width half maximum) at 662 keV (kiloelectron volt). This approaches the performance of high-purity germanium gamma-ray detectors, which require cryogenic cooling. The new CZT detectors, by contrast, do not require costly and time-consuming cooling.

The group co-directed by Professor Annalisa Manera and Dr. Victor Petrov has developed a high-resolution gamma tomography system to enable imaging of two-phase flows in high pressure facilities and complex geometries (e.g. fuel bundles), with a spatial resolution of 1 mm.

Manera’s NEL lab is also equipped with a high-speed X-ray imaging system, to be employed for the quantitative visualization of two-phase flows at 70 bar in post-critical heat flux regimes and for investigating two-phase flow patterns in helical coil heat exchangers.

These investigations require the availability of shielding and high power, both of which are available in the new laboratory. The height of the space allows for taller experimental setups, and the 12-meter length of her laboratory will enable study of the evolution of fully developed multiphase flows in horizontal pipes.

Manera and Petrov also plan to combine their group’s advanced radiation-based measurements with existing capabilities in laser- and conductivity-based high-resolution measurement techniques to build an imaging lab to better study single- and two-phase flows. The high-resolution measurements will be used to further improve and validate the models of low- and high-fidelity computer codes, ranging from system codes, to subchannel and computational fluid dynamics.

Professor Igor Jovanovic, who joined the U-M NERS faculty in 2016, has established the Applied Nuclear Science Instrumentation Laboratory (ANSIL) in the NEL. His group is using the facility to support development of advanced instrumentation for a wide range of projects, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense.

Current ANSIL projects include development of novel neutron and antineutrino detectors and detection methodologies for a range of applications in nuclear security, nonproliferation, nuclear power and fundamental scientific research.

Professor Michael Atzmon’s new lab will study phase transformation and materials synthesis far from equilibrium and mechanical behavior of amorphous and nanocrystalline metal alloys.

Fostering collaboration

Named after Harold N. Cohn, a 1947 graduate of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering (now Aerospace Engineering), who engineered and developed numerous properties in the New York area, the eponymous conference room fittingly overlooks the Class of ’47E Reflecting Pool.

“My dad loved the reflecting pool,” said son Jonathan Cohn. “He loved the university and the engineering school in particular—as well as the football team. He would have been pleased to see the room help foster a productive learning environment.”

Yet another productive learning environment in the NEL is the John S. King Student Collaboratory. This light-filled, fourth-floor space, with multiple seating areas and workspace configurations, will serve as a hub and gathering place for students to work together on class projects and joint research.

Although a world-class — and unduly modest — physicist, Professor King might have demurred at the idea of having a space named in his honor and memory, according to his daughter Francie King. But “he loved students and long discussions. His door was always open. Having a space like this for students to collaborate just made so much sense to me.”

King and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Emeritus Sidney Yip (NERS PhD ’62), a student during Professor King’s tenure at UM, helped initiate the campaign for the Collaboratory and were gratified when many others joined them.

“I still remember going to work with Dad and walking around the reactor room when I was a child – there was this great pool suffused with mysterious blue light,” King said. “Being there with him was always an event, and that building still has a lot of resonance for me.”

The past is present

Connections with the past are evident throughout the building. The old reactor control panel has found a new home in a corner near the elevators on the fourth floor. Several display cases around the NEL also keep the building’s history front and center.

Outside the Glenn F. Knoll Nuclear Measurements Laboratory, a glass case highlights Professor Knoll’s career and life. “Most students will already know something about the professional side of my husband’s career, and those are represented by his many awards, patents, books, and medals,” said Gladys Knoll.

“But I wanted them to know a little about his fun side. He loved sports — note the saber from his fencing days, the Nuclear Nine shirt from fast-pitch softball, the model of his Harley motorcycle — and music. He happily shared these interests with our sons and later with our grandchildren. Grandson Alex learned how to play that little ukulele, which Glenn played during his undergraduate years,” she noted.

After the seven years Gilgenbach has spent planning, fund-raising, designing and constructing the NEL, his vision has taken form. “It’s hard to walk through the building and not be reminded of all the great scholars and scientists who came before us and enable us to build on their accomplishments,” he said. “That’s how science works, and that’s what this building evokes. Completion of this space means so much for the Department’s future.”

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