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Dr. Lan Li – Collaborations with Idaho National Laboratory Pave the Way to Energy Innovation

April 24, 2018

Dr. Lan Li, is an assistant professor in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering. She is leading several projects in collaboration with the Idaho National Lab (INL) through the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES,) a public research center focused on collaboration that inspires innovation, fueling energy transitions, and economic growth for the future.

Partnering with CAES allows Boise State researchers to team with INL and other Idaho universities to improve security and quality of life through advanced energy and environmental technology research. One of the current collaborative projects is the In-Pile Instrumentation Initiative. A goal of this initiative is to create and test advanced sensors that can reliably deliver data from inside the extreme environment of a nuclear reactor.

Energy Efficiency through Computational Modeling

Dr. Li’s materials theory and modeling research group uses computational modeling to accelerate the development of new materials for electronic and energy applications. Computer generated models provide a unique opportunity to study the behavior of a material, often on the scale of individual atoms, allowing researchers a powerful view of a material’s structure and potential for use. Researchers can use this data to strategize in-laboratory experimentation, expedite results, and reduce the cost of research and development.

One of the In-Pile Initiative challenges is to design a thermocouple – an electrical device consisting of two dissimilar metal wires, joined at one end. It produces a temperature-dependent voltage as a result of the thermoelectric effect. The voltage can be interpreted as a sensor for measuring temperature. Dr. Li’s team uses computational modeling to predict how various thermocouple elements might respond to extreme environments. The goal is to design a thermocouple that can withstand high temperatures and radiation while maintaining device performance. In analyzing potential materials and designs, Dr. Li also works with other researchers who are experimenting with optical fibers as another potential sensor material. Through modeling, they are identifying designs for specific optical fibers that could meet the performance requirements necessary for use in nuclear reactors.

Computational modeling is also being used to customize the structures and properties of materials for printed in-pile sensor devices. Dr. Li is coupling atomic and microstructure modeling to reveal how specific elements interact during the printing process. This multi-scale modeling approach helps determine how well a device such as a thermocouple, neutron flux foil, or melt wire will perform in an environment where high temperatures, corrosion, pressure, and fission gas can destroy most devices.

Collaborations with the Idaho National Laboratory and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies allow researchers across Idaho’s universities to combine their expertise to find solutions to enhance clean energy. “The sensor projects with INL and CAES leverage my group’s expertise in computational modeling. We are coupling our own developed computational models with INL’s developed nuclear fuel performance codes such as MARMOT phase field and BISON finite element codes,” says Dr. Li. “Partnering in this manner strengthens our nuclear materials and system research abilities. I am pleased to have the opportunity to work with several other Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering faculty to continue our partnership with INL to help meet the world’s energy demands.”

About Lan Li

Dr. Li received her doctorate in Nanomaterials from the University of Cambridge in the UK.  She has a wide range of experience in academia and national laboratories, including at the Bio-Nano Electronic Research Center at Toyo University in Japan, the Center for Materials Informatics at Kent State University, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She has worked with various national labs and universities on the development of computational materials research coding projects. She is especially focused on transforming these types of research codes into teaching modules suitable for undergraduate education. Dr. Li’s work on energy and sustainability has been recognized with senior fellowships awarded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Program and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She has been a chief editor for three books on energy, sustainability, and the environment. Dr. Li currently serves as a member of the The Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society (TMS) Integrated Computational Materials Engineering Committee.