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Graduate Student Awarded National Lab Fellowship for Nuclear Reactor Research

A man in a lab
Sohel Rana conducting research in the FLAIR lab, Allison Corona photo.

Documenting the reactions that take place inside an active nuclear reactor is incredibly tough – high temperatures, corrosion, pressure, fission gas production, microstructure and cracks (among other things) make accurate data collection difficult. For this reason, Boise State and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have begun developing advanced sensor technology designed specifically to withstand the harsh conditions inside reactors and advanced reactors, thanks to the In-Pile instrumentation initiative, a collaboration between INL, Boise State and the University of Notre Dame. This collaboration was funded through the Department of Energy.

Recently, Sohel Rana, a doctoral student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was awarded a two-year fellowship with INL to continue this important sensor research. Rana, a native of Bangladesh, will begin his INL fellowship during the summer of 2020. The fellowship will cover his last two years of tuition at Boise State, as well as provide him with a $60,000 per year living stipend.

“Primarily, I will be focusing on the fiber optic sensors design and fabrication,” Rana explained. “These fiber optic sensors will be applied in nuclear reactor at INL to monitor high temperature at the core of the nuclear reactor.”

Rana’s work on campus is being conducted at the newly created Fiber-Optics, Lasers and Integrated-Photonics Research (FLAIR) lab, co-directed by Nirmala Kandadai, an assistant research professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and Harish Subbaraman, an assistant professor of electrical engineering. Under the guidance of Kandadai and Subbaraman, Rana has been testing and evaluating how optical fibers survive inside a nuclear reactor.

Rana will be working directly under the supervision of Joshua Daw, a research scientist and engineer at the INL’s High Temperature Test Laboratory.

“I was impressed with Sohel after meeting him, listening to him present his research, and through discussions with Sohel and his professors related to INL and Boise State’s mutual research goals,” said Daw.

Currently, to test the temperatures inside nuclear reactors, scientists add an array of wires with distinct melting points and simply check to see which ones have melted. Rana and other researchers working in Boise State’s FLAIR lab hope to develop and deploy radiation-hard fiber-optic sensors to allow them to monitor temperature inside reactors in real time.

“This would allow us to continuously measure the temperatures inside a nuclear reactor, and understand what the conditions are that allow for random spikes and could improve the safety of the reactor,” Subbaraman explained.

“This will help INL rapidly build capabilities in an area with the potential for tremendous benefit,” Daw said, adding that it also helps establish and strengthen a talent pipeline between Boise State and INL. “We are always looking for the next generation of researchers. And for Sohel, he will experience the research culture of a national lab, which is not quite like either academic or corporate/industrial environments.”

Researchers in the FLAIR lab also are attempting to image a fuel crack through infrared thermography. Having the lab on campus is invaluable to graduate and undergraduate students like Rana, who are exposed to state-of-the-art instrumentation without traveling to INL’s headquarters in Idaho Falls, as well as being exposed to and mentored by talented researchers.

“My research area completely aligns with the cutting edge research performed by the FLAIR group,” Rana said of his decision to pursue his doctorate in Idaho. “That was the main reason to choose Boise State. Besides, I love the weather of Boise.”