June 12, 2024

Whitworth University Students Present Projects to Address Nuclear Safeguards Research Challenges

Student giving a presentation on a TV screen.

Whitworth University student Gregory Anderson describes the target fidelity of the tabletop model, and systems of the vitrification plant that his team modeled.

(Photo by Graham Bourque | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Scientists know the value of a peer review for their work. A fresh set of eyes often can “see” an opportunity to improve a process or take a new approach to address a challenge. Recently, teams of engineering students from Whitworth University brought their fresh eyes to two projects in the area of nuclear safeguards research and delivered their solutions to PNNL researchers.

For more than a decade, PNNL has teamed with regional universities and the Human Capital Development program within the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of International Nuclear Safeguards to have senior engineering students address research challenges for their capstone projects. This year the projects topics were a vacuum box for chromatography work within a fume hood and a tabletop model of a vitrification facility to enhance training to safeguard real-world critical infrastructure.

For the vacuum box project, the Whitworth team of Dylan Owen, Dominic Gusman, and Micah Heil worked to design an apparatus that could improve usability and uniformity of chemical separations into multiple collection vials. “We had to research the chemistry and know the vocabulary of the customer to understand the engineering problems we needed to address,” said Heil.

The team designed a stand holding the vials inside the box to accommodate different shapes and volumes of receipt vials, and improve the air flow—enabling a more uniform vacuum and aiding the separations process. They also addressed other considerations for working in a fume hood with radiological materials: enabling easier adjustments to the receptacle stand and vacuum control settings with double-gloved hands, and using materials that were easy to clean. PNNL mentor and chemist Staci Herman noted, “Our work supports nuclear forensics and safeguards missions. This team designed and fabricated equipment that will improve the accuracy of elutions into receptacles and eliminates the time we had to spend adjusting stands.”

Two people speaking in a room. One of them is holding a beaker stand.
PNNL mentor Staci Herman (right) examines the stands that will hold a variety of sizes of beakers receiving elutions in her chemistry work. Whitworth University student Dominic Gusman (left) explains the features of stands that his team designed and fabricated. (Photo by Graham Bourque | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

In creating the tabletop vitrification plant model, the Whitworth team of Greg Anderson, Nathan Cooper, Brielle Dillon, and Grant McDonald began their project by understanding the vitrification process and the human-machine interfaces that control the system. The team designed and built a model that is portable and scaled to about 1/72 the size of the actual vitrification plant on the Hanford site, and for the purposes of the some of the props, about the size of an HO model railroad. “Engineering was behind all the design choices we made for this model,” said Anderson. “One of the most challenging aspects was the logistics in acquiring materials and parts.”

Within this model vitrification plant, a vehicle moves a vessel from one location to another and fills it with water, simulating vitrified nuclear waste. “When PNNL staff envisioned the demonstration for its training, we simulated some of the processes in the vitrification plant by using three clear plastic tanks on a counter with pumps and tubing connecting them and a controller to move water between the tanks. The Whitworth team designed and built a model plant that incorporated our idea, and that model provides context for students to better understand how their control inputs changed processes within a vitrification plant.” PNNL mentor David Koch said. “This project was a resounding success.”