Radiation Expert Wirth Named Ninth UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair

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KNOXVILLE — Brian Wirth, an authority in the ways materials behave in extreme environments, has been named the ninth University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair.

Wirth is currently an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, which he joined in 2002 following several years as a materials scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Wirth leads a number of research projects funded by various U.S. Department of Energy offices to investigate the performance of nuclear fuels and structural materials in nuclear environments. He expects this research to lead to improved prediction of the longevity of nuclear reactor components and ultimately the development of high-performance, radiation resistant materials for advanced nuclear fission and fusion energy applications.

“Through the Governor’s Chair program and the UT-Oak Ridge partnership, the university continues to enhance the stature of our faculty by adding the best researchers in fields critical to the future of our state and nation,” UT Interim President Jan Simek said.

Wirth will serve in the Department of Nuclear Engineering in the College of Engineering at UT Knoxville and in ORNL’s computer science and mathematics division. The Governor’s Chair Program is funded by the state of Tennessee and ORNL.

“Over time, the Governor’s Chair program has brought together a diversity of expertise that well represents the goals we set for it,” said Gov. Phil Bredesen. “Attracting top scientists and researchers like Brian Wirth as Governor’s Chairs continues to broaden and enhance the unique partnership that exists between the University of Tennessee, as the state’s flagship university and ORNL, the country’s largest multi-program laboratory.”

Wirth will serve as the Governor’s Chair for computational nuclear engineering.

Wirth’s research plays a key role in America’s energy future now that nuclear power is back on the table as a viable energy source as America strives to be more energy independent and emit less carbon. New American energy policy aims to ensure existing nuclear power plants are upgraded and operating at close to full capacity, and new ones are in the works so that nuclear power has a bigger piece of the energy production pie. Wirth’s research ensures this is done safely and efficiently.

As nuclear reactors’ licenses go up for renewal, Wirth is examining the effects of 40 to 60, or even up to 80 years of extreme temperatures and constant radiation have on specific reactor materials. Certain materials may not be tough enough to withstand future use, creating the danger of a vessel failure or even a meltdown. As well, Wirth’s research aims to define the materials operating limits for advanced nuclear reactor technologies that are currently being designed. In sum, his research plays a critical role in ensuring nuclear power plant upgrades and lifetime extensions are done safely and that advanced nuclear reactors can operate more efficiently.

Wirth’s nuclear engineering expertise arrives in a place integral to the birth of nuclear energy, ORNL — once again taking a leadership role in the future of nuclear energy.

“Brian’s experience with the partnership between the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, along with his leadership in nuclear energy research, is a significant contribution to our world-class Governor’s Chair program,” said UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek. “His contributions will continue the positive momentum of the UT-ORNL partnership and the key role we play in addressing our nation’s significant energy and resource challenges.”

Using high-fidelity computation modeling, Wirth investigates the physical processes that are responsible for causing defects in materials and degrading the performance and lifetime of nuclear reactor components. The ultimate goal of his research is to provide a better assessment of the reliability of these components and how long they will last. Wirth also aims to use this knowledge to develop advanced, new materials with revolutionary improvements in properties and performance. In addition, Wirth researches materials capable of containing the energy from a new source: nuclear fusion reactors.

Wirth said he hopes his work leads to a country primarily powered by nuclear energy — even if he does not live long enough to see it.

As a Governor’s Chair, Wirth will have the opportunity to further his research by taking advantage of the exceptional resources and expertise available at both UT Knoxville and ORNL. Among those resources is DOE’s first energy innovation hub, the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, recently awarded to a multi-institutional partnership led by ORNL.

“Brian Wirth’s announcement as a Governor’s Chair expands our core capabilities in advanced materials, computing, and applied nuclear science and technology,” said ORNL director Thom Mason. “Tennessee is well positioned for leadership in America’s nuclear future and Brian brings exceptional strengths to our growing role in this key energy technology.”

Wirth’s preeminent research has been published in more than 100 peer-reviewed papers in archival journals and conference proceedings, which have been cited more than 1,400 times. His research is currently funded by several offices within the U.S. Department of Energy (Office of Nuclear Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Office of Fusion Energy Sciences), the National Science Foundation and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office within the Department of Homeland Security.

Wirth received a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1992 and his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1998, where he was a Department of Energy Nuclear Engineering Graduate Fellow.

The UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair program is designed to attract exceptionally accomplished researchers from around the world to boost joint research efforts that position the partnership as a leader in the fields of biological science, computational science, advanced materials and neutron science. Eight of the nine Governor’s Chairs now have joint appointments at UT Knoxville and ORNL.

Other UT-ORNL Governor’s Chairs include:

  • Jeremy Smith, a computational biologist who came to UT Knoxville and ORNL from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He was appointed in 2006.
  • Howard Hall, an expert in nuclear security who came to UT Knoxville and ORNL from Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He was appointed this in 2009.
  • Alexei Sokolov, a polymer scientist who came to UT Knoxville and ORNL from the University of Akron. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Yilu Liu, an electric grid researcher who came to UT Knoxville and ORNL from Virginia Tech. She was appointed in 2009.
  • Thomas Zawodzinski, an energy storage researcher who came to UT Knoxville and ORNL from Case Western Reserve University. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Frank Loeffler, a biologist and environmental engineer who came to UT Knoxville and ORNL from Georgia Tech. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Robert Williams, a genetics and biomedical researcher at the UT Health Science Center and ORNL. He was appointed in 2009.
  • William Weber, a materials scientist who came to UT Knoxville and ORNL from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He was appointed in 2010.

C O N T A C T :

Whitney Holmes, UT Knoxville (865-974-5460, wholmes7@utk.edu)

Bill Cabage, ORNL (865-574-4399, cabagewh@ornl.gov)

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