UT Names Nuclear Materials Expert as Thirteenth Governor’s Chair

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Steve Zinkle, an authority on the effect of radiation on materials in fission and fusion nuclear reactors, has been named the thirteenth University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair.

Zinkle will serve as Governor’s Chair for Nuclear Materials, based in the department of nuclear engineering at UT with a complementary appointment in materials science and engineering. He begins at UT on October 1.

Zinkle comes to UT from ORNL, where he was a UT-Battelle Corporate Fellow and chief scientist for the laboratory’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Directorate. In 2012, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one of engineering’s top professional honors. He joined ORNL in 1985 as a Eugene Wigner Fellow. He led the laboratory’s nuclear materials and science technology group from 2001 to 2006 and directed the Materials Science and Technology Division from 2006 to 2010.

Zinkle’s research is important to understanding how structural materials inside fusion and fission reactors react to radiation. His research aims to develop high-performance radiation-resistant materials for advanced nuclear fission and fusion energy applications.

“Steve’s leadership in nuclear materials research is a perfect complement to our talented Governor’s Chairs team and cutting-edge resources dedicated to addressing out nation’s significant energy and resource challenges,” said Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek. “His expertise will continue to propel our work forward in developing cleaner, more sustainable energy for the nation and world.”

Materials in reactors are bombarded by neutrons that damage their atomic structure, weakening the materials and rendering them less flexible. This shortens the lifespan of reactors and presents safety concerns. Zinkle’s work seeks to develop self-healing materials that return the atomic structure of materials used in fission and fusion reactors to their previous or equivalent positions.

“The energetic neutrons, which are a byproduct of nuclear fusion and fission reactions, act like a cue ball hitting a bunch of billiard balls–or atoms–which shakes up the material’s atomic structure,” Zinkle said. “We are trying to take this jumbled mess and creatively maneuver the atoms into desired configurations, much like the UT band does during halftime performances on the football field. We are exploring several new concepts that might dramatically improve the efficiency of the atomic recombination.”

Achieving this goal could enable a broad range of new fission reactor concepts and resolve a key feasibility issue for the future commercialization of fusion reactors. Zinkle hopes to see the development of these high-performance materials in five to ten years.

Additionally, Zinkle is researching accident-tolerant fuel systems for reactors in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.

He plans to use UT’s two new high-powered electron microscopes and new ion accelerator along with ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor to conduct his research.

“UT’s faculty and suite of tools puts it in a stronger position than any university worldwide to excel at this type of research,” Zinkle said.

In 2006, Zinkle received the US Department of Energy’s E. O. Lawrence Award for his contributions to the scientific understanding of the effects of radiation on the properties of materials and for identifying performance limits for materials in radiation environments. He is also the recipient of the 2010 Robert Cahn Award from Elsevier Ltd., the 2006 Fusion Technology Award from the Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the 1992 Fusion Power Associates David J. Rose Excellence in Fusion Engineering Award, among other awards. He is a fellow of six professional societies, including the Materials Research Society; the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society; the American Nuclear Society; ASM International; and the American Ceramic Society, and is on several boards. He has served as a visiting scientist in Denmark, Germany, and Russia and is an author or co-author of more than 240 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

“Steve has been an invaluable resource to ORNL and our understanding of radiation effects in materials for fission and fusion energy systems,” said ORNL Director Thom Mason. “We look forward to him furthering these contributions through the collaboration with UT talent and sharing his expertise with the next generation of engineers.”

Zinkle received a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, master’s degrees in materials science and nuclear engineering, and a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The UT-ORNL Tennessee Governor’s Chair Program is funded by the state of Tennessee and ORNL. It 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.

Other UT-ORNL Governor’s Chairs are:

  • Jeremy Smith, a computational biologist who came to UT 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 and ORNL from Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Yilu Liu, an electric grid researcher who came to UT and ORNL from Virginia Tech. She was appointed in 2009.
  • Frank Loeffler, a biologist and environmental engineer who came to UT and ORNL from Georgia Tech. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Alexei Sokolov, a polymer scientist who came to UT and ORNL from the University of Akron. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Robert Williams, a genetics and biomedical researcher who was the Dunavant Chair in the Department of Pediatrics at UT Health Science Center. He was appointed in 2009.
  • Thomas Zawodzinski, an energy storage researcher who came to UT and ORNL from Case Western Reserve University. He was appointed in 2009.
  • William Weber, a materials scientist who came to UT and ORNL from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He was appointed in 2010.
  • Brian Wirth, a radiation expert who came to UT and ORNL from the University of California, Berkeley. He was appointed in 2010.
  • Terry Hazen, an environmental biologist who came to UT and ORNL from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He was appointed in 2011.
  • Ramamoorthy Ramesh, materials scientist who came to UT and ORNL from the University of California, Berkeley. He began his position on June 1.
  • Sudarsanam Suresh Babu, a materials scientist who came to UT and ORNL from The Ohio State University. He began his position on July 1.

C O N T A C T :

Whitney Heins (865-974-5460, wheins@utk.edu)

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