Centers of Collaboration and Creativity

SOE adds two new research centers

How do you train people to solve future nuclear non-proliferation issues? What new materials can be used to make better power generation devices? What's the best way to bridge biofuels and fuel cell technology?

Finding answers to these engineering challenges requires collaborative thinking, unique partnerships, and a focused effort. When the questions are large enough and focus on an area of SOE expertise, the challenge calls for more than a research program, it requires a larger initiative - a center. The SOE currently has eight centers that bring together engineers and scientists from different disciplines and various organizations to catalyze research and collaboration with the public and private sectors.

Recently, the SOE created two new research centers to address important issues in the areas of nuclear nonproliferation and emerging materials.

Science and Technology

As global pressures increase to find additional sources of emissions-free energy, nuclear power is re-emerging as part of the solution. Nuclear power presently produces 19 percent of the nation's electricity. It is efficient, clean, and carbon free, but presents challenges in cost and waste. But perhaps the biggest issue is the production and theft of nuclear materials that can be used by terrorist organizations or as weapons of mass destruction.

With those challenges in mind, the University of New Mexico launched the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation Science and Technology (CN2ST) in 2007. The CN2ST is one of five national academic centers of excellence funded by Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the Battelle Energy Alliance, which operates INL.

The CN2ST will be a facilitating entity, fostering funded collaborations between UNM faculty and DOE national laboratory scientists at INL, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and faculty at Texas A&M University. CN2ST efforts will support UNM faculty initiatives to develop new technologies to address nuclear nonproliferation and to train the next generation of scientists and engineers to manage future nuclear proliferation challenges.

Edward Arthur, director of the CN2ST and UNM research professor, is leading the Center through its early stages of development. He says the UNM SOE is the ideal place for the Center because of the school's expertise in many disciplines, including computational modeling and simulation, robotics, nuclear criticality safety, detector development, fuzzy logic, and more.

Arthur says CN2ST will collaborate with UNM departments and research centers to focus on advanced visualization, advanced radiation detectors, and training new scientists and engineers to fulfill national needs in nuclear safeguards and related areas. Advanced visualization techniques can be used to identify anomalies in detector and other data that indicate potential material theft or misuse of a peaceful nuclear facility. "If you're trying to do a better job of nuclear safeguarding, the challenge is how to interpret lots of different types of data, and how to look for anomalies that don't just jump out. Data visualization can help you spot those things," explains Arthur.

In the detection arena, the focus is on new approaches that better model how radiation interacts with materials so that nuclear emissions of interest can be separated from random backgrounds. The effort includes developing new instruments and methods for detecting clandestine nuclear materials that are often hidden in well-shielded environments.

CN2ST also plans to help address the critical national issue of educating more engineers and scientists to enter nuclear safeguards and homeland security fields. The Center and the Chemical and Nuclear Engineering Department intend to develop a graduate level curriculum that would lead to a nuclear nonproliferation science and technology certificate associated with a master's degree. Other goals include adding new faculty in the Chemical and Nuclear Engineering Department and collaborating with public and scientific technology policy experts through alliances with the UNM Center for Science and Technology Policy.

Energy Technologies

Another new center at the SOE, the Center for Emerging Energy Technologies (CEET), will support research on new materials for energy conversion and power generation.

Plamen Atanassov, associate professor of chemical and nuclear engineering, is the director of CEET. "We're looking forward to extending internal and external collaborations in the areas of photovoltaics, biofuels, and other areas of renewable energy where UNM has some real strength," he says. CEET will help UNM capitalize on its investment in materials science by focusing on forward integration and moving from materials as commodities to materials used in devices that bring true value to society. To do that, CEET would provide grants to faculty researching energy technologies and materials that can be applied to devices.

With help from STC.UNM, which supports UNM's inventive culture and licenses innovative technology developed at the university, Atanassov is gathering funding for CEET and fostering collaborations with industry and organizations including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense.

CEET is meeting with early success, having recently received a $1.8 million Department of Energy EPSCoR Implementation award. The DOE EPSCoR award can be viewed as a continuation of the New Mexico Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, an NSF initiative to develop engineering and scientific enterprise at the state level. CEET will host the three-year initiative, which includes an option of another three-year renewal, and provide for integration of biofuels and fuel cells research by developing a materials set for ethanol-based fuel cell technology.

The award was given to support a research collaboration that will develop enabling materials for bridging mass-produced biofuels, such as ethanol, with fuel cell technology as a way to generate electrical power. The research project will explore two different pathways to achieving this goal. The first approach is to reform ethanol to produce hydrogen. The other is direct electrochemical oxidation of ethanol in a new type of alkaline membrane fuel cell. This program is an important pioneering effort to bridge, through materials, an approach to two major DOE initiatives: a hydrogen economy and bio-derived fuels.

The EPSCoR award will create partnerships between scientists and engineers from around New Mexico who will share knowledge and resources to engineer new and better materials for energy conversion. Participants in the program include faculty and researchers from the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and Eastern New Mexico University. This program is also supported by Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and the DOE Office of Science Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies.

Atanassov says he hopes that CEET will have a wide impact. "I would like to see local industry fostered and new companies formed. We are engaged in supporting small business in New Mexico and in start-up companies. We would like to see companies coming to Albuquerque and working with us." He adds, "Our key partner in this is STC.UNM, which provides both organizational and logistics support in addition to being the very effective patenting and licensing arm of UNM."

Students' enthusiasm will be central to the success of the new centers like CEET, says Atanassov. "I see students in all of the engineering disciplines interested in new technology and they are committed to conserving energy and finding new means of generating energy. It's a manifestation of the social demands and awareness that we see in our world now."