Collaborate to Innovate 2018
Category: Academic Innovator
Winner: South-West Nuclear Hub
Partners: University of Bristol; University of Oxford; Kyoto University; Sellafield Ltd; EDF Energy; Atkins; National Nuclear Laboratory
Aimed at providing simple access to nuclear skills and research for UK industry and academia, the South-West Nuclear Hub is developing a number of technologies
With the UK facing strict deadlines to meet obligations for reducing carbon emissions as part of its contribution to action against climate change, and electricity generation representing the largest collection of significant point-sources of carbon, nuclear energy has assumed a new importance in the national energy mix.
A great deal of engineering effort is underway across the country in a variety of spheres, ranging from decommissioning of old plants, life extensions to existing plants, building of completely new capacity (such as Hinkley Point C) and basic research into new types of nuclear reactor.
To cope with the expected growing demand for high-level skills in the nuclear sector, the University of Bristol, home to an MSc course in nuclear science and engineering, has joined forces with a number of nuclear stakeholders to launch the South-West Nuclear Hub, which opened in 2016, which has been recognised as the winner of the academic innovator category at this year’s Collaborate to Innovate Awards.
Supported by a £2.5m Catalyst Fund grant from HEFCE and £5m from the University of Bristol, the hub takes advantage of its proximity to a number of nuclear operations. These include the Magnox power station at Oldbury in Gloucestershire, decommissioning reactors at Berkeley, also Gloucestershire, Hinkley Point A in Somerset and Winfrith in Dorset, and the growing construction site for the new EPR reactor at Hinkley Point. Further afield but still within reach are another decommissioning power station at Trawsfynydd in Snowdonia and Wylfa on Anglesey. It also counts the nuclear fusion research centre at Culham in Oxfordshire, the Harwell research Centre and the nuclear submarine dismantling programme at Devonport as within its catchment area.
Bristol and Oxford universities are already linked by a joint nuclear research centre (NRC) and the hub leverages this collaboration. With this link and its industrial partners active in the region, the hub aims to provide a “single front door” for government and industry to access skills and research infrastructure. Moreover, it offers a physical meeting place within easy reach of all of these nuclear activities for multidisciplinary teams to develop research projects.
The Oxford-Bristol NRC has identified nine global research themes of relevance to the nuclear sector, all of which require a multidisciplinary approach. These include topics such as structural engineering, systems reliability and waste, fuel management, robotics and digital innovation. Each research theme has a senior academic lead coordinating activity and identifying potential connections with other universities, including Oxford and the nearby University of the West of England.
A major priority for the hub is to ensure that its researchers taken up by the global nuclear supply chain, and to help with this goal it is creating a nuclear innovation “factory”, called Nucleate, dedicated to overcoming market barriers to innovation in the nuclear sector.
Based at the Bath and Bristol Science Park, Nucleate will consist of a bespoke, adaptable R&D space, coupled to co-located office space to enable researchers to work closely with industry representatives and to also host business incubation services to enable new energy-related spin outs, start-ups and SMEs to be established and grow. Nucleate is intended to be a national centre for nuclear industry innovation, with a particular research focus in reactor lifetime management
The Nucleate centre is to be another collaboration, with partnerships between the University of Bristol, National laboratory and EDF Energy. Particular focuses here will be advanced materials for harsh environments, robotics, sensors, complex safety systems and digital innovation.
Public engagement is also a key focus of the hub. It coordinates both national and regional outreach activities, which include a nuclear seminar series of public lectures. The hub acts as an independent gateway for promoting public understanding of nuclear energy, framing it within the context of climate change mitigation.
Among the innovations that the hub has had a hand in developing are a diamond-based compact radiation detector, developing technology that was pioneered at the Large Hadron Collider. Before this development, most radiation detectors could not cope with the very high radiation fluxes found in some facilities, particularly those found at Sellafield where the old facilities contain highly radioactive material. Such radiation environments are hazardous to life, and also tend to damage equipment sent into handle them. The diamond detector, developed with Kyoto University, Oxford Gray Institute and MRC Harwell, uses a diamond tile, 5mm square and a fraction of a millimetre thick but extremely robust, as its active element: when exposed to radiation, it develops a charge which can be detected by placing a voltage across the tile. The device is compact and can be installed in difficult-to-access areas.
These detectors were also part of a project to map radiation in and around pipe networks, of which around 30km at Sellafield containing low and intermediate level wastes need to be decommissioned. For these applications, the detector would be housed in a manoeuvrable probe. A variety of designs have been explored, including a waterproof capsule designed to be flushed into the pipes along with cleaning fluids; a self-propelled device to operate in a partially submerged piping; a wheeled capsule that can pull itself up through vertical piping; or a modular metal-encased snake robot around 50mm in diameter. This research has used open source devices such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino to make it easier for other institutions to contribute to this field.
Another project involved the construction of quarter-sized physical model of advanced gas cooled reactor, a type unique to the UK, whose core is composed of thousands of hollow graphite bricks. Over time, these bricks have experienced progressive cracking which have led to lateral distortions of the vertical fuel and control rods essential to the safe functioning of these now-ageing reactors. Building the model necessitated the development of a miniature, high-precision non-contact sensor system based on Hall effect sensors which detect magnetic fields, embedded in every surface. The model was used to inform the design of seismic safety assessments to be carried out on real reactor cores. This project was a collaboration between the University of Bristol, Atkins and EDF Energy.
The Headline sponsor for C2I2018 is Frazer-Nash Consultancy
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