article Fall 2023

Oppenheimer and the Future of Energy

With the pop culture outbreak this summer surrounding Oppenheimer, more attention has been brought to research in nuclear engineering, specifically in UW-Madison’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics.

The release of Oppenheimer this past summer drove a pop culture frenzy. But more importantly, it increased conversations about nuclear engineering in the daily lives of many people. Professor Paul Wilson, the Chair of UW-Madison’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics, believes this public awareness about nuclear engineering is impertinent. For Professor Wilson, the movie wasn’t exciting due to its shared release date with Barbie, but rather because it drew people into an important conversation.

“It was exciting and good to see a lot of conversation about that. Any movie that exposes people to science is a good thing,” smiles Wilson.

As more people learn about nuclear engineering, the importance of highlighting the role it plays in our lives increases. Nuclear technology affects everyone through nuclear security, space travel, medicine, energy, and more. Even though this science works with the smallest pieces of our universe, it can lead to huge technological innovations.

Professor Wilson explaining Wisconsin’s vision for the future of nuclear engineering.
Photography by Devansh Kumaria

Wilson explains, “Nuclear engineering is about taking the science of the nucleus and figuring out how to turn it into technology.”

Wilson sees harnessing nuclear energy as the most fascinating aspect. Almost twenty percent of the United States’ electricity is produced by nuclear energy, with nearly fifteen percent of the electricity in Wisconsin coming from nuclear energy sources, according to the Energy Information Administration. Wilson anticipates this number to increase in the future as demand for electricity will require clean and effective energy systems. This idea continues to motivate nuclear research at UW-Madison.

 “Our vision is to make the world a cleaner and safer place. The research here is all motivated by delivering energy solutions that will be cleaner and safer than the ones used today.”

Professor Paul Wilson

The research conducted in nuclear fission focuses on the design and analysis of advanced nuclear reactors to ensure the next generation of nuclear power plants prioritize efficiency and safety. For nuclear fusion, research at UW-Madison attempts to not only understand the nuclear processes, but exactly how to engineer systems that create this phenomenon. Research on nuclear materials searches for materials that can withstand housing the processes of fission and fusion. This search encompasses efforts to increase safety measures at nuclear sites.

“Nuclear environments are some of the harshest environments that humans have ever created, so finding materials that can work in those environments–the radiation, the heat, the pressure, the long lifetime–is a real challenge,” Wilson reasons.

The future of nuclear fission, fusion, and materials now relies on the use of AI and 3D printing. Fission scientists now use AI to help build a “digital twin” of a given nuclear plant. This creates a computer simulated power plant that allows researchers to remotely monitor a plant at any time.

Further explaining the future role of AI, Wilson describes, “when we build and install a new reactor, we can measure the performance and in real time be doing a simulation that calculates how the reactor is evolving. We can then have an estimate of what’s going on in the reactor without actually turning it off.”

These new tools also help with nuclear fusion safety. Scientists can monitor the electrical fields used to contain the plasma in fusion through AI. They can then constantly adjust conditions in the nuclear environment to keep workers and the public safe.

3D printing and AI work together to extend research progress in nuclear materials.  Researchers can 3D print large sheets of metal with cross-sections having different compositions to test the durability of these metals. AI simulates these tests so that researchers can determine which compositions to further explore.

At the intersection of these three areas of research lies a future of efficient, reliable nuclear reactors that could revolutionize our energy systems. With climate change looming, creating these systems becomes increasingly important. To accomplish this, movies like Oppenheimer help distribute the public necessary information to implement the work of Professor Wilson and the UW-Madison Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics.

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