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Josh Schmidlin

Internship leads to stronger materials, better automobiles and full-time employment

Josh Schmidlin

Oak Ridge National Laboratory technologist Josh Schmidlin works with the 3-D laser scanner he helped develop and install on the Neutron Residual Stress Diffractometer instrument during his recent Laboratory Technology Internship at ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor. Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

As a boy in Caryville, Tenn., Josh Schmidlin always loved to take things apart to see how they worked. It was that intense curiosity with the physical world that led him first to Pellissippi State Community College and then on to East Tennessee State University to pursue a degree in engineering technology.

His curiosity also led him to work with one of the smallest particles of matter, which, in the end, opened up a big opportunity.

“One of my professors told me about the Laboratory Technology Internship Program through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education,” said Schmidlin, who managed to complete his bachelor’s degree while still holding down a full-time job. “Frankly, I was curious, as I had always been fascinated by ORNL's history and its many research opportunities, and saw the internship as a great opportunity to gain working experience."

Enter the little sub-atomic particle that would help change Schmidlin’s life—neutrons—specifically, neutrons generated by ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor, one of the most powerful neutron sources in the world. First activated in the mid-1960s as a source of isotope production for medical research and reactor start-up purposes, the HFIR has evolved into a cutting-edge facility for material science research.

Essentially, the facility helps determine how the materials behave at the atomic level. Schmidlin found himself working on one of the HFIR’s principle scientific instruments, the Neutron Residual Stress Diffractometer, and it turned out to be just the thing for the grown-up version of that Tennessee boy who liked to take things apart.

“We use neutrons generated by the HFIR to measure residual stresses within materials, usually things like ferritic steels, stainless steels, ceramics and alloys,” said Schmidlin. “The neutrons hit the material, bounce off and are detected by our instruments. ORNL’s work in this area is unique because we have such a powerful neutron source that can align the neutron beam down to such a small size—about 0.7 millimeters squared—and have the ability to accept ‘real-world’ size samples to test.”

For example, one recent experiment was for a manufacturer of frame components for automobiles. "They were working on the process for forming a new frame piece and were interested in determining which method of cutting a series of holes produced the least amount of residual stress in the material," said Schmidlin. "They brought us some large plates with holes cut by drilling, laser stamping and plasma cutter. We were able to directly test each sample and give them the best answer to make the automobile frame components as strong as possible."

Ever the tinkerer, Schmidlin taught himself advanced techniques in neutron scattering, radiation theory and materials science to help create an offline alignment strategy using 3D laser scanners to significantly increase the efficiency of the Neutron Residual Stress Diffractometer while also reducing the team's exposure to low-level radiation from the instrument.

One fact that Schmidlin discovered just beyond the end of a neutron beam was that his intern experience, combined with his hard work and natural ability, helped land him a full-time position at ORNL. Now a technologist working on the lab's Nuclear Fuel Materials research, Schmidlin is looking forward to continuing his education with a master's degree from the University of Tennessee, but he doesn't forget the program that helped lead him to this opportunity.

"Even more than the experience itself, I am convinced the laboratory technician program gave me the confidence in my own abilities to ensure my success."