Doctoral student uses computer modeling techniques to advance fusion technology research Meet Monica Gehrig

As an intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Monica Gehrig gained hands-on research experience, made meaningful connections with peers in her field and came away with a newfound confidence in her abilities.

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As an intern in the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis Program, doctoral student Monica Gehrig contributed to fusion energy research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Gehrig, a doctoral student in nuclear engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology (S&T), used computer modeling techniques to better understand the components that could make up future fusion power plants through the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) internship program. The NESLS program at ORNL, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy, provides nuclear engineering research opportunities and associated activities for current undergraduate and graduate students.

Under the guidance of Arnold Lumsdaine, Ph.D., leader of ORNL’s Fusion Engineering Group, Gehrig focused on two research projects. The first involved conducting a thermal analysis of a graphite foam exposed to high heat. Using computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a modeling tool to simulate fluid motion and heat transfer, Gehrig analyzed the rate at which these components cool down and made models to predict their performance. Gehrig also traveled to Garching, Germany, to test the performance of water-cooled graphite foam as an armor material in high heat flux conditions in the Garching Large Divertor Sample Test Facility.

For her second project, Gehrig contributed to a helium flow loop experiment being conducted at ORNL. As part of this effort, she designed and modeled enhanced metal tubes to be additively manufactured (or 3D printed) at the lab’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, ran thermal hydraulic simulations on these models and validated the simulation results with the experiment.

“My research will benefit the average American in the long term by enabling progress in designing fusion power plants,” Gehrig explained. “This research helps to make sustainable fusion reactors possible by improving the component survivability. The average American will see the benefits of nuclear fusion as a clean, safe, low-carbon, and reliable energy option.”

Through her participation in the NESLS program, Gehrig honed her skills as a presenter and science communicator.

“My favorite parts of the program have been the NESLS poster sessions, because those have given me the ability to showcase and be proud of my research,” she said.

Gehrig earned second-place honors at the summer 2017 NESLS poster session for her submission, which focused on the graphite foam research project.

She also had the chance to get her research published. Gehrig was the lead author on a paper that appeared in the IEEE Transactions on Plasma Sciences special edition for the 2019 Symposium on Fusion Engineering.

During her time at ORNL, Gehrig strengthened her professional network and met new people in her field.

“If it weren’t for this experience, I wouldn’t have met some of my best friends I have ever come to know,” she said. “Being a part of this experience has led me to finding other people with a passion for knowledge, science and optimism for the future.”

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Monica Gehrig presents at the summer 2017 poster session for participants in the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis Program.

Overall, she described her NESLS internship as “profoundly positive” and recommended it to other students interested in nuclear engineering.

“(The NESLS program) has helped me grow as a researcher and an engineer,” she said. “It has provided me with countless opportunities to network in my field and practice my presentation skills.”

Following her NESLS internship, Gehrig continued her involvement on the helium flow loop project as part of her doctoral studies at Missouri S&T. After completing her Ph.D., she hopes to work as a postdoctoral researcher in the fusion energy field.

“I am a strong believer in supporting nuclear fusion and fission as energy options and want to help educate people about the benefits of nuclear energy as a part of the power grid,” she said.

The NESLS program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.