A ‘career-altering’ experience: ORISE participant discovers passion for nuclear materials research at ORNL Meet Nathan Reid

As a first-year graduate student, Nathan Reid visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) with his university’s American Nuclear Society chapter.

The springtime trip to East Tennessee turned out to be a pivotal moment in Reid’s academic career.

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As an intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Nathan Reid studies the effects of radiation exposure on materials in fusion reactors. He is shown here presenting his research at the summer 2019 poster session for participants in the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis Program. (Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL)

He not only got acquainted with the cutting-edge research happening at ORNL, the largest science and energy laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), but also met his future mentor, Lauren Garrison, Ph.D., a researcher in the lab’s Materials Science and Technology Division.

Reid’s background meshed well with Garrison’s research interests in nuclear structural materials, so she encouraged him to apply for an internship that summer at the lab.

He did just that, and he was accepted into the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) Program, with Garrison serving as his mentor. HERE provides opportunities for students, recent graduates and faculty to participate in research and technical projects under the guidance of ORNL scientists and engineers.

Reid’s HERE appointment was just the beginning of his time at ORNL. Over the next three years, he returned to Oak Ridge for research appointments through the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) Program, which is geared for college students interested in nuclear engineering and related fields.

“I’ve felt a real connection with ORNL since I first set foot in the laboratory,” Reid said. “The research that is being done here is indispensable to the scientific community. The research I get to do is what I have dreamed of since I did my first research project in high school.”

The right ‘recipe’ for tungsten

At ORNL, Reid’s overarching research project centered on developing, analyzing and testing advanced tungsten materials under radiation exposure for use in fusion reactors. In a fusion reaction, two atoms come together to form a heavier atom, resulting in an enormous release of energy. Scientists are working to harness fusion energy to achieve large-scale power generation. One prominent example of these efforts is the multinational ITER Project.

With its ability to maintain strength under intense heat, tungsten is considered a promising candidate to serve as the “armor” for the plasma-facing interior of fusion reactors, shielding the structural materials, pumping systems and cooling pipes, Reid explained. However, research has shown that interactions with neutrons in the reactor can cause portions of the tungsten to transform into the elements rhenium and osmium. This transformation, in turn, makes the tungsten brittle and affects its ability to dissipate heat.

Under Garrison’s guidance, Reid used the Glow Discharge Optical Emission Spectrometry (GD-OES) instrument to analyze samples of tungsten that had been exposed to radiation at ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR). The GD-OES instrument allowed him to measure the concentration of rhenium and osmium within the tungsten samples.

“Once we have a recipe for tungsten that is sustainable for a commercial fusion plant, fusion may be viable as an alternative energy source to meet our future’s growing energy demands,” Reid said.

Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, Reid sought to develop new techniques to test tungsten samples and stainless steel cladding for upcoming radiation campaigns at HFIR.

Separate from his research project under Garrison, Reid was part of a collaboration between ORNL and his school—the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This joint effort, headed by professor Jean Paul Allain, Ph.D., focused on developing a materials testing platform on the Prototype‐Material Plasma Exposure eXperiment at ORNL. The lead ORNL researcher on this effort was Juergen Rapp, Ph.D.

Honors, presentations and publications

At the conclusion of his first NESLS appointment, Reid took first place in the program’s annual poster session, which featured nearly 50 interns.

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Nathan Reid, shown at center, placed first in the summer 2018 poster session for participants in the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis Program. He is pictured here with his mentor, Lauren Garrison, Ph.D., at left, and Alan Icenhour, Ph.D., the associate laboratory director for ORNL’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Directorate.

That fall, Reid had the opportunity to attend the American Nuclear Society’s Topical Meeting on the Technology of Fusion Energy in Orlando, Florida, where he gave an oral presentation on his ORNL research. He was among six finalists for the Best Paper award at the meeting.

Most recently, he presented at the 2020 Minerals, Metals & Materials Society conference in San Diego, California.

In addition to his presentations, Reid contributed to three articles that appeared in the scientific journal Fusion Science and Technology, including one for which he was the primary author.

Exposure to new ideas

Through seminars, facility tours and other activities, including the annual Career Connections Day, Reid met other interns and scientists, and learned about different fields of research.

“This experience has been so career-altering to me that I would come back every summer if I could,” he said. “I can spend a year at my university doing research that is separate from my ORNL research, but complements it in a way that gives a broader picture of the meaning behind my results. Most importantly, these internship programs have allowed me to connect with other students and researchers across the United States so that I am not stuck in the bubble of research at my university, allowing me to really diversify my ideas.”

Growing as a researcher

As Reid’s ORNL mentor for parts of nearly three years, Garrison has witnessed firsthand his progress as a researcher. “It’s been exciting to see him learn, grow and improve during that time period,” she said.

She has also taken notice of his leadership skills.

“Over this last year especially, Nate was an excellent resource for my newer students who came to intern,” Garrison said. “Nate is always willing to take time to explain concepts to the undergraduate students, give advice for lab research and even encourage them to continue on to graduate school.”

A ‘connection with ORNL’

Reid is pursuing a doctoral degree in nuclear engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he previously earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the same field. After graduation, he would love the chance to return to ORNL as a postdoctoral research associate, with the ultimate goal of becoming a full-time researcher at the lab.

“I’ve felt a real connection with ORNL since I first set foot in the laboratory,” Reid said. “The research that is being done here is indispensable to the scientific community. The research I get to do is what I have dreamed of since I did my first research project in high school.”

The HERE and NESLS programs at ORNL are administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.