An innovative, multi-scale, real-time approach to the understanding of deformation and fracture in irradiated nuclear reactor core graphites

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Materials


Graphite is one of the most fascinating materials used in the current UK reactors and is a candidate for the new generation of high temperature reactors (Gen IV) designed to operate for 60 to 100 years. Graphite has complex microstructure and behaviour under irradiation; it is a non-replaceable reactor core component in Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs) and, hence, is life-limiting. This material has attracted extensive academic and industrial scrutiny to assist in underwriting the safe operation of nuclear fission reactors. Currently, the UK has 16 reactors generating about 20% of its electricity and all but one of these is scheduled to retire by 2023. However, life extension averaging 7 years for AGR units has been planned. There is 8 years before the earliest "end-of-life" scenarios for these AGRs is reached and this has set the horizon for this work programme on graphites. Lifetime extension of the AGRs is of strategic importance, not only for EDF Energy and its commercial interests but also for the UK's ability to meet electricity demand before the new generation of reactors are able to come online.
Further understanding of the graphite structure in the moderator components of AGRs continues to ensure their safety. Key challenges remain, and have to be addressed in terms of improving the fundamental mechanistic understanding of nuclear graphite. Although research in these areas is difficult and challenging, the present project proposal builds on the PI's expertise in this topic area, combined with the use of emerging novel techniques, to attack this critical problem.
1. Multi-scale characterisation of nuclear graphite
To generate microstructure-based descriptions at appropriate length-scales - with quantification of damage evolution - of the salient deformation, fracture mechanisms and general mechanical properties of irradiated nuclear reactor core graphites, a novel approach to investigate local damage has been developed by the PI at the University of Bristol. This approach, and combining the outcomes with computer modelling, has the advantage of establishing a solid fundamental base for structural integrity analysis and lifetime prediction of nuclear graphite.
2. Microstructure-based deformation and fracture of nuclear graphite at temperature
To provide three-dimensional, in situ, at-temperature (over 1000 deg. C for Gen IV reactors) characterisation of the deformation and fracture of graphites using computed synchrotron X-ray micro-tomography. No such tests have been undertaken on nuclear graphite. This objective will take into account the microstructural gradient created in AGR reactors in the UK and, hence, provide direct impact on life extension decision making. Part of this work will be undertaken with Prof. Robert Ritchie at the University of California, Berkeley, U.S.
3. Microstructure-based thermal creep in nuclear graphite under stress
To provide mechanistic understanding of the dimensional change of graphite over service life, i.e. to evaluate the thermal contribution to creep of virgin and irradiation graphite under load from ambient to reactor temperature (over 1000 deg. C for Gen IV reactors). Prof. Bryan Roebuck, of the National Physical Laboratory in the UK, will provide access to equipment that allows the realisation of these investigations.
4. Optimisation of project output
Inputs from the above three aspects will assist in generating a revised life evaluation methodology. On completion of the project with the above three key areas addressed, mechanistic understanding of the graphite, and the class of materials it represents, will directly benefit the related academic community. Dissemination of the results at the end of the project in the form of workshops will feed the input to industry and, thus, allow direct impact on the decision making for the continued safe operation of current reactors in the UK and validation for future reactors globally.

Planned Impact

The UK's nuclear renaissance is underpinned by a high-quality, vibrant academic base. To maintain and further enhance the current national competitive advantage has been identified as a government strategic priority. In this context, the proposed project is anticipated to impact on the following aspects:
1. Impact on cross-disciplinary academic communities worldwide
The proposed research will benefit multidisciplinary research communities, including direct impact on nuclear fission, nuclear composites, damage tolerant porous ceramics, concretes, etc. The wide application of these materials and the importance of understanding deformation and fracture at multi-length scales for structural components set the importance and unbounded impact for the proposed project. The proposal is based on innovative methodologies that build on the PI's unique expertise and a combination of state-of-the-art technologies. The outcome therefore represents world-class advances.
2. Immediate and long term impact on nuclear fission in the UK and worldwide
The proposed research aims to investigate the fundamental mechanistic aspects of nuclear graphite, a material that has to be understood to ensure the continued safe operation of current AGR reactors in the UK and to directly impact upon the material qualification for the Gen IV reactors operating at very high temperatures across the world. Fundamental and novel research into nuclear graphite is key to maintain the world-leading position of the UK in nuclear fission in the face of strong and rapidly-growing international competition, providing unique input to the international academic community and influencing industrial decision making in critical areas. In addition, the methodology and characterisation of nuclear graphite will be transferred to other materials such as nuclear composites, concrete, porous ceramics, foams and biometric materials, either through conferences, new collaborations or joint publication with existing partners that have already had established reputation in composites, power plants and aerospace areas (for example, Prof. Robert Ritchie on biometric materials, Prof. James Marrow on nuclear composites and the PI's expertise on porous ceramic thermal barrier coatings).
3. Impact on the economy and society
Life extension of advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGR) is of significant importance for electricity demand to be met in the UK in the immediate future. With a strategic objective of seeking up to 7 years of life extension for all of the AGR stations, each operational site secures over 500 jobs, £300m of investment into the nuclear supply chain each year and helps to avoid ~1.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. Successful design and safe operation for the future Gen IV reactors worldwide has immeasurable benefit to secure energy supply and, in the meantime, to reduce the potential of adverse environmental impact from nuclear fission to minimum.
4. Impact on the host institution and public
The proposed research brings together a unique international team of experts to target tough problems encountered in nuclear graphites and the related class of materials. The host institution of this project, the University of Bristol, has been ranked to have the highest impact on nuclear research in the UK and has prioritised investment on nuclear related research. This proposed project will bring in a novel branch of work on nuclear graphites and will unarguably enhance the leading position of the University of Bristol in the UK on nuclear. In addition, the PI has rich experience interacting with the public in terms of school teaching and, most recently, additional funding from the University of Bristol was allocated to the PI to expand the recipients of this type of teaching to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. With this project, naturally, the PI will take the fundamental, exciting and newest concepts to a wider range of audience.

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
EP/N004493/1 01/02/2016 30/06/2018 £311,689
EP/N004493/2 Transfer EP/N004493/1 01/07/2018 31/01/2019 £61,994
Description One of the main findings was how the material of interest, next generation of nuclear graphite (T220 and SNG623), deform and fracture at temperatures up to 1100C. What I have found was that this material becomes stronger and more resistant to crack growth at elevated temperature as the conventional British grade graphite but to an different extent.
The techniques have been extended to other composite materials such as ceramic-matrix composite (CMCs). The main outcome from this aspect is to identify the different failure modes of SiC-SiC and oxide-oxide materials at temperatures up to 1200C.
Exploitation Route The results have been disseminated at various conferences and meetings with industry. That helped the related research partners operating both current generation of reactors and those interested in the future design understand the behavior of graphite and ceramic matrix material better. The results will be taken into consideration for the safety evaluation for operating reactors as well as for the design of next generation concepts. In addition, the understanding gained on CMCs will help to design the material better in the UK and worldwide.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Energy

Description My project yield results on various materials, mainly on nuclear graphite composites and the others include ceramic-matrix composites. In both cases, my work has impacted on the design of better materials to survive higher temperature, higher load and with improved resistance to the formation of cracks. For the graphite materials, the findings from my work has been disseminated to the GenIV reactor design community. In terms of the CMCs, my work has been applied to both aerospace materials as well as those for nuclear applications, both in the UK and internationally.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Energy,Environment
Impact Types Economic

Description Collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory 
Organisation Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Country United States 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution As part of this grant, I have established a strong collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory which enables unique access to the Advanced Light Source for high temperature x-ray computed tomography experiments.
Collaborator Contribution They provided me free access to the x-ray source, hot cell and man power to help me with my experiments.
Impact This collaboration has resulted in three successful experiments on in situ high temperature tomography. Two conference proceedings have been accepted and one paper is under review.
Start Year 2016
Description GaN-diamond materials 
Organisation University of Bristol
Department School of Geographical Sciences
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I have worked with them on GaN-diamond electronic device in terms of the characterization of micro-structure and mechanical properties.
Collaborator Contribution They provided me with unique GaN-diamond materials and access to Raman spectroscopy machine.
Impact This collaboration resulted in two conference papers, two journal papers with more in preparation.
Start Year 2016
Description Neutron irradiated HOPG graphite materials 
Organisation Idaho National Laboratory
Country United States 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I study the change of mechanical properties of the neutron irradiated HOPG graphite with Idaho.
Collaborator Contribution Idaho provided me precious graphite samples irradiated with neutrons at high temperature.
Impact Our collaboration resulted in one conference talk and one paper under preparation.
Start Year 2016
Description My research was featured in Womanthology Magazine to promote women in science/engineering 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Myself and my work was featured in a article published in womanthology magazine. This article was subsequently shared on Twitter, facebook and appeared on departmental Newsletters.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Organisation and participation of Soapbox Science & Art 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Soapbox Art & Science presented at Oxford Festival of the Arts on Saturday 1st July. Building on the success of Soapbox Science Oxford 2016, the 2017 event takes on a new and exciting element. Who is a scientist and who is an artist? Can the work someone in a lab coat is doing relate to a painting, or a dancer, or be understood through music? The new project aims to bring science to arts fans and art to scientists. By challenging artists and scientists to work together, Soapbox Art & Science 2017 brought difficult science concepts to the public in exciting, innovative and engaging ways.
12 of the UK's leading women in science talked to their soapboxes to showcase their science to the general public, alongside some amazing local artists. The new Soapbox Art & Science 2017 event capitalized on Soapbox Science's current strengths to widen the audiences exposed to science carried out by women and will facilitate communication and collaboration between the arts and science communities. During the day, hundreds of people came to the event and had exciting interactions with our scientists and artists. We are organizing a new event in 2018 to continue the heat.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Organised Soapbox Science 2018_Oxford Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Soapbox Science is a novel public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. Our events transform public areas into an arena for public learning and scientific debate; they follow the format of London Hyde Park's Speaker's Corner, which is historically an arena for public debate.
This event in Oxford 2018 has attracted several hundred of general public to come and listen to the 9 female speakers to talk about their research. This has had a very positive impact on promoting woman in science and engineering as well as encouraging the younger generation to chose science and engineering as a study/research topic.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Public engagement_Soapbox Science 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was selected to be a speaker for Soapbox Science at Oxford event. My topic was to talk about nuclear energy. The whole event lasted for 3+ hrs and we had a few hundred people visiting. More than 90% of them showed great interested in our event and said that they will come again.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description School event: Make Materials Matter 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I participated the school event called 'Make Materials Matter' organised between Oxford Materials and Cambridge Materials targeting at five state schools in London region. The school students were motivated by Material Science and showed great interest on research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016