UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Michael Tonks, assistant professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Penn State, is one of two recipients of the 2015 American Nuclear Society (ANS) Materials Science & Technology Division’s (MSTD) Special Achievement Award.
The other recipient is Richard Williamson, a researcher at Idaho National Laboratory who, along with Tonks, developed the BISON-MARMOT fuel performance codes.
Fuel performance codes are critical for predicting how reactor fuel behaves throughout its time in the reactor.
Tonks explained, “These codes predict both how the heat is conducted through the reactor, which is important because the electricity is generated from the heat, and also how it mechanically deforms, which is important for knowing if there will be a breach in the fuel cladding.”
The goal for gathering this data is to prevent these adverse things from happening and, at the same time, ensure that the reactor is efficient, said Tonks.
One of the main reasons he and Williamson pursued this initiative was because the codes that had been developed in the U.S. were almost 30 years old and were not on par with current technology.
“We wanted to develop a coding system that uses modern computer architectures effectively and can be run on large supercomputers, and that had flexibility in the type of geometry it could model,” said Tonks.
According to Tonks, the previous codes only applied to light-water reactor fuel and were only in 1D or 2D. However, the codes he and Williamson developed can model anything from 1D to 3D.
“The reason we need these complicated models is that within the reactor the properties change because of the radiation. Effectively, we are damaging the material the entire time it’s in the reactor so its performance gets worse, and we need to be able to predict that,” he said.
Williamson led the team that developed BISON, the macroscale fuel performance code, while Tonks was in charge of team MARMOT, the small-scale code that models things on the micron scale.
Tonks noted that although he and Williamson were selected for the award, it is important to acknowledge that other people, including scientists at Idaho and Los Alamos National Laboratories, played an integral role in establishing the codes.
He added that receiving this award is special because of the skepticism he and Williamson initially faced.
“In the beginning many people did not think what we were doing was a good idea. It’s nice to be officially recognized and see that the nuclear community can look back and say this was a useful endeavor,” he said.
Prior to joining the Penn State faculty in 2015, Tonks was a staff scientist at Idaho National Laboratory, where he worked on the MARMOT code for five years.
His areas of expertise include nuclear materials, radiation damage, mesoscale material behavior, multiscale materials modeling, phase field method and crystal plasticity.
Tonks received his doctorate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The ANS MSTD Special Achievement Award recognizes individuals who have contributed an outstanding book, an innovative concept or an entity or product that has had significant impact on the direction or success of nuclear materials technology.
Tonks and Williamson received their award at the 2016 ANS Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 13.