Scientists at the Idaho National Lab have made a discovery that could lead to safer, more efficient ways of powering communities.
Researchers closely examined tiny particles, about the size of a poppy seed, which will be used in nuclear reactors of the future. They located a piece of silver inside, which is about one-500,000th the size of one of the particles.
Yaqiao Wu, Tom Lillo and Isabella van Rooyen made the discovery at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls, using a Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope.
The microscope uses the power of electrons to get a look 2,000 times closer than what we'd see in a typical microscope.
The little, poppy seed-sized tristructural isotropic (TRISO) coated particles consist of layers of carbon and silicon carbide with uranium inside.
Billions of TRISO coated particles are designed for nuclear reactors of the future. Those reactors will run at extremely high temperatures, thus making things more efficient.
When the uranium atom splits, creating energy in a process known as fission, certain elements are created. Silver is one of them.
When silver forms, it escapes through the silicon carbide layer of the TRISO coated particle. The goal for scientists is to not let that happen.
"That silicon carbide layer is there to keep the atoms-- keep the fission products within the kernel," Lillo said.
When the radioactive products stay in, the whole process is safer.
"Now we know where it was," van Rooyen said. "Now we can start the real stuff here."
The next step is to use this research to find a way to keep that silver inside the particle, so reactors can get even hotter and more efficient.
Scientists have known for decades that the silver exists inside the TRISO coated particle, but have never seen it. This is the first time that the silver has actually been pinpointed.