Research on nuclear waste storage in glass takes top prize at poster exhibition

Collin Smyth, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering, won first place in the 2016 College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Undergraduate Poster Exhibition for a poster based on his own research exploring the volatility of nuclear waste glass. The poster, “Single-Pass Flow-Through Corrosion of Calcium Aluminosilicate Glass Powder,” was completed with the help of adviser Carlo Pantano.  Image: David Kubarek / Penn State

David Kubarek 

December 14, 2016 [Full article on Penn State News]

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Collin Smyth shined with a $500 first place finish for his poster titled “Single-Pass Flow-Through Corrosion of Calcium Aluminosilicate Glass Powder” at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ (EMS) fifth annual Undergraduate Poster Exhibition held on Nov. 30, but the path to success was months in the making.

Smyth, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering, illustrated his research on the types of glass best suited for the long-term storage of nuclear waste in glass. Specifically, he examined the composition dependence of the corrosion of glass, with applications in nuclear waste glass after vitrification. Vitrification is a process where nuclear waste is mixed with molten glass-forming chemicals and the nuclear waste is immobilized in the glass after it solidifies in canisters.

He spent the summer conducting the research with his adviser, Carlo Pantano, distinguished professor of materials science and engineering, which he said may have given him an edge over his competitors.

“All the data I presented came from the work I did over the summer so I already had a good level of understanding of the research since I’ve done so many experiments,” said Smyth. “I’ve had some things fail and go wrong, so I really understand every step of the experiment I’m doing, and that helps me better understand my results.”

Smyth researched three components found in glass: calcium oxide, alumina and silica. Nuclear waste glass can have about two dozen components, but his research focused on gaining empirical data on those three components.

Smyth passed water over powder-sized pieces of the glass for 18 days and found that higher silicon content led to a more stable glass that doesn’t as easily dissolve or corrode. Dissolution is an issue because that could potentially release the radioactive waste to the environment.

“When testing the 50 percent silica glass, the dissolution rate was about three times as high as the higher-percent silica samples, and the 40 percent silica was about four times as high,” said Smyth. “So, higher silica content will mean more corrosive-resistant storage for nuclear waste.”

“Glass corrosion has a lot of applications,” said Smyth. “People need to know about glass corrosion for thin films, biomaterials and nuclear waste, so nuclear waste is kind of the main motivation here but the results can be applied to other situations. The knowledge gained — because this is empirical data — can be used to determine the compositional effects of all glass corrosion.”

Also earning honors at the exhibition, were:

— Kathryn Sautter, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering, who won $300 and second place for her poster titled “Non-Selective Etchants for Processing Multijunction Solar Cells,” which was completed with the help of adviser Myles Steiner, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

— Seniors Jordan Austin, majoring in meteorology, and Andrew Brown, majoring in geography, won $200 and third place for their poster titled “Recession of the Ampatuni and Ausangate Glaciers,” which was completed with the help of advisers Denice Wardrop, senior scientist in the Department of Geography and director of the Penn State Sustainability Institute; Mike Nassry, research hydrologist with Riparia in the Department of Geography; and Joe Bishop, former research assistant with Riparia.

— First-year students Liam Cummings, majoring in energy engineering; Jingzhang Feng, undeclared; and Jason Beck, majoring in geosciences, won $100 for the Freshman Award for their poster titled “Feasibility of Large-Scale Concentrated Solar Power in Arizona by 2050,” which was completed with the help of adviser Sharon Miller, senior research associate in the EMS Energy Institute.

— Lydia Scheel, senior, energy business and finance; William Garvey, senior, environmental systems engineering; Elisabeth Poyner, senior, energy engineering; Lauren Ragland, junior, earth science and policy; and Shannon Stellato, junior, energy engineering, won the Student Choice Award for their poster titled “Fundraising and Volunteer Efforts of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Benefiting THON.”