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Robots & Machines

Scientists Made a New Metal, and it Makes Nuclear Reactors Even Stronger

A potential solution to a dangerous issue?

Scientists have developed a new kind of high quality metal alloy that is suitable to use in building nuclear reactors. While it might not be a metal that has been invented entirely from scratch, it’s only recently that we have been able to produce this kind (this quality) of metal. And it could mean great things for nuclear technologies.

Harvesting Nuclear Power

One of the primary problems with nuclear power is that steel typically only lasts around 40 years before it weakens and becomes too defective to use. High-entropy alloys could be the solution to this current problem, as this material is stronger (and safer) than steel.

With modern-day reactors running at higher temperatures and weakening at faster and faster rates, it’s extremely important to quickly find solutions to this issue in order to prevent a nuclear disaster from happening in one of the the more than 430 reactors found around the world.

In a nuclear reactor, intense levels of heat are produced during the fission process. This process generates electricity – including a bunch of neutrons. These neutrons typically get trapped in the water inside the reactor, but some make it to the steel exterior and end up dislodging the atoms within its structure.

This is what primarily causes the aforementioned defects.

SOURCE: Tennessee Valley Authority

Changing the Steel Exterior

High-entropy alloys are created with equal amounts of different metals spread out evenly across a surface. This allows each type of atom to be almost equally exposed to the bombardment of neutrons caused by the nuclear fission process within the reactor.

To test the effectiveness of these metals, scientists simulated the process inside the nuclear reactor by bombarding two alloys with nickel and gold ions. After experimentation, they were both found to have two to three times less defects than steel.

Although the idea of using high-entropy alloys in manufacturing nuclear reactors might sound like a great solution to an extremely-dangerous issue, there are some setbacks associated with it.

First, the costs remain high, although these costs should lower in coming years. Second, they won’t be readily available for a long time, though scientists are currently conducting full-scale tests to find the perfect formula. “We are very happy, but I wouldn’t dare yet to build a nuclear reactor out of these materials,” says Kai Nordlund from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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