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Alice Perrin spills the beans about alloys


Alice Perrin is passionate about scientific research, but also beans — as in legumes.

“Everyone should eat more beans,” she said. “They’ve got protein. They’ve got minerals. They’ve got fiber and carbohydrates. They’re incredibly healthy, and also, growing them restores nitrogen to the soil.”

Perrin, a materials scientist and Alvin M. Weinberg Fellow at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, continued: “They’re just a magic food, and they require so little water to grow. They’re really good for you, and you can use them in so many types of meals, like curries and sandwiches.”

She is an ethical vegan so devoted to legumes that she has a lentil plant tattooed on her shoulder.

Perrin came to ORNL in 2021 and works as a staff scientist and Distinguished Staff Fellow in ORNL’s Materials Science and Technology Division. She earned her bachelor’s degree in physics at William and Mary and her doctorate in materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. She also held a postdoctoral position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Her dissertation focused on the characterization of magnetic metal alloys that, in a space and energy saving configuration, can be used as an alternative to traditional refrigeration for use on vessels such as spacecraft or submarines.

Perrin developed the first high-entropy alloy studied for magnetocaloric properties and demonstrated that the distribution of magnetic exchange interactions caused by the spread of dissimilar atoms on a single lattice favorably broadened the magnetocaloric response.

Under the mentorship of Ying Yang in ORNL’s Microstructural Evolution Modeling group, Perrin focuses her fellowship research on microstructural changes in nanocrystalline iron and tungsten alloys, which could result in new strategies for material design that resists the detrimental effects of radiation.

“This will potentially open up a new avenue of radiation-tolerant alloy design that takes advantage of new types of microstructures,” Perrin said. In addition to existing nuclear power plants, this work could be extremely useful for developing materials for nuclear fusion devices, in which extremely hot plasmas — many times hotter than the surface of the sun — are used to fuse atoms to create energy, releasing small amounts of radioactive neutrons in the process.

Tungsten-based materials are a prime candidate for this since it can withstand high temperatures and radiation.

She is also interested in research around additive manufacturing, focusing on producing lightweight aluminum alloys that work well at high temperatures. This research could lead to automobile components that are lighter and more energy efficient. Improving the specific strength of materials is also important in metal alloys used for structural applications such as bridges and buildings, and additive manufacturing is a powerful tool for modifying microstructures in a way that makes that possible.

Originally from Roanoke, Virginia, Perrin said she is glad to make Oak Ridge her home. In addition to her move from Cambridge, Massachusetts, she recently had another exciting life event: She and her partner eloped in September 2022.

She applies similar passion for science to her hobby: fostering cats and dogs while they recover from illnesses and wait for loving homes. Her first foster dog was a “failure,” she said, because she ended up adopting him after fostering him for four months. Toby is an American bulldog, pit bull and boxer mix. Pepper, also a pit bull mix, keeps her company in the Oak Ridge home she shares with a clowder of foster cats who like to cuddle with the dogs.

When not doing research, she bakes, and she and her husband enjoy hiking, camping and rock climbing. The couple built a bouldering wall in their basement that goes up the walls and across the ceiling to simulate the odd and often difficult angles of boulder-climbing to help them get in shape for the real thing.

The two important things Perrin wants to convey: The staff research fellowship program is an excellent way to begin a career at a national laboratory, and eat more beans; they’re good for you.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit — Lawrence Bernard