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Materials — Radiation-resistant sensors

ORNL’s Eva Zarkadoula seeks piezoelectric materials for sensors that can withstand irradiation, which causes cascading collisions that displace atoms and produces defects. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy 

To advance sensor technologies, Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers studied piezoelectric materials, which convert mechanical stress into electrical energy, to see how they could handle bombardment with energetic neutrons. This irradiation disturbs the position and behavior of atoms, which can affect the conversion of mechanical stresses into electricity.

Sensors made of piezoelectric materials could help guide the design of prototype nuclear reactors and monitor the health of aging reactors if the materials can withstand extreme conditions.

The researchers investigated aluminum nitride doped with scandium. Compared to undoped material, doped material had a heightened piezoelectric response and improved resilience to irradiation damage.

“With theory and experiment, we improved our understanding of how damage is induced in sensors inside a nuclear reactor and how irradiation affects the piezoelectric properties,” said ORNL’s Eva Zarkadoula, who led the study.

Zarkadoula hopes the new knowledge advances tools to improve nuclear reactors, America’s largest source of carbon-free energy.