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Noah Miller: Intern working to make pellet inspection for Pu-238 Supply Program faster, safer

Intern Noah Miller, left, and his mentor, Joe McVeigh, stand with their poster at the American Glovebox Society conference in 2023.
Intern Noah Miller, left, and his mentor, Joe McVeigh, stand with their poster at the American Glovebox Society conference in 2023. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Maybe it was the career technical program at Knoxville’s South-Doyle High School, where Noah Miller gained a strong foundation in mechanical engineering, coding and computer-aided design before he ever graduated.

Maybe it was South-Doyle’s First Robotics Club, where he learned to build and program and still actively volunteers.

Or maybe it was the fascination with space Miller has had since childhood, voraciously consuming news about space travel and exploration, watching launches and even recordings of launches.

Most likely, it was a combination of all these things that put Miller on the path to developing an automated pellet inspection system for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Plutonium-238 Supply Program.

Miller, who is majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee, began a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship, or SULI, at ORNL in spring 2023. During his SULI, a 10-week paid internship sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Miller was matched with Joe McVeigh, a remote operations infrastructure engineer in the Isotope Science and Engineering Directorate’s Radioisotope Science and Technology Division.

McVeigh thought Miller would be a good fit to help develop a new system for the Plutonium-238 Supply Program, which produces neptunium pellets used as the irradiation target material for Pu-238 production under a contract with NASA. The resulting Pu-238 is used to power radioisotope thermoelectric generators for deep-space exploration.

Before loading the radioactive neptunium pellets into irradiation targets, each pellet is individually inspected within a glovebox by workers who measure them for consistent size and look for defects. Not only is the process time-consuming, but it also exposes the workers to radiation.

That’s why Miller has focused on developing a mechanized scanner, mounted on the glovebox, that could do the same thing faster and with less radiation exposure to humans. This equipment has long been used in manufacturing but hasn’t been applied to examining radioactive materials within the Pu-238 Supply Program.

“I like doing stuff that hasn’t been done before, trying to figure out problems,” Miller said. “And knowing this was actually going to be used to support the manufacturing process to make plutonium-238 going into space travel was another big draw.”

Noah Miller, back right, assists South-Doyle High School First Robotics Club members with a demonstration at ORNL’s 2023 Take Your Child to Work Day.
Noah Miller, back right, assists South-Doyle High School First Robotics Club members with a demonstration at ORNL’s 2023 Take Your Child to Work Day. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

At the end of the SULI, Miller had momentum, leading McVeigh to recommend him for a 16-week ORNL-sponsored Undergraduate Research Student Internship, or URSI When the URSI ended, Miller applied for a yearlong Education Collaboration at ORNL, or ECO, internship, which now allows him to work part time while taking classes at UT and full time during the summer.

“Noah’s experiences with the First Robotics Club gave him a base of knowledge in electromechanical design, vision systems and systems thinking, which, coupled with engineering courses, really prepared him to work on this project,” McVeigh said. “He has exceeded expectations with his critical thinking and hard work.”

Miller’s goal is to design a 3D line scan camera that can measure the diameter and height of each pellet and look for defects.

“It should be able to do pretty much everything a human can,” Miller said. “There are some defects that might be harder for the camera to detect, so we may need a secondary camera for those.”

His research allows him to do both coding and building.

“I like the mechanical side better, but I don’t mind coding,” he said.

With input from McVeigh and Michael DeVinney, a design engineer with ORNL’s Fission and Fusion Energy and Science Directorate who has served as technical adviser for the machine learning aspects of the project, Noah has designed and built a testbed glovebox for his machine-vision system. That glovebox is operating in a test lab.

“Successfully integrating custom equipment systems in a glovebox is not trivial,” McVeigh said. “Noah has learned a lot about systems thinking during his time here. During this term, we are working to continue the development of this application and work toward qualification for use in our facility.”

Miller hopes that will happen by his planned college graduation, in 2026. After that, he said, he’d love to pursue a career at ORNL.

“I love the atmosphere here,” he said. “It’s a very supportive environment.”

Miller got to attend the American Glovebox Society’s annual conference with McVeigh, who is president-elect for the national organization, and said McVeigh is always willing to answer his questions and provide guidance.

“Noah’s resume caught my eye when I saw that he was involved with the First Robotics Club when he was at South-Doyle High School,” McVeigh said. “I had volunteered in 2016 to support the students on their project. I was very impressed by those students and got to understand the engineering-centric exposure that they get.

“When I saw that Noah was still participating as a mentor in that club, I knew that we had a similar passion for service. I had four internships in college and never really had a good experience, so I am especially driven to help attract and retain talent that can support my projects at the lab while providing a developmental and fun experience.”

Knowing firsthand the difference it can make, Miller plans to mentor others just as he’s been mentored. He already finds his work with the South-Doyle First Robotics Clubs both fun and fulfilling.

“I go out during the week and coach the kids,” he said. “I’m teaching them stuff I’m learning now in college.”

Miller said being in the robotics club and South-Doyle’s career-technical education program helped him start college ahead of the curve, since he came with a background in computer-aided design and other skills that UT doesn’t cover until a few years into the degree program. He sees a bit of himself in some of South-Doyle’s current students.

“Some of them will come up to me, and I can see the interest, just like I had,” he said. “They’re solving problems the same way I was looking at things.”

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