New tungsten-based alloy shows promise for fusion reactors

A groundbreaking tungsten-based alloy has emerged as a potential game-changer for harnessing fusion energy, particularly in extreme environments akin to those found in fusion reactor prototypes. Los Alamos National Laboratory’s staff scientist, Osman El Atwani, expressed optimism about the alloy’s performance in irradiation resistance and stability under the demanding conditions simulating a fusion-reactor setting.

This alloy’s development signifies a significant stride towards the creation of more valuable alloys, a critical aspect in fortifying fusion power generation. The congruence between theoretical modeling and experimental outcomes paves the way for further advancements, rendering fusion energy more robust, cost-effective, economically predictable, and appealing to investors.

Addressing the materials challenge becomes increasingly vital as fusion energy concepts edge closer to practical realization. The promising findings indicate that both a design paradigm put forth by El Atwani and collaborators and high entropy alloys are poised to assume pivotal roles in unlocking the potential of fusion energy.

The project, helmed by El Atwani, involved numerous national and international institutions. Their research outcomes were published in the esteemed journal Nature Communications in May.

The fusion materials challenge

Los Alamos National Laboratory has announced a major advancement in the field of fusion energy with the development of a cutting-edge tungsten-based alloy capable of excelling in extreme environments akin to those found in fusion reactor prototypes. This groundbreaking alloy exhibits promising attributes, including remarkable resistance to irradiation and exceptional stability under high temperatures and intense irradiation conditions representative of a fusion-reactor environment. Osman El Atwani, a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, expressed enthusiasm regarding the alloy’s potential, emphasizing its significance in the pursuit of robust, cost-effective, and commercially appealing fusion power generation.

The successful creation of this alloy, accompanied by the alignment observed between theoretical modeling and experimental outcomes, signifies a significant step forward in the quest to develop more valuable alloys. Such progress is crucial in overcoming the materials challenge, a pressing concern as fusion energy concepts approach practical implementation. The encouraging results from this research point towards a promising design paradigm proposed by El Atwani and his collaborators, as well as the potential of high entropy alloys, in harnessing the full potential of fusion energy.

The principal investigator for this project was El Atwani, and the research collaboration involved numerous national and international institutions. The results of their extensive work were published in the renowned scientific journal Nature Communications in May, solidifying the significance and impact of their findings.

Fusion energy production necessitates materials capable of withstanding harsh conditions such as elevated temperatures, irradiation, and stress associated with fusion reactions that surpass the heat intensity of the sun. In response to this materials challenge, El Atwani and his team developed a nanocrystalline high entropy alloy, comprising five or more elements, with a crystalline structure at the atomic level. The primary constituent of the alloy is tungsten, a well-studied element often used in plasma-facing components. Existing tungsten materials have limitations due to degradation and deformation under fusion conditions. To address this, the research team employed advanced computational methods, thermophysical property calculations, and simulations conducted across multiple institutions, including Los Alamos, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, Clemson University, and the University of Warsaw. Through meticulous analysis and predictions, hafnium was identified as the ideal element for inclusion in the alloy mixture, based on its projected performance.

With this breakthrough in alloy development, the fusion energy sector gains momentum in its journey towards a clean, sustainable, and efficient power source that can meet the world’s growing energy demands.

Fabrication and experimentation

Following the fabrication of alloy films at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies at Los Alamos, rigorous irradiation tests were conducted at Argonne National Laboratory and the Ion Beam Materials Laboratory at Los Alamos. Employing advanced techniques such as in-situ transmission electron microscopy, researchers observed that the alloy exhibited exceptional durability under the harsh experimental conditions simulating a fusion-nuclear-energy prototype. In fact, among all alloys tested under similar conditions and setups, the selected compositions of this material system demonstrated the highest resistance to irradiation, as affirmed by Enrique Martinez, a materials scientist from Clemson University. This alignment between experimental results and theoretical modeling significantly reduced the number of necessary experiments for evaluating the material’s performance.

Furthermore, it was discovered that these alloys can also be synthesized in amorphous forms, characterized by atoms that do not exhibit long-range alignment as seen in crystalline structures. A related study conducted by a team at Los Alamos revealed that the introduction of hafnium into amorphous alloys conferred remarkable stability under irradiation and annealing, a heat treatment relevant to fusion environments. This achievement, led by principal investigator El Atwani and postdoctoral researcher Matheus Tunes, was recently discussed in the journal Applied Materials Today.

Although these projects represent early-stage technology readiness efforts, further research is essential to validate the materials for use as plasma-facing components or structural nuclear fusion materials. El Atwani emphasized the need for bulk manufacturing of the alloys and additional experiments to advance their qualification. Nevertheless, the comprehensive work accomplished thus far, combining high-throughput simulations with experimental outputs, establishes a materials design protocol that will shape future alloy development and assessment. These remarkable results will guide the selection of materials for advancing the technology readiness level in fusion energy research.

Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory

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