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September 25, 2012

Did You Know?: Purdue Reactor No. 1

Reactor No. 1

Jere Jenkins, Purdue University Reactor No. 1 facility director. (Mark Simons/Purdue University photo)
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In the basement of Purdue's Electrical Engineering Building exists a curious sight: A 17-foot-deep, well-like structure filled with water and surrounded by equipment that seems straight out of science fiction.

The facility, however, is anything but make-believe. It's the Purdue University Reactor No. 1, or PUR-1, and it's been helping nuclear engineering students understand the intricacies of nuclear fission since 1962.

Located at the bottom of a pool that is 8 feet in diameter, the reactor's core is unimposing; it measures only about 1 foot wide by 1 foot long by 2 feet tall, says Jere Jenkins, PUR-1 facility director. However, because the reactor is built for research purposes and does not generate electricity, that small core will produce low levels of thermal energy indefinitely -- making it an invaluable resource for neutron analysis.

"The knowledge our students gain from working with PUR-1 is similar to the knowledge aviation students gain when they begin flying planes for the first time," Jenkins says.

"Students can only learn so much by studying formulas and textbooks. Putting them in front of our reactor is the best way for them to fully understand how nuclear fission works, just like flying planes is the best way for aviation students to understand how flight works."

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has licensed PUR-1 to produce up to one kilowatt of thermal energy, which is about the energy household toasters or hair driers — or about 10 100-watt light bulbs — typically emit. To produce this energy, the reactor adds neutrons to unstable, radioactive uranium nuclei. These nuclei then break apart and release energy in a process that students can measure and study.

The School of Nuclear Engineering contains about 120 undergraduates and 60 graduate students, and all of them make use of the reactor before graduating, Jenkins says. The reactor is particularly useful to those students who plan careers in the nuclear power industry. Nuclear power plants function much like PUR-1 does, except they produce much more energy. That energy then is used to boil water, which moves turbines and results in electricity generation.

One of 31 non-power-producing reactors in the country, PUR-1 is due for an upgrade soon. This spring, the school received a $1.25 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to replace the reactor's instrumentation and control equipment, which dates to the 1960s. In addition, Jenkins says, the school has requested permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to produce up to 12 kilowatts of thermal energy. A decision is expected next year.

The additional energy output, while still not approaching what would be necessary to generate electricity, would open the door to new areas of nuclear research, Jenkins says. For example, agronomy researchers could irradiate pollen or seeds to study and manipulate gene sequencing.

In addition to its research purposes, the reactor is a powerful learning tool for local high school students, Jenkins says. Each spring, local science classes are invited to spend a day on campus learning about the reactor, participating in neutron analysis and listening to a lecture Jenkins gives.

Jenkins also conducts regular tours of the reactor for local groups, which typically consist of civic organizations and students. Each year, 1,600 to 1,800 visitors tour the reactor's facilities, Jenkins says.

"Having our small nuclear reactor here on Purdue is a huge benefit not only to our students, but also to the surrounding schools and community," Jenkins says.

"We hope that by sharing our resource, we'll be able to introduce the concept of nuclear fission to a whole new generation of young scientists -- and to those who are simply curious about the field of nuclear engineering."

Writer: Amanda Hamon, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu