Queen’s goes nuclear

New Reactor Materials Testing Lab brings research potential

Mark Daymond explains the inner components of an accelerator.
Mark Daymond explains the inner components of an accelerator.
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Queen’s has flipped the “on” switch for its newest laboratory, with hopes to create unprecedented opportunities in nuclear research for both undergraduate and graduate students. 

On the morning of Sept. 1, the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science formally opened its Reactor Materials Testing Laboratory (RMTL).

The RMTL brings Queen’s to the forefront of current scientific research in the nuclear field, according to Mark Daymond, NSERC/UNENE Industrial Research Chair in Nuclear Materials and Canadian Research Chair in Mechanics of Materials.

“[We] have something that’s cutting edge, internationally,” he said. “We’re expecting people from the US and from Europe to be coming here to conduct experiments. It’s also an opportunity for undergraduates to work with thesis projects, [and get] involved with research.”

The $17-million facility — funded in part by a $6.9 million contribution from the Canada Foundation for Innovation — will develop and refine nuclear power sources for the Canadian industry. 

The facility is located at Grant Timmins Dr., which is 35 minutes from main campus by bus. Daymond said the trek could take up to an hour and a half depending on the route.

Rick Holt, the previous NSERC/UNENE Industrial Research Chair in Nuclear Materials, originally spearheaded the project. After Holt retired in 2012, Daymond took over to lead the RMTL.

According to Daymond, while there are a handful of similar labs across Canada, there are “none quite like this”. 

He says the aim of the facility is a key differentiator. The Queen’s facility will let researchers  study the interactions of materials and the stresses they are placed under, rather than only irradiating material and making observations afterwards. 

“Rather than irradiating the material and then looking at it, we’re looking at the interactions,” Daymond said. “So, irradiation plus stress, plus temperature, or plus a corrosion environment.” 

The RMTL operates using an accelerator rather than a reactor, which uses protons rather than neutrons for experiments. Daymond said the choice gives the researchers more control over variables. 

“From an experimental point of view, you can really control the conditions,” he said. These conditions include the flux — the number of particles hitting the sample — as well as temperature and stress. 

“You can’t do that with a nuclear reactor,” Daymond said. 

While accelerators run a lower risk of radiation than reactors, the construction of the facility required approval by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. 

“Accelerators are inherently potentially dangerous,” Daymond said. “It’s high voltage. We can produce radiation, so we have to be cautious.”

However, he added that a person is more at risk of radiation while “taking a transatlantic flight” than working in the lab.

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