Q&A on the nuclear defence industry

Materials World magazine
3 Oct 2016

Rhiannon Garth Jones speaks to Ewan Galloway about working in the nuclear defence industry. 

Tell me a bit about your background.

I had a strong interest and ability in chemistry and physics from my secondary education and, as a result, I decided to combine the two by studying a Chemical Physics MSci at the University of Glasgow, UK, from 2001-2005. I enjoyed my final year project in the surface science of chiral modifiers and their application in heterogeneous catalysis but, for my next career step, I was fairly open to either employment or doing a PhD. I remember having a discussion with my supervisor at the time on what to do next. He suggested I should apply to the University of Cambridge, UK, to study catalysis and surface science further. I did, and was very happy to accept a PhD position there. 

My PhD investigations were into the heterogeneous catalysis of platinum intermetallic compounds (such as PtZn), in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, Germany, and how tuning their composition and surface chemistry could promote desirable hydrogenation properties of small unsaturated aldehydes. The techniques involved were a mixture of surface science and micro-reactor catalytic testing. Overall, my education afforded me excellent experiences in a range of disciplines and I worked with some very dedicated people.

How did you get into the nuclear industry? 

I was looking for a career with hands-on physical chemistry research in a medium-to-large sized
company after my PhD. The nuclear industry suited me, as the focus was very much on the fundamental chemistry because confidence in material behaviour is at the heart of the nuclear industry. An opportunity at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) was advertised to investigate the surface science of materials in a range of gaseous compositions and, although this was primarily about material corrosion, it fitted well with my background in surface science and heterogeneous catalysis.

What has been your most interesting career experience? 

I worked on a project to deliver surface science instrumentation to AWE (see Materials World, October 2015, page 38) for many years. The experience of working on a project with experts in other disciplines such as engineering, electrical, safety and control and instrumentation was fantastic for my understanding on how large, complex projects get completed and the broad range of knowledge and skills required. 

Once the instrumentation was delivered, I was the lead scientist involved in its site-acceptance testing and setting it to work, which was fulfilling. However, subsequently my colleagues and I have been acquiring interesting data and results, which we are in the process of publishing in academic literature. That process of taking the project to the design and testing stages, then using the instrumentation to acquire the data AWE needs has been very enjoyable and I have learned a lot.

What are you working on now?

I am working with my colleagues on the surface chemistry of uranium using the surface science instrument. The objective is to investigate and predict the corrosion properties of these materials to further our understanding. We have also performed analysis on materials to assist physicists at AWE – for example, to investigate the surface composition of aluminium and tantalum metal foils, that are used as targets by AWE's Orion laser facility in order to generate plasmas. The Orion laser is a high energy density physics experimental facility and is one of the biggest capital science projects in the UK in the last 25 years. 

Our detailed analysis of the surface composition of the laser targets enabled the physicists to understand sources of error in previous plasma models, because of inaccurate plasma composition (generated from the target surface). I think this was an excellent example of how collaboration across different scientific disciplines can lead to new knowledge.

What do you think are the main challenges in the nuclear sector currently?

I think the prominent challenges for materials lie in the civil fusion sector, as fusion puts such strain and wear on surrounding materials through its heat, plasma (and its containment) and radiation. It is extremely challenging to find materials to perform all these tasks, and that are compatible with that environment and each other. The other aspect of materials science in the nuclear industry is to ‘move away from’ or reduce the use of the most toxic materials or processes by using more efficient and benign materials or manufacturing processes. 

What is needed to address these challenges? 

Engineering, scientists from numerous backgrounds, a spirit of collaboration and, of course, money are all required – like most modern scientific challenges. Companies or people working in isolation with these problems won’t succeed.

In which area would you most like to see more R&D?

I think for advanced economies like the UK, materials science has to look at fast and efficient routes to high-performance materials and components to maintain a competitive edge but also to reduce energy consumption and waste. With this strategy, additive manufacture is very appealing from the perspectives of investment, productivity and the environment.

More generally, any technology (nuclear or renewable) and materials that have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren’t prioritised by society highly enough, in my opinion.

For further information about AWE, visit www.awe.co.uk/careers