Transforming nuclear materials for a greener future


Transforming nuclear materials for a greener future

The Gazette sits down with Yanwen Zhang, the second Canada Excellence Research Chair to join Queen’s this spring.

By Justine Pineau, Coordinator, Strategic Initiatives

March 15, 2024


Dr. Yanwen Zhang

Dr. Zhang will join the university as the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Impact of Radiation in Energy and Advanced Technologies.

Amidst the global push for climate action, the spotlight intensifies on nuclear energy as a pivotal player in the low-carbon revolution. Canada and Ontario, already relying significantly on nuclear power, face an escalating demand for expansion, amplifying the urgency for innovative solutions to address the stress on existing systems and propel new developments in the nuclear energy sector.

Yanwen Zhang, a globally renowned nuclear materials scientist, has been appointed as the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Impact of Radiation in Energy and Advanced Technologies and will join the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Smith Engineering in May. Her chair, valued at $8 million over eight years, will fuel research that has the potential to enhance the efficiency, reliability, safety, and cost-effectiveness of nuclear energy systems, making a significant impact on multiple sectors and advancing Canada’s and Queen’s international expertise in materials research and innovation.

The Queen’s Gazette had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Zhang about her ground-breaking research.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What does it mean to be named a CERC?

YZ: I am very excited and grateful to have received this chair position. For me, it signifies more than just academic recognition—it signifies a commitment from Canada and Queen’s to advance knowledge and drive innovation through research and collaboration.

Queen’s is already home to a dedicated group of nuclear material researchers who focus on researching advanced reactors and nuclear waste storage, including two University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering (UNENE) Research Chairs. This is the perfect environment for me to join. Given my expertise in materials science, being part of this team will allow me to significantly contribute to the fundamental understanding of radiation effects and their impact on energy and advanced nuclear technologies.

Being named a CERC and moving my program to Canada from the United States will also open new doors —opportunities to make meaningful contributions, forge lasting partnerships, and inspire future leaders in the field.

Can you tell me about your research program?

YZ: For nearly three decades, I have dedicated my work to understanding the performance of materials, including defect dynamics and radiation effects, particularly under conditions of high stress, temperature, and extreme radiation exposure, like in a nuclear reactor. We do this to understand three things: to explain the mechanisms governing radiation-induced material breakdown, to develop predictive models for material behaviour under extreme conditions, and, finally, to contribute to the design of more resilient and durable materials for use in energy production and advanced technologies.

Understanding why materials deteriorate in radiation environments allows us to manipulate and improve them. Concepts like “material by design” have been discussed in the community, emphasizing tailoring materials to specific needs. With the accumulation of knowledge, computational power, and advancements in AI and machine learning, now is the opportune time to take significant strides forward.

This work is a deep-dive into the interactions between energetic particles (neutrons, ions, and electrons) and materials. Its impact spans a broad range of applications beyond nuclear, such as device fabrication, space exploration, defect engineering (regulating material defects), and the modification of ion-beams, which are used to reinforce material properties.

There’s also the potential to play a crucial role in Canada’s transition to low-carbon energy. Nuclear reactor energy systems offer cost reductions, improved thermal efficiency, and enhanced safety compared to traditional nuclear power plants.  

How does your research differ from traditional approaches to materials testing?

YZ: My research takes a bit of a different approach: I often strive to think outside the box for a broader understanding of the big picture.

While traditional approaches often rely on trial-and-error methods and the study of macroscopic properties, my research uncovers the atomic-scale and electronic-level mechanisms at play. This enables us to better grasp the effects of radiation on materials at their most fundamental level, thereby facilitating reliable predictions about their performance in the future and under different stressors.

Over time, I’ve developed a skillset for identifying connections between seemingly unrelated concepts and observations. My background is in nuclear physics and my research is interdisciplinary. It is dedicated to piecing together these connections to form a comprehensive understanding of radiation effects and material degradation. Sometimes, we must move beyond incremental improvements and explore entirely new approaches, guiding the design of radiation-resistant materials from the ground up.

Dr. Zhang’s research seeks to predict the degradation of alloys in the high-intensity environments of nuclear reactors.

Dr. Zhang’s research seeks to predict the degradation of alloys in the high-intensity environments of nuclear reactors.

Given the global emphasis on transitioning to a low-carbon future, how do you see your research contributing to this broader sustainability goal?

YZ: Nuclear energy currently stands as a cornerstone of the low-carbon energy landscape due to its markedly low greenhouse gas emissions, compared to traditional fossil fuels. With nuclear reactor systems supporting approximately 15 per cent of Canada’s energy production and contributing up to 60 per cent in Ontario alone, we must strengthen the resilience and durability of materials used in these facilities.

As mentioned, a key focus of my research is the effects of radiation on materials, paving the way for the development of more resilient reactor components. This not only extends the operational efficiency and lifespan of nuclear reactors but also aims to maximize energy output from existing infrastructure. By reducing the need for new construction and minimizing the likelihood of accidents or premature reactor decommissioning, our efforts can hopefully enhance the overall operational efficiency of the Canadian nuclear sector.

Investigating how radiation affects materials also involves some serious technological upgrades. Through the design of advanced materials with enhanced radiation resistance, safety, performance, and durability, the CERC research can support the creation of next-generation nuclear reactors, including small modular reactors or SMRs, which could position Canada as a leader in cutting-edge materials research and engineering. Additionally, the Canadian nuclear industry plays a pivotal role in sustainable development, providing reliable, low-carbon energy while fostering economic growth and job creation. Our research helps to ensure the long-term viability of nuclear energy as a sustainable energy source – a commitment that aligns with Canada’s climate goals and supports the global move towards a greener energy future.

Your work will involve collaboration with academic partners, national labs, nuclear industry stakeholders and researchers from various countries. How do these collaborations enhance the scope and impact of your research program?

YZ: Collaboration lies at the core of research – it fosters the exchange of ideas, validates research findings, expedites the translation of scientific discoveries into practical applications, and in doing so, maximizes the research’s real-world impact.

Academic partnerships provide access to a diverse range of expertise and resources, while engagement with national labs grants us access to state-of-the-art facilities and tools that may not be available elsewhere. These partnerships enable specific experimental work, empowering researchers to refine theoretical models, drive high-impact research outcomes, and foster technological innovation.
Collaboration with nuclear industry stakeholders ensures our research remains aligned with real-world challenges and priorities, enhancing its relevance and efficacy. By actively involving industry partners, the research program can address industry-specific needs and contribute directly to advancements in nuclear technology and safety protocols. 

By connecting with researchers from various countries, we gain access to diverse perspectives, cultural insights, and complementary expertise. International collaborations also promote knowledge sharing and capacity building, fostering a global community of researchers dedicated to addressing common scientific challenges.

What are you most excited about in coming to Queen’s and moving to Canada? 

YZ: The CERC appointment represents a significant milestone in my academic journey. I’m interested in learning about the research culture at Queen’s and in Canada, eager to immerse myself in the unique environment and contribute to the academic community. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone presents valuable opportunities for growth and I find the prospect of new experiences and challenges very exciting. I see my move to Canada as a wonderful opportunity to further enrich my understanding of global research practices and perspectives while hopefully adding a little something to the country’s scientific and tech scene. 

Having spent almost 8 years in Sweden and over 20 years in the US, I’ve been fortunate to experience and appreciate diverse academic and cultural environments in both countries. This CERC also presents opportunities that extend beyond research. Engaging closely with students, graduates, and early career researchers is another aspect that excites me. I enjoy being collaborative and solving problems – it not only fulfills me but also allows me to guide students from the very beginning, teaching them practical skills not always found in textbooks. 

At this stage in my career, I feel equipped to mentor the next generation, and want to engage with students more actively – to understand their needs and help them adapt to the ever-evolving educational landscape.

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