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ILP Institute Insider

May 15, 2018

Industry-ready nuclear solutions

Professor Michael P. Short works to solve the toughest challenges facing the nuclear industry.

Daniel de Wolff

Michael Short is the Norman C. Rasmussen Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has 15 years of research experience in the field of nuclear materials, microstructural characterization, and alloy development. His research in the Mesoscale Nuclear Materials group is a mixture of large-scale experiments, micro/nanoscale characterization, and multiphysics modeling & simulation. He is particularly interested in corrosion in hostile environments, adhesion mechanisms that cause fouling, and the fundamentals of radiation damage.

Prior to joining the MIT faculty, Michael Short earned four separate degrees at the Institute, including an MS in Materials Science and Engineering and a PhD in Nuclear Science and Engineering. Now, as the Norman C. Rasmussen Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and head of the Mesoscale Nuclear Materials Group, he brings his considerable knowledge to bear on revolutionizing his field of choice and solving some of the biggest nuclear challenges of our time. Perhaps just as significant as his breadth and depth of knowledge of materials science and nuclear science, is his drive to rapidly ideate and bring products to market in a timely fashion.

Michael Short
Norman C. Rasmussen Assistant
Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering

He cites his laboratory’s “crud resistant materials” research project as the ideal example of how he likes to run his research group. Crud, in very simple terms, refers to corrosion products in a nuclear reactor that adversely affect nuclear fuel by attaching themselves to the fuel rods, thereby impeding the path of the heat from the rods to the water intended to be heated. These highly unpredictable products negatively impact not only safety and reliability but also the economic bottom line, costing the US nuclear industry US$ 100-500 million annually—and they’ve been doing so almost since the advent of nuclear reactors.

Short, by his own admission, delights in tackling hard-to-solve problems that plague the nuclear industry. His initial research into solving the pervasive crud problem began during his post-doc days, and formed the basis of a high-risk, high-rewards proposal to the Electric Power Research Institute’s (EPRI’s) Polaris Program. Increased funding led to a consortium between MIT; EPRI; Exelon, a utility company; and the Westinghouse Electric Company, a fuel vendor. His research has potentially yielded a breakthrough in the form of a pre-existing theory, the mathematical quirks of which inadvertently described how to make crud-resistant coating. Using this well-known, but unexploited formula, and by tuning the optical properties of coatings to match their surrounding water, not to mention US$ 5 million of purely industrial R&D investment, Short could now be on the verge of solving the 50-year-old crud problem. His technology is scheduled for testing at a commercial plant in 2019.

Short recalls his initial interview prior to joining the faculty at MIT. He was asked by Prof. Neil Todreas not what he intended to study, but rather what he would exclude from his research endeavors. Short responded, “I’m not going to study anything that doesn’t have industry connections in five years.” He explains: “Everything I do, I want to see it get out of my lab and into a product or service within five years.” This five-years-to-market cycle has become a guiding principle of sorts for Short and his fellow researchers in the Short Lab. And while the crud project is currently seven years in the making, he points out that given the usual timeline in the nuclear industry, where projects and innovations can take upwards of 20-30 years to move from the lab to the real world, he’s not wholly dissatisfied with where it stands.

“I’d like to take the sort of innovation speed we’re seeing in the semiconductor industry and bring that to the nuclear industry,” says Short. With that in mind, one of his favorite projects involves non-contact, non-destructive measurement of irradiated material properties. In other words, new ways to rapidly measure radiation damage to materials in a reactor. Rather than using the industry standard cook-and-look approach to measuring damage, Short and his research group developed a modification to an existing technique called transient grating spectroscopy (TGS).

The science builds on the work of Prof. Keith Nelson and Dr. Alex Maznev in MIT’s Department of Chemistry. Short’s technology takes Nelson’s and Maznev’s idea, originally developed for semiconductor thin films, and repurposes it for nuclear materials. By using lasers to excite surface acoustic waves (SAWs) on the test material while firing a beam of protons or ions at it, Short and his team can observe its thermal and elastic properties change as the microstructure changes, during irradiation. And it only takes a day or two to complete the process.

New processes, novel approaches to old and new materials, rapid innovation, a desire for energy security—these are the hallmarks of Michael Short’s research. For example, his work on the quantification of radiation damage by stored energy seeks to measure the damage radiation causes to uranium enrichment centrifuges. “The impact here spans many industries,” says Short. “This isn’t just nuclear power, this [process] has the potential to, among other things, peek into the historical enrichment activities of certain rogue states. We can use this process to see if an enrichment centrifuge has been used to make nuclear weapons, maybe even how many—this could spawn a new industry in nuclear treaty verification.”

Meanwhile, another project has emerged from his senior undergraduate design course, led by the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering Department. Under the joint guidance of Short, Prof. Anne White, Prof. Oral Büyüköztürk, and Dr. Kunal Kupwade-Patil, two undergraduates developed a way to dispose of post-recycled plastics by using radiation to combine them with concrete. The method increases the strength of concrete by 15 percent and turns landfill garbage into useful material. Short points out that concrete is the second most used material in the world after water, and it produces close to 7 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. “If we can replace even 1-2% of that cement with plastic, we can take a huge amount of plastic out of the oceans and landfills and bind it with concrete, while at the same time making the concrete lighter and displacing the excess CO2. We’ll have taken an important step towards solving the plastic waste problem, while simultaneously improving the CO2 problem. All with a little bit of radiation.”

One gets the feeling that Short, had he decided to focus his efforts elsewhere, would be making a similar impression regardless of field or industry. So why nuclear? As strange as it might sound to some, Short says, “I’m in nuclear because I’m an environmentalist. If we can take all that CO2 we’re generating from coal, gas, and other sources, and make that in a clean way, that’s the biggest thing we can do to stop climate change, while providing energy diversity and energy security.”