Heng Ban Discusses Opportunities in the Global Nuclear Industry

The nuclear industry in the U.S. is at a crossroads, as several plants are scheduled for permanent shutdown, including three in Pennsylvania, the second-largest nuclear energy-producing state. However, Heng Ban, director of the Swanson School’s Stephen R. Tritch Nuclear Engineering Program, sees opportunity ahead for students, alumni and faculty researchers.

Dr. Ban joined Pitt in 2017 from Utah State University (USU), where he served as a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and founding Director of the Center for Thermohydraulics and Material Properties. In addition to continuing to serve as principal investigator on a fuel safety research program at USU, he holds a research portfolio of nearly $1 million per year in nuclear-related research. He believes that Pittsburgh’s nuclear history – and Pitt’s distinctive program – allow the Swanson School to better compete in a global energy industry.

“Nuclear energy is one of the cleanest power resources and is a vital component not only of our nation’s energy portfolio, but also the U.S. naval nuclear fleet and several countries around the world. Research is ongoing into additive manufacturing of nuclear components, smaller reactor systems as well as sensors and controls for reactor safety and machine learning for facility maintenance,” Dr. Ban says. 

“Pittsburgh was the birthplace of the nuclear energy industry,” Dr. Ban notes. “The first peacetime nuclear reactor was built near here in Shippingport, and the first nuclear submarine engine was developed at the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin. Those current and former employees have such a combined wealth of knowledge about the industry, and are a unique feature of our curriculum.

Dr. Ban adds that since many of those engineers are nearing retirement, there is a great need for a new generation of nuclear employees.

“From Bettis, Westinghouse, Bechtel Marine and so many other in the supply chain, employers are telling us not only that they need engineers, but are helping us structure the curriculum so that we educate the best engineer for the field.”

And the research that students engage in spans the nuclear industry. For example, Dr. Ban’s research includes a large project with participation of Westinghouse, GE, Framatome, several universities and the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory on fuel safety and advanced sensor systems for a next-generation sodium-cooled test reactor in Idaho; Professors Albert To and Wei Xiong are working industry to optimize designs of 3-D printing of nuclear parts, Professor Jeffrey Vipperman is studying vibration detection while Kevin Chen is developing optical fiber sensors for reactor environments; Sangyeop Lee is focused on molecular dynamics computational studies for molten salt reactors, Daniel Cole is working with Rolls-Royce on nuclear plant operation using machine learning; and Katherine Hornbostel is developing system analysis tools.  

“As long as nuclear energy remains a reliable, clean, efficient and safe energy resource, we will have a greater need for the engineers who can be competitive in the global nuclear energy marketplace, as well as who can develop the next ground-breaking technologies,” Dr. Ban says. “And the Swanson School is at the nexus of this industry that is a critical part of our national safety, from power generation to defense, and a major contributor to reducing carbon emissions worldwide.”

Written by Paul Kovach.

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