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Years from now, when scientists and engineers have finally developed the perfect structure to use fusion to produce energy, Gregory Van Volkenburg ’07 (Erie, Pa.) might be able to say he had a hand in it.

The chemical engineering major is helping to conduct experiments on a metal alloy, which could turn out to be the optimal material to construct plumbing components and the first wall of a fusion reactor.

Working with Mehmet Uz, professor of chemical engineering, Van Volkenburg is determining the effects of oxidizing, or corroding, vanadium, chromium, and titanium alloys.

“Fusion could be a great energy source in the future and what we’re doing could benefit that process,” says Van Volkenburg, a member of the swimming and diving team.

Van Volkenburg and Uz are working together through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

In several regions world wide, scientists are working with different metal alloys to determine their individual characteristics, Uz says.

“People pick materials based on the properties of those materials,” he says. “For example, you wouldn’t pick Tupperware to cook something on your stove. People who are designing the fusion reaction concept have come out with certain base criteria (for the materials).”

His work with Van Volkenburg provides designers data about vanadium, chromium, and titanium alloys that will be helpful in making a design decision about a reactor.

“This alloy is compatible with liquid lithium and its properties don’t deteriorate while exposed to fusion products such as helium and other neutron bombardments,” says Uz, who has been researching potential fusion reactor materials since 1995. The pair also is researching how the vanadium alloys react when exposed to oxidation, specifically to a calcium oxide compound.

While most people view corrosion as a bad thing, such as rust forming on the steel of a car, oxidation on this metal could enhance the alloy and make it better suited to the reactor by making it stronger, nonporous, and more resistant to heat, says Uz. The pair’s experiments in a small furnace that Van Volkenburg helped build are giving them insight into that possibility.

Van Volkenburg says he is challenged by the tremendous amount of information he needs to absorb about the specific alloy and oxidation process.

“Catching up to Professor Uz is hard; he’s pretty advanced in his research in this area,” he admits.

While he says it’s been a bit mind-boggling to immerse himself in the texts and journals about the research, it has opened his eyes to many areas of chemical engineering he never encountered before.

“I’m not necessarily going to go into this field, but I think studying it introduces me to a lot of different things,” says Van Volkenburg, a math minor.

While Uz hopes Van Volkenburg continues studying fusion reactor materials, regardless, the project is providing the student a valuable taste of intensive research.

“It gives students another option,” Uz says of EXCEL research. “It not only broadens their horizons as far as the topics or areas available, it helps them have some feel of whether they like research.”

Uz chose Van Volkenburg as his research assistant for several reasons.

“I’ve known Greg for a while; he is one of my advisees,” he says. “He took appropriate courses, including one on the nature of engineering materials, and one on corrosion and corrosion prevention, which are helpful in this project.”

Van Volkenburg is finding that class work is just a small part of lifelong learning.

“I took a class [with Professor Uz] in which there were equations I learned as regular homework,” he says. “In our research, I’m using the same equations, but applying them to real world stuff. To see the actual equations I learned in school being put to use is neat.”

“I think if you’re going to make an impact in the future and be around in the field for an amount of time, you’re going to have to learn for the rest of your life to keep up with the technology,” he adds.

Van Volkenburg specializes in the backstroke and freestyle on the swimming and diving team. He graduated from Cathedral Preparatory High School.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News