This is a question that has puzzled scientists for a century. But, buoyed by a $625,000 US Department of Energy (DoE) Early Career Distinguished Service Award, Matteo Bucci, assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), is hoping to get closer to an answer.
Whether you’re heating a pot of water for pasta or designing a nuclear reactor, one phenomenon—boiling—is critical to both processes efficiently.
“Boiling is a very efficient heat transfer mechanism; this is how a large amount of heat is removed from the surface, which is why it is used in many high power density applications,” said Bucci. Usage example: nuclear reactor.
For the uninitiated, boiling looks simple – bubbles are formed that burst, removing heat. But what if so many bubbles formed and coalesced, creating a streak of steam that prevented further heat transfer? Such a problem is a well-known entity known as the boiling crisis. This would lead to thermal runaway and failure of the fuel rods in the nuclear reactor. Therefore, “understanding and identifying the conditions under which a boiling crisis can occur is critical to developing more efficient and cost-competitive nuclear reactors,” Butch said.
Early writings on the simmering crisis date back almost a century before 1926. While a lot of work has been done, “it’s clear that we haven’t found an answer,” Bucci said. Boiling crises remain a problem because, despite the abundance of models, it is difficult to measure the relevant phenomena in order to prove or disprove them. “[Boiling] is a process that happens on a very, very small scale and over a very, very short period of time,” Bucci said. “We can’t watch it with the level of detail needed to understand what’s really going on and test hypotheses.”
But over the past few years, Bucci and his team have been developing diagnostics that can measure boiling-related phenomena and provide a much-needed answer to a classic question. Diagnosis is based on infrared temperature measurement methods using visible light. “By combining these two technologies, I think we will be ready to answer the long-term heat transfer questions and be able to climb out of the rabbit hole,” said Bucci. U.S. Department of Energy grants from the Nuclear Power Program will help this study and Bucci’s other research efforts.
For Bucci, who grew up in Citta di Castello, a small town near Florence, Italy, solving puzzles is nothing new. Butch’s mother was an elementary school teacher. His father had a machine shop that furthered Bucci’s scientific hobby. “I was a big fan of Lego as a kid. It was passion,” he added.
Although Italy experienced a severe decline in nuclear power during its formative years, the topic fascinated Bucci. Job opportunities in the field were uncertain, but Bucci decided to dig deeper. “If I have to do something for the rest of my life, it’s not as good as I would like,” he joked. Bucci studied nuclear engineering undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Pisa.
His interest in heat transfer mechanisms was rooted in his doctoral research, which he worked on at the French Commission for Alternative Energy and Atomic Energy (CEA) in Paris. There, a colleague suggested working on the boiling water crisis. This time, Bucci set his sights on MIT’s NSE and contacted Professor Jacopo Buongiorno to inquire about the institute’s research. Bucci had to raise funds at CEA for research at MIT. He arrived with a round-trip ticket days before the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. But since then Bucci has stayed there, becoming a research scientist and then an assistant professor at the NSE.
Bucci admits he had a hard time adjusting to his environment when he first enrolled at MIT, but work and friendships with colleagues — he considers NSE’s Guanyu Su and Reza Azizyan to be his best friends — helped overcome early misgivings.
In addition to boil diagnostics, Bucci and his team are also working on ways to combine artificial intelligence with experimental research. He firmly believes that “the integration of advanced diagnostics, machine learning and advanced modeling tools will bear fruit within a decade.”
Bucci’s team is developing a self-contained laboratory to conduct boiling heat transfer experiments. Powered by machine learning, the setup decides which experiments to run based on the learning objectives set by the team. “We are asking a question that the machine will answer by optimizing the kinds of experiments needed to answer those questions,” Bucci said. “I honestly think this is the next frontier that is simmering.”
“When you climb a tree and get to the top, you realize that the horizon is wider and more beautiful,” Butch said of his enthusiasm for further research in this area.
Even striving for new heights, Bucci has not forgotten where he comes from. To commemorate Italy’s hosting of the 1990 FIFA World Cup, a series of posters show the football stadium inside the Colosseum, taking pride of place in his home and office. These posters, created by Alberto Burri, have sentimental value: the Italian artist (now deceased) was also from Bucci’s hometown, Citta di Castello.
Post time: Aug-10-2022