Some nuclear scientists specialize strictly in developing better fuels. Others focus on improving structural materials, such as steel, that make up the guts of a reactor.
Jian Gan, 56, has made his Idaho National Laboratory career with big breakthroughs in both worlds. Earlier this month his 14-year track record at INL landed him the lab’s prestigious Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award.
“I use knowledge from both sides, and combine it together,” Gan said in a Thursday interview. “(I) have a clear understanding of, ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘What’re the challenges here?’ And then (I) design something unique and applicable to this environment.”
Gan took an interesting path to the lab. He grew up in Shanghai and graduated from a top school, Fudan University, with a degree in physics. He was hired to teach physics at the school, a position he held for eight years. But at 30, he was ready to move on, and the U.S. became the obvious destination.
“I came to the United States because I realized I need to fully develop,” Gan said. “I see the people around me, and I think maybe there’s not lots of chances for me to grow. And I know all the smart scientists and engineers are here in this country.”
That growth came with a master’s in physics from Central Michigan University, then a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan, where he developed his expertise in fuels. He was almost 40 by the time he graduated, but the payoff was clear: “I didn’t look for a job, they looked for me.”
Indeed, after a short stint at a different laboratory, INL recruiters soon came calling.
Gan spends most of his days conducting research at the Electron Microscopy Lab, located at the Materials and Fuels Complex west of Idaho Falls. He often works with massive, $2 million microscopes that can examine tiny specimens of irradiated nuclear fuel down to the atomic level.
“Twenty years ago, people working in nuclear fuel development — everyone wanted to have the information we’re looking for today,” he said. “But at that time, it could only be a dream, because technically it was too hard to get this information.”
For one recent project, Gan investigated the internal structure of a type of nuclear fuel known as u-moly — low-enrichment fuel made up of both uranium and molybdenum. He found the “superstructure” of the fuel makes it ideal for use in small university research reactors, or for isotope production for cancer treatments. Little bubbles formed in the fuel in a “very orderly way, not out of control.”
“You can see how the nuclear fuel began as a piece of solid, and at the end it looks like a piece of sponge,” Gan said.
In another project, Gan has been working to develop a fiber-optic sensor that could take exact temperature measurements inside a reactor. Such a sensor, he hopes, will help conduct more precise experiments on new types of reactor fuels and materials that are conducted at INL’s Advanced Test Reactor.
Gan also is researching the materials that need to be used to construct the next generation of nuclear reactors, some of which will operate at extremely high temperatures.
“We try to explore new materials, because you want to push the temperature so high,” Gan said. “When you want to push a reactor up to 800 degrees Celsius, or higher, you don’t have a choice to use metal. You have to use ceramic.”
Mitch Meyer, one of Gan’s colleagues at the Materials and Fuels Complex, said he’s watched Gan put his unusually wide area of expertise to work on many of the lab’s most “instrumental” scientific contributions.
“Over the course of his career, Jian has applied his broad knowledge to help improve the performance of fuels and material systems,” Meyer said in an email. “We’re lucky to have him on our team.”
When Gan returns to Shanghai each year, he tells people he now lives in a city of about 50,000 people. They tell him Idaho Falls sounds like a “small village.” But Gan said he’s come to love it in eastern Idaho. He begins feeling anxious to return when he spends more than a week or two in the city of more than 20 million.
“I enjoy working in this environment, and I’ve enjoyed the work at INL, and it’s given me lots of opportunity,” he said. “And I still have a strong interest to develop the new knowledge, the new product.”
Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth