Fan Zhang

Fan Zhang Receives DOE-NE Distinguished Early Career Award

June 27, 2022
By: Ashley Ritchie

Fan Zhang, assistant professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, has been awarded a Distinguished Early Career Award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy (NE). Zhang’s award of $625,000 over five years will provide support for her to develop a robot-assisted online monitoring and maintenance system for nuclear reactors.

The sustainable and cost-effective deployment, operation, and maintenance of both current light water reactors (LWRs) and advanced reactors has the potential to greatly impact and improve the utilization of nuclear energy. Online monitoring and predictive maintenance techniques have been studied over the decades as means to reduce operations and maintenance costs. However, these techniques have not been widely adopted due to uncertainty in their robustness and real-world data challenges, leaving a significant portion of maintenance still focused around human-centric processes.

Zhang’s goal is to use the dynamic sensing and remote manipulation capabilities of robots to reduce repetitive work and maintenance tasks, especially in harsh environments dangerous or hostile to humans.

“My research will enable a feasible, scalable architecture for both LWRs and advanced reactors to operate safely and more economically while responding to evolving maintenance environments in a more flexible and cost-effective manner,” said Zhang.

To accomplish this, Zhang’s project will integrate a 3D nuclear power plant (NPP) digital twin with data from a pressurized water reactor (PWR) simulator to enable robotic navigation and manipulation research, and will be used to develop algorithms for autonomous fault detection, diagnosis, and risk assessment integrating robot assistance.

Zhang joined the Woodruff School in July, 2021 and is one of five extraordinary faculty members selected to receive more than $3.1 million through the DOE’s newly established Distinguished Early Career Program (DECP). In addition to Zhang, assistant professor Shaheen Dewji will serve as co-PI on a project entitled, “Nuclear Material Accountancy During Disposal and Reprocessing of Molten Salt Reactor Fuel Salts,” with Stephen Raiman of Texas A&M.

DECP aims to recognize distinguished researchers at the pivotal initial stage of their careers and to support high-impact contributions to nuclear energy research, innovation, discovery, leadership, and dissemination of knowledge.