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Students Awarded Prestigious Idaho National Lab Fellowships

By: Cienna Madrid   Published 9:04 am / October 2, 2017

Rahul Reddy Kancharla

Boise State University doctoral students Kiyo Fujimoto and Rahul Reddy Kancharla are two of only 11 students selected to participate in a new competitive graduate program offered by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). 

The recipients of INL’s Graduate Fellowship Program will have their university tuition and fees covered during the last two years of their doctoral research, plus a $60,000 annual salary paid by INL for their work at the lab. Fujimoto is embedded in Boise State’s Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering while Kancharla is conducting his graduate work within the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Graduate students Kiyo and Rahul before MIT's nuclear reactor.

INL engineer Troy Unruh, left, and Kiyo Fujimoto stand in front of MIT’s nuclear reactor.

“Kiyo Fuijimoto is most deserving of this prestigious award,” said Dave Estrada, an assistant professor with the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering who oversees Fujimoto’s doctoral research. “I believe her success comes as no surprise to those who know and work with Ms. Fujimoto. She is an excellent researcher who has taken a lead on the Boise State campus to establish additive manufacturing as a method to develop advanced sensors for extreme environments.”

Fujimoto’s research focuses on additive manufacturing techniques – like those used in aerosol jet printing – to develop advanced in-pile nuclear sensors.

“Aerosol jet printing has the ability to integrate components directly onto physical packaging with printing features as small as 10 µm,” she explained. “These sizes would be advantageous within the nuclear industry because of the reduction in design space and/or radiation shielding requirements that are difficult to achieve with traditional fabrication methods used in nuclear instrumentation. The successful integration of additive manufacturing techniques for sensor fabrication stands to enhance sensing capabilities within the reactor, which will ultimately increase the safety and efficiency of nuclear energy.”

“The INL graduate fellowship program will enable Kiyo to rapidly tie her Boise State Ph.D. research into national research programs that are closely aligned with innovative nuclear energy solutions,” said Troy Unruh, an instrumentation engineer at INL’s High Temperature Test Laboratory. Unruh also will be working with Fujimoto on her research. “Kiyo’s focus in advanced manufacturing techniques for use in nuclear instrumentation is an exciting field of research that is expected to make significant impact in characterizing the performance of the next generation of nuclear fuels and materials. We look forward to having Kiyo working in the laboratory alongside other researchers at INL.”

Meanwhile, Kancharla’s research project involves two separate, but interrelated tasks to increase the efficiency of producing biofuel from corn-stover – corn stalks, leaves and cobs – through the use of advanced image processing and analysis.

“Taking away all the stover in the field can lead to more severe water and wind erosion,” Kancharla explained. “As a part of my thesis, I am using image processing techniques to design a model which can estimate the amount of stover required on the field to avoid soil erosion and can increase the ethanol production.”

Corn stover can be used to produce fuel-related products; it is one of the primary biomass sources used in the United States for cellulosic ethanol.

“My research includes increasing biomass quantity from corn-stover which can increase the ethanol production that can reduce the petroleum imports,” he added. “By applying theory into practice, this fellowship helps me to increase the proficiency in the field of image processing and also helps to gain work experience and professional development.”

“I think that it is an interesting problem and I’m very excited that we will be working with INL on this project,” said Kancharla’s thesis advisor, professor of electrical engineering Elisa Barney Smith.

In the first years of their doctoral program, graduate fellows will spend most of their time taking classes at their university. That balance will shift in the last years of their doctoral programs, at which point Fujimoto, Kancharla will spend the majority of their time at INL conducting research. The typical graduate fellow program runs between three and five years.

There are mutual benefits for the graduate fellows, universities and the lab. Throughout the program, the graduate fellows will interact and collaborate with both their INL mentor and their university thesis adviser.

“The INL Graduate Fellowship will provide me first-hand experience working at the nation’s lead nuclear energy research laboratory,” Fujimoto said. “My professional growth will be exponential as I am able to gain knowledge and experience with equipment and expertise that is not available here at Boise State. The university does not have a nuclear engineering department; however, Boise State will provide me with the education necessary to develop a firm foundation in the science of materials and specific characterization techniques that I may leverage to help solve nuclear energy challenges. With this collaboration my graduate experience will be one-of-a-kind.”

The program allows INL to integrate students into the laboratory and provides graduate fellows with work on significant projects that will help them fulfill their thesis research requirements. INL gains access to skilled staff, along with the opportunity to build long-term collaborations with universities, increase recruiting opportunities, and interact with a continuous pipeline of students interning and conducting research at the lab. Both the university and INL have the opportunity for joint publications and intellectual property.

“This program presents an excellent opportunity for everyone involved,” said Kelly Beierschmitt, INL’s deputy laboratory director for science and technology and chief research officer. “Students receive quality education and an invaluable research experience. Additionally, INL strengthens its partnerships with universities while continuing to develop the next generation of engineers, researchers, scientists, and leaders.”

Graduate fellows were selected in degree fields that closely tie to INL’s three mission areas of innovative nuclear energy solutions, other clean energy options and critical infrastructure.

The next call for graduate fellows will open in fall 2017 and will be available to all universities. An announcement of recipients for the second round of INL Graduate Fellows is expected in spring 2018. For more information about the program, contact Ali Josephson at (208) 526-0940 or Michelle Thiel Bingham at (208) 526-7830.

INL is one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories. The laboratory performs work in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and environment. INL is the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development. Day-to-day management and operation of the laboratory is the responsibility of Battelle Energy Alliance.