2019 | A Year in Review

Below, you will learn about INL’s national and regional leadership, scientific and technical contributions, notable collaborations, growing capabilities, expanding areas of expertise, and how the Laboratory’s commitment to excellence positively impacts lives in the United States and around the world.  

None of this happens without a passionate, talented, and dedicated staff. INL’s biggest asset – our people – is the reason 2019 was such a great year for the Laboratory and why we have so many positive outcomes to detail. Throughout 2019, we celebrated 70 years of achievement at INL. But even as we honor our past, and our predecessors’ important clean energy and national security work, all of us at INL are determined to continue moving forward. 

Our goal is that INL remain at the forefront of resolving the world’s most pressing energy and security challenges, today and into the future. 

Read the full 2019 Research & Development Impacts publication.

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National Leadership 

Fostering nuclear energy innovation 

A key provision of the 2018 Nuclear Energy Innovation Capability Act, required DOE to establish a National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) so the world-class national laboratory system could assist with development of advanced nuclear energy technologies. INL was chosen to lead NRIC, which will provide private developers with the support they need to test and demonstrate new reactor concepts and assess performance. As a result, NRIC will help accelerate the licensing and commercialization of new nuclear energy systems.  

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Leading fast reactor effort 

In 2019, DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy announced plans to build a Versatile Test Reactor (VTR). INL is leading those efforts and is one of the sites under consideration. 

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Building industry alliances 

The Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative is now in its fifth year supporting private-public partnerships. The highly impactful GAIN NE Voucher Program, which awarded 14 vouchers in FY 2019 to innovative nuclear energy companies, builds enduring technical relationships between laboratories and industry. 

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Helping industry innovate 

Three utilities — Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Solutions, Xcel Energy of Minneapolis, and Arizona Public Service of Phoenix — will work with INL to roll out projects demonstrating technology for making hydrogen from water on an industrial scale. If successful, the result will be hydrogen produced without carbon emissions and a new revenue stream for the utilities. 

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Optimizing resiliency 

With impacts from natural disasters and human-caused incidents on the rise, resiliency – the ability to withstand impacts and rapidly recover from different degrees of disruption – has become a top priority. The INL Resilience Optimization Center (IROC), an innovation center for system resilience and risk management, draws from INL’s extensive track record as a world leader in critical infrastructure systems analysis and security, as well as its large-scale test ranges. 

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Fostering 5G 

Fifth-generation wireless technology, commonly referred to as 5G, promises to deliver a technology revolution in wireless communication. As 5G moves forward, a national challenge will emerge to develop and validate 5G security protocols and data protection technologies. The new INL Wireless Security Institute will lead and coordinate government, academic and private industry research efforts fostering more secure and reliable 5G wireless technology. 

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Growing Capabilities 

Expanding collaboration and employment opportunities for Idaho university students  

In an effort by the State of Idaho and INL to expand collaboration and employment opportunities for university students two important new buildings opened their doors in 2019 –  the Cybercore Integration Center (CIC) and the Collaborative Computing Center (C3)

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High-performance computing 

A powerful new supercomputer arrived in Dec. 2019 at Idaho National Laboratory’s Collaborative Computing Center. The machine has the power to run complex modeling and simulation applications, which are essential to developing next-generation nuclear technologies. 

Named after a central Idaho mountain range, Sawtooth will be available to users early next year. The $19.2 million system ranks #37 on the 2019 Top 500 fastest supercomputers in the world. That is the highest ranking reached by an INL supercomputer. 

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Seeing fuel damage in 3D 

Similar to how automobile engineers crash test cars, nuclear researchers test new fuels, materials and sensors by intentionally damaging them with neutron bombardment inside a test reactor. Learn more: https://inl.gov/article/digital-ct-scans-assess-damage-to-nuclear-fuel/ 

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Testing commercial fuel 

The State of Idaho and DOE signed a Supplemental Agreement to the 1995 Idaho Settlement Agreement that reaffirms their commitment to remove waste and special nuclear materials from the state while supporting INL’s ability to meet its nuclear energy research and development mission. The 2019 agreement allows INL to receive 25 used nuclear fuel rods from the Byron Nuclear Generating Station to complete fuel research and development. 

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Technology Innovation & Deployment 

Leading microreactor work 

INL is working with Alaska, the Defense Department and private industry to develop and demonstrate microreactors, small nuclear reactors that could be built in a factory and transported in a shipping container to just about anywhere in the world. 

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Measuring core temperatures 

Tomorrow’s nuclear plants will generate high heat for advanced manufacturing, hydrogen production and desalination. As a result, critical temperatures, such as those within the protective fuel cladding, must be measured accurately and reliably. 

INL’s High-Temperature Irradiation Resistant Thermocouples (HTIR-TC) can directly read temperatures from a fuel centerline or the protective cladding. Such precise information gives nuclear reactor vendors confidence as they work to validate new designs for the NRC. HTIR-TC can operate reliably in the harshest conditions for months, even years, earning it a 2019 R&D 100 Award.

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Testing TerraPower’s
fuel 

TerraPower, the advanced reactor company founded by Bill Gates, reached an important milestone in 2019. Since 2013 the company has been working with INL to design and fabricate an acceptable nuclear test fuel. This year, INL’s Advanced Test Reactor began bombarding the fuel pins with neutrons. The 300-day test will reveal how the new fuel for the company’s advanced Traveling Wave Reactor stacks up to proven fuels. 

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Fueling NASA missions 

In 2019, INL’s Advanced Test Reactor began contributing to America’s space exploration. Neptunium targets were inserted into the reactor, where its neutron bombardment will convert the material to plutonium-238, the isotope that fuels deep space missions. After the Pu-238 is purified and packaged at other national labs, it returns to INL to be loaded into radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which provide the heat and electricity for rovers and their scientific instruments. 

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Testing rocket fueling concept 

INL researchers used the Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) to determine if new candidate fuels made using advanced manufacturing methods can endure the extreme heat and pressure that would exist in a nuclear thermal propulsion rocket. 

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Transforming the nuclear industry with 3D printing 

Research underway at Idaho National Laboratory using 3D printing could be the beginning of applications that disrupt the nuclear industry. Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing produces some types of parts in less time and for less money. 

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Building better batteries 

As part of DOE’s Battery500 initiative, INL researchers are working to develop high-energy, long-lived electric vehicle batteries. The Battery500 goals forced them to think outside the lab, resulting in discoveries explaining why battery designers need to pay attention to the real world. 

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Recycling electronics 

As Americans discard their cellphones, they are throwing away nearly $200 million in unrecovered gold every year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The problem has been a lack of affordable or environmentally friendly recycling options. A less toxic process developed at INL may offer a way to affordably recover precious metals from electronic devices. 

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Pulling Treasure from mining waste 

Researchers have examined a method to extract rare-earth elements from mining waste that could provide the world with a reliable supply of the valuable materials. 

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Thwarting hackers 

INL developed a cybersecurity tool that can help protect the electric power grid. The ability to share threat intelligence is essential for protecting such critical infrastructure from cyber exploits. The Structured Threat Intelligence Graph (STIG) software allows utility owners and operators to easily visualize, share, create and edit cyberthreat intelligence information. 

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Securing wireless systems 

Many wireless systems are poorly secured and unmonitored, allowing hackers to pull data from them or even gain control without detection. INL’s Wireless radio Frequency signal Identification and protocol Reverse Engineering—WiFIRE—  is, in short,  radar for your wireless network. The technology won an R&D 100 Award in 2019. 

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Boosting hydropower flexibility 

As the nation seeks to expand renewable energy sources without compromising reliability, one option is more flexible (and profitable) hydropower. New research shows that integrating hydropower with energy storage devices (e.g., batteries or ultracapacitors) can provide the grid with reliable baseload stability and boost the revenue the plants generate. INL is leading work to explore how the flexibility that these integrated systems provide can enhance the grid’s reliability and resilience. 

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