Vacationing with Nuclear Reactors

By Karina Jousma | Published

Amanda Taylor
Amanda Taylor

While most of us were playing at the beach or on the sports field during summer, Michigan Technological University undergraduate Amanda Taylor was hard at work, far from home, on research that could revolutionize fuel used to power nuclear reactors.

Taylor, a sophomore in chemical engineering from Romeo, Mich., interned at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for ten weeks during the summer semester.

Taylor found out about the opportunity on the Michigan Tech Career Center website. Since her idea of a dream job is improving alternative energies, the internship posting caught her eye in particular. She explains, “I’m really interested in working in sustainability, and the fact that it’s with the Department of Energy fit with my career plan.”

At ORNL, a multiprogram science and technology laboratory managed for the US Department of Energy, Taylor analyzed computer code for a new type of nuclear reactor fuel. She had the honor of performing the first experiments ever on this novel alternative fuel, which is the brainchild of her mentor at ORNL, Daniel Hollenbach of the Nuclear Science and Technology Division.

For an intern, Taylor found herself handling quite a bit of responsibility. At the time of her research, the formula of the fuel was “business-sensitive,” she says. It’s now patented.

The heat was on—literally as well as figuratively—when Taylor arrived at ORNL. A Michigan native, Taylor says, “I’d never been down South, so being down there for the first time was exciting.” Nor had she been so far away from her family, rooming with five students who were perfect strangers. She singles this out, hands down, as her biggest challenge.

“The first day was extremely scary,” she says, “because you walk in there and you know you’re among Nobel Prize winners and PhDs. And here I was—a college sophomore. I didn’t know anything about nuclear energy at the time.” One of the deciding factors that convinced Taylor to intern in nuclear science was just that—she thought, “What better way to learn about a new subject than immerse myself in it?”

Once Taylor got situated in her lab, however, she began to feel more comfortable. “I enjoyed the research, but it did take a while to adjust,” she says. “At first, I didn’t know what I was doing. But by the end of the internship, I didn’t want to leave.”

Taylor has learned a lot from the experience and has come away with a new understanding of not only the workings of a lab and the nuclear science field in general, but also of life. . She says, “This opened up my eyes to the rest of the country, and I got to meet people from all over,” she says. “It was a great experience.”  Outside the lab, Taylor learned something too. She discovered she doesn’t have a taste for sweet tea.

Although carrying a 17.5 credit load this semester, Taylor plans to retain her position as director of science research in the Terra Preta Working Group at Michigan Tech, known for its biochar experiments. Biochar is the product of a slow-burning charcoal-creation process. “To produce biochar, you take organic waste and heat it until it turns into a biocharcoal material,” Taylor explains. The byproduct has been used for at least 10,000 years in the Amazon as a soil fertilizer. The group has been working to raise public awareness of biochar, which can be used on large and small plats of land. Terra Preta plans to continue its biochar research, with plans to create its own biochar kiln this semester.

I think we’ve got a pretty good hypothesis about Taylor’s life after college. We’ll give you a hint: it involves creating the future

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.