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Using MATLAB to Complete Undergraduate Capstone Design Projects in Nuclear Engineering

By Dr. Christopher Peters, Drexel University

The region around Drexel University in Philadelphia depends on electric power supplied by 9 nuclear reactors, many of which are aging fast. For example, the Limerick Generating Station, which is licensed to operate through 2029, came online in 1986. The nuclear power plant industry needs young engineers with the skills and knowledge to maintain the plants and keep them running.

To help meet this need, Drexel University established a nuclear engineering minor. Open to all engineering majors, it is designed to spur student interest in nuclear engineering while providing the multidisciplinary background needed in the field.

A principal challenge in developing the nuclear engineering minor was to familiarize the students with concepts not typically taught in their majors. Electrical engineering students, for example, are more familiar with modeling with differential equations than are mechanical engineering students, while mechanical engineering students have a stronger background in the principles of heat transfer.

MATLAB® is well-suited to teaching the multidisciplinary concepts of nuclear engineering because it is widely used in electrical, mechanical, and numerous other engineering fields. Drexel engineering students from a variety of backgrounds use MATLAB to solve problems in their nuclear engineering coursework. Teams comprising both mechanical and electrical engineering students also use MATLAB to complete capstone projects for the Senior Design program.

The capstone projects completed to date highlight the value of bringing together students from different engineering disciplines to complete a real-world project with MATLAB. That is how professional nuclear engineers work, and the experience students gain on these projects helps to prepare them to meet the demands not only of the nuclear industry, but of practically any engineering discipline they choose to pursue.

The Nuclear Engineering Minor at Drexel

Before fifth-year students can tackle a meaningful project in nuclear engineering, they must thoroughly understand the fundamental principles of the field. Students learn these principles in six required courses, including three that use MATLAB: Radiation Detection, Theory of Nuclear Reactors, and Introduction to Nuclear Engineering.

Prerequisites for the nuclear engineering minor include courses in thermodynamics and material science and two years of undergraduate physics and mathematics. Proficiency in MATLAB is not required, but is very helpful.

At Drexel, all first-year engineering students use MATLAB for numerical computation, programming, and algorithmic problem solving. Students hone their MATLAB skills throughout their undergraduate studies and in their core nuclear engineering coursework. In Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, for example, they learn how to model nuclear reactions using differential equations in MATLAB. Students in my Radiation Detection course use MATLAB for data analysis and curve fitting. They also use MATLAB to perform Monte Carlo simulations that help them understand radiation transport. The Theory of Nuclear Reactors course, in which students analyze the results of transients and parametric sweeps in MATLAB, reinforces many of the MATLAB skills introduced in earlier nuclear engineering courses.

The Capstone Design Project

In their fifth year, all Drexel engineering students must complete a capstone design project. Teams of three to five students work on their project for about nine months, advised by one or more faculty members. The nuclear engineering minor has inspired several outstanding capstone projects, including an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for radiation detection and a nuclear reactor simulator, both built from key components developed in MATLAB.

Detecting Radiation with a UAV

For the radiation detection UAV project, on which my colleague Dr. Ani Hsieh and I served as advisors, the goal was to develop an unmanned vehicle capable of measuring and mapping radiation levels in a nuclear facility that is in shutdown mode for scheduled maintenance. A team of three electrical and one mechanical engineering students (Artūrs Bergs, Thomas Boyd, Kevin Hall, and Marko Jaćović) designed and built a quadrotor helicopter equipped with a Geiger counter and a video camera (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  The UAV approaching a QR code.
Figure 1. The UAV approaching a QR code.

A student pilots the UAV via remote control to position it in front of one of several QR codes placed at predetermined locations throughout the facility. The student requests MATLAB to transmit and receive signals through the XBEE communications to obtain the images with the QR symbol and the radiation counts per second. Images and the current Geiger counter measurement are relayed to a base station computer running a MATLAB program developed by the students. The MATLAB program decodes the QR code image to determine the location of the UAV, adds the Geiger counter measurement to an array of radiation levels at QR code locations throughout the area, and plots the results via a graphical interface (Figure 2). The ability to easily create plots and integrate Java® objects in MATLAB was instrumental to enabling the students to complete the project on time. The total cost of the radiation detection UAV was under $1000, substantially less than any industry solution.

Figure 2. Radiation detection interface built in MATLAB.
Figure 2. Radiation detection interface built in MATLAB.

Building a Nuclear Reactor Simulator

The nuclear reactor simulator project was motivated not only to fulfill a course requirement but also to support the entire nuclear engineering program. The goal of this project was to develop a low-cost, reconfigurable simulator of a nuclear reactor that would help students understand how reactors operate.

Instead of trying to imagine reactor processes from a description in a textbook, students can interact with the simulator control panel to turn on a coolant pump or raise a control rod, as well as other functions common to a nuclear power plant (Figure 3). They can then see the effects of these changes on the reactor via an interface that the student team created in MATLAB. Completed for about $350, the project was sponsored by Exelon Nuclear (Three Mile Island). The team of two mechanical and three electrical and computer engineering students (Matthew Marie, Brian Abate, Sherrod Williams, Raghid Najjar, and Romeo Ngate) received guidance and advice from Exelon Nuclear engineers (John Tesmer, simulator coordinator, and Dr. Moussa Mahgerefteh, core physicist).

Figure 3.  The nuclear reactor simulator control panel.
Figure 3. The nuclear reactor simulator control panel.

At the heart of the simulator is a MATLAB model of a nuclear reactor, the coolant leaving the reactor, and the coolant coming back to the reactor. The students developed this MATLAB model based on well-known differential equations for nuclear reactors, including point kinetic equations and equations for fission product poisoning. Equation parameters can be configured via an interface the group developed in MATLAB (Figure 4).

Figure 4.  Parameter configuration interface.
Figure 4. Parameter configuration interface.

When the simulator is running, an Arduino board monitors the knobs and switches on the control panel and sends the status of each control to the MATLAB model. The model then updates its internal state–for example, by adjusting the production rate of neutrons in the reactor when a control rod is raised. It then calculates reactor coolant inlet and outlet temperatures, reactivity, neutron populations, and poison concentrations. The results are displayed in the interface (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The simulator’s MATLAB based interface.
Figure 5. The simulator’s MATLAB based interface.

Future Capstone Projects

I have several ideas that I’d like students to take on in upcoming capstone projects. These projects will rely on MATLAB, primarily because MATLAB supports our multidisciplinary approach by providing a single, shared environment combining hardware connectivity, image and data processing, simulation, and interface design.

In the UAV area, I plan to have students use MATLAB to develop flight code to control the UAV. I want another group to extend the reactor simulator by using MATLAB to model other elements of a nuclear power plant, including the turbine, generator, and condenser. Ideally, these projects will include more physical components—for example, a real coolant pump that can be started and stopped via the control panel. My vision is to have student teams model and simulate all the major components of a power plant. This complete simulator will incorporate numerous physical components and interactive displays that students can use to deepen their understanding and appreciation of nuclear power plant technology.

About the Author

Dr. Christopher Peters is a teaching professor at Drexel University. He holds a B.S.E., M.S., and Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering. His research interests include nuclear reactor design, ionizing radiation detection, nuclear forensics, power plant reliability and risk analysis, and marine power and propulsion.

Published 2014 - 92197v00

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