Melissa Teague awarded Presidential Early Career Award

By Neal Singer

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, June 09, 2016

PECASE is highest US honor for early-stage researchers

Melissa Teague is a 2016 recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering for pioneering improved characterization of mixed uranium and plutonium oxide after it has been used as fuel in a nuclear reactor for an extended time. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Materials engineer Melissa Teague (1851) has been awarded a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (PECASE), the highest honor the US government bestows on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Melissa was recognized for pioneering improved characterization of mixed uranium and plutonium oxide after it has been used as fuel in a nuclear reactor for an extended time — a condition called “high burn-up.” Developing and applying advanced examination techniques for high-radiation samples, she used an ion beam to prepare successive thin sections of the fuel, characterized each section, and then reconstructed the three-dimensional sample for further study.

“These experimental activities are groundbreaking for their first-of-a-kind data obtained on high burn-up MOX [mixed oxide nuclear reactor] fuel, and the first three-dimensional reconstruction of irradiated fuel,” wrote recently retired DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy Peter Lyons in support of Melissa’s PECASE application. “Furthermore, this technique was applied to fast-reactor MOX fuel that has the highest burnup known, providing data that is highly relevant to domestic and international advanced fuel programs.”

Working at the mesoscopic level

Her work at Idaho National Laboratory was done at the mesoscopic level, a relatively underexplored range compared with atomistic and macroscopic investigations of fuel behavior.

Melissa signed on at Sandia less than a year ago, and looks forward to exploring a wide range of materials here.

But she’s no stranger to Sandia. As an undergraduate in ceramic engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, she was mentored by Tina Nenoff (1100) and Margaret Gordon (6124) in summer 2004, growing and testing zeolite membranes, and by now-retired Ron Loehman in 2005, with whom she tested a variety of glass-steel seals. She also met her future husband, Albuquerque native Michael Teague (2997), during that time. The presence of grandparents, including recently retired Sandia employee Tommy Teague, to help raise the couple’s three young children made Albuquerque especially attractive.

“I’m happy to be a role model to show that a woman with three children can succeed in her work,” she says.

She made an early stop at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory before joining Idaho National Laboratory (INL), where she worked from 2010 to 2015 while earning her doctorate in materials science from the Colorado School of Mines. At INL, she was appointed deputy director for the laboratory’s TerraPower Program, a roughly $10 million-a-year project that examined the feasibility of traveling wave nuclear reactors as part of a cooperative research and development agreement  (CRADA) with TerraPower Inc., a Bellevue, Washington, start-up. The proliferation-resistant reaction breeds its own fuel, using the wave of extra neutrons from fissioning uranium-235 to transmute uranium-238 to plutonium-239.

“The reaction only enriches as it goes,” she says. “It breeds Pu-239 as it burns it. Since it enriches its own fuel, it can last for 40 years instead of the standard two, so you don’t have to transport fuel back and forth as often.”

The private company has announced plans to build a demonstration plant in China.

Among Melissa’s awards are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Rising Star Award in Nuclear Science and Engineering, the Young Scientist Award from the European Materials Research Society and the DOE Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies award, meant to further the close integration of experimentation with mesoscale modeling.

Her PECASE award, while unaccompanied by a stipend, “should make it easier to get funding” for her work analyzing brittle materials, providing data for modelers, and testing their simulations, she says.