Texas A&M undergraduate student team wins national ANS design competition


A team of undergraduate students from the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University was selected as the winners of the 2015 American Nuclear Society Design Competition, a national competition that allows students to identify and solve a specific need within the nuclear engineering community. The students entered the competition in conjunction with their senior design course under the guidance of course instructor Dr. Karen Vierow and the team’s technical advisor Dr. Gamal Akabani. By collaborating with Akabani, who currently conducts research on radioisotope production, the team developed a regional solution for the production and distribution of an important medical isotope used in nuclear medicine imaging, technetium-99m (Tc-99m).

The design team was composed of team leader Matthew Schaper, Eden Marroquin, Talal Harahsheh, Miltiadis Kennas and Yousif Almaazmi.

“They usually want to design something new but they are over optimistic in what they can do,” Vierow said of the students in their first semester in her design course. “The best teams I think, don’t design something new, they tackle a problem that has been identified to them and as a result the projects are usually more practical and realistic.”

 The medical isotope Tc-99m is important because of its usage for nuclear medicine imaging, but it remains in high demand. Because it has a rapid decay rate with a half-life of only six hours, the isotope is unable to be shipped. This causes a problem for medical facilities, which must cope with the limited supply and are unable to produce the material locally without a reactor nearby. As more reactors are scheduled to be decommissioned in the United States, demand for the isotope will continue to rise with the shrinking means of production.

Having ascertained the need for a solution, the team sought to find a process through which the material could be developed locally without the use of a reactor and in a manner that allows for faster transfer to medical facilities. The team decided to use accelerator technology to create the isotope, which would have a diminished impact in comparison to a reactor because it would leave no radioactive waste.

“There are several advantages to the applications of an accelerator over a reactor in this particular venture,” Akabani said. “The initial capital investments and maintenance costs for an accelerator are much lower than a reactor-based counterpart. Also, an accelerator is not as large as a reactor, will have little to no cost of decommissioning in comparison to a reactor and will give regional facilities the ability to produce the material locally and distribute it quickly.”

Part of the solution the students had to determine was how to produce the Tc-99m without the use of a reactor, as Tc-99m is traditionally produced from the decay of a parent isotope, molybdenum-99m. With the use of an accelerator, the students were able to achieve the same result by means of a gamma photo-neutron reaction through chemical separation and concentration techniques.

“In this case they were trying to produce this technetium-99m and you have a target material that you bombard with neutrons,” Vierow said. “Some of the atoms undergo a reaction where they go from one isotope to the desirable isotope. Their design was to design this target material that gets bombarded and then to extract the Tc-99m isotopes and design a delivery system that gets the isotopes to the medical facility before they decay away in a couple of days.”

While the design competition and the technical work that went into the project were separate from the students’ coursework, Vierow’s design course served to prepare the students for the competition by instructing them on design fundamentals. The course is a two semester class where the projects are decided upon and planned in the fall and then executed in the spring in time for the competition.

Vierow explains that the goal of the course is to teach the students about design and give them design experience, but the competition is secondary to that objective. There are many teams within the class, but each university is only allowed one team as a representative, a choice that is made by the faculty. Vierow also structures the requirements of the course project so that they are in line with the ANS competition requirements, making it easier for the teams to compete.

“We have a strong design component that we have incorporated into our curriculum,” Vierow said. “The caliber of the students here allows us to do some really original work that is technically accepted by the nuclear technical community. We want to prepare them to be successful engineers in the real world and I think this design course makes some good contributions to making them functional engineers.”

Akabani and the other members of the team are now looking at ways to take the project into its next steps. The team has been collaborating with accelerator technology company Mevex Corporation from the start of the project and plans to continue working with it to develop further advancements for the project’s accelerator technology.

“It’s really been a great experience,” Kennas said.  “It’s nice to work on something that you know is both profitable and realistic. Our project is very feasible, and I think that is the main reason that we’ve seen it go so far and develop the way it has.”