Mobilizing Radioactive Waste into Glass

Funded research efforts include nuclear waste immobilization and development of a hard, crack-resistant glass

Associate professor of materials science and engineering Ashutosh Goel joined the Rutgers University School of Engineering faculty in 2014. Since then, he has pursued research interests encompassing everything from high-temperature glass seals for batteries and fuel cells, glasses for human biomedicine, glasses and ceramics for nuclear waste immobilization, and optical fibers. 

Nuclear waste – which remains radioactive for millions of years – poses a toxic threat both to people as well as the environment. Clean-up of Washington State's Hanford site – an immense underground repository of 56 million gallons of radioactive waste – is incredibly challenging. The US Department of Energy plans to immobilize this waste into glass, a process also known as vitrification. Although the majority of the waste will be immobilized into the chemically durable glass, the research is still ongoing to find innovative pathways and novel solutions for the immobilization of radioactive species that cannot be immobilized into the glass. Iodine-129, with a half-life of 16 million years, is one such radioactive species. Not only is it water-soluble, thus, making it amenable to enter the food chain once it enters the human body, but it can also cause cancer by targeting the thyroid gland. Therefore, the immobilization of iodine-129 is a critical step for the safety and well-being of humanity. By addressing the scientific challenges being faced by the US Department of Energy in the vitrification of nuclear waste, and inventing ways to contain and trap radioactive iodine-129 in ceramics, Goel's research brings a great promise to the safe and efficient immobilization of the hazardous nuclear waste in the United States. 

While fabricating glass with the radioactive waste at the Hanford site is not expected to begin until 2022 or 2023, Goel and his team earned a 2016 US Department of Energy Fuel Cycle Research Award for his ground-breaking innovations.

With recent support from a TechAdvance grant from the Rutgers Office of Research and Economic Development, Goel is also working to scale-up and evaluate a hard, crack-resistant glass he has developed for use as a potential material for transparent armor and cover glass for smartphones and tablets. 

As principal and/or co-investigator for six glass-related research projects totaling more than $7.6 million in federal and private funding – including a $1.5 million grant from the US DOE– Office of River protection to design and develop nuclear waste glasses – Goel has been able to include undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral researchers in his research efforts.

4 Questions for Professor Ashutosh Goel

4 Questions Colors-04_1.pngWhat led you to become a materials scientist – and what prompted your interest in glasses and ceramics?

I owe this to my masters' thesis advisor and destiny. As part of the MS in Physics curriculum, I had to complete a research project. I was always interested in electromagnetism and nuclear physics. However, the professor who worked in the area of electromagnetism was on sabbatical. Therefore, I went to another professor who worked in the field of nuclear physics.

Interestingly, he wanted to venture into the field of developing glasses for radiation shielding applications. That is how I got introduced to the field of glass science. Since then, until today, I am in love with glass science and technology. 

What most excites and inspires you about your research?

The most exciting thing about research is that you face a new challenge every day, and every day you discover and learn something new. If you talk about glass, in particular, it is a fascinating material. According to a book by Steven Johnson (How we Got to Now), glass is arguably the most important material of the last thousand years. It is one of the six innovations that made the modern world. Glass is a ubiquitous material. Picture, if you can, a world without glass. There would be no microscopes, or telescopes, no sciences of microbiology, or astronomy. 

In today's world, glass has revolutionized the field of telecommunication and entertainment. The smartphones won't have been possible without a scratch-proof glass screen, 4G and 5G internet connectivity won't have been possible without optical fibers (made from silica glass). Therefore, whenever we think that we understand glass and are done with it, it surprises us with entirely new properties and applications.  

Aren't these enough reasons to keep one inspired and motivated for pushing the boundaries of our understanding of this marvelous material and progress on the path of innovation. 

Who are the biggest beneficiaries of your research?

The biggest beneficiary of my research is the nation. The majority of my research deals with solving problems related to nuclear waste disposal, which is a big concern for the United States, and I am proud to contribute to this effort. 

Further, the outcome of the research is not only science, research articles, and patents. In my opinion, one of the most significant outcomes of my research is the generation of a trained talent-pool for the US industry, academia, and national laboratories. The US glass industry is facing a severe scarcity of trained glass scientists and engineers. I am proud to say that most undergraduate and graduate students trained in my lab are working in the best of the materials science-based industries in the US, thus contributing to the country's growth. 

How are Rutgers students contributing to some of your current research projects?

The students are the life-line of my research projects. I cannot envision any of my research projects being accomplished without the hard work and dedication of my students and postdoctoral researchers. If I have been able to attract extramural research funding and establish a successful research program in glass and ceramic science and technology at Rutgers, all the credit for that goes to the students.