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The exterior of the nuclear engineering building at UNM's Farris Engineering Center.

UNM receives prestigious Department of Energy awards

Nuclear energy research is set to explode at the University of New Mexico as several nuclear engineering professors’ projects were awarded grant money as a part of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy University Program.

Directly awarded to UNM was an estimated $625,000 over five years to fund nuclear engineering professor Minghui Chen for his research proposal, “Advanced Reactors Integral and Separate Effects Tests,” where he will perform safety tests to validate the usage of two different types of reactors. Chen hopes the research will support “the expanded use of clean nuclear energy worldwide,” and aims to emphasize training for underrepresented minorities.

With this funding, Chen will be able to train undergraduates in the nuclear reactor field and support graduate students, as well as work to build up his own lab.

“To me, it’s very exciting … to get this award because this is not only just to support myself, it can support our student, and we can do some very, very promising research on campus … (the) DOE office, they believe in our research here,” Chen said.

Chen was awarded this funding under the DOE’s “Distinguished Early Careers” award, which is given to emerging faculty in the field of nuclear engineering to support their research careers. He was one of five university faculty members across the country to receive the award this year. This is the first year of the program, according to Kathryn Huff, the DOE’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy.

“Dr. Chen’s proposal … was selected through a competitive process that includes technical review from scientists and faculty all over the country. The five awardees this year were selected for proposals that distinguish themselves in research, education and service as well as relevance to the Office of Nuclear Energy mission,” Huff wrote to the Daily Lobo.

As thousands of university faculty members applied for the award, Chen said he was surprised and excited to learn he received the prestigious honor.

“It’s a competitive process, very, very competitive process. So, all assistant professor, untenured assistant professor or associate professors in nuclear engineering — they can apply. So there’s a lot of young faculty that apply to this program, and only five were selected across this country,” Chen said.

Three other UNM professors collaborated on projects that also received funding from the DOE’s nuclear energy university program: Osman Anderoglu in a project out of the University of Kentucky, Mohamed El-Genk and Timothy Schreiner in a project out of Purdue University and Chen once more in a project out of the University of Texas-Knoxville. These three projects received a combined total funding of $5.6 million.

UNM is already uniquely positioned for nuclear energy research because of its proximity to the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, as well as the already existing nuclear energy industry in Albuquerque. UNM is also home to one of 30 university-owned nuclear reactors, according to the UNM Newsroom.

“With those laboratories, the companies associated with them and the bright students produced by the University of New Mexico’s nuclear engineering program, (New Mexico) has a particularly high concentration of people with expertise in the technology of nuclear energy,” Huff wrote.

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Chen is expecting to see more collaboration outside of the university with other laboratories as UNM’s program continues to grow and the field becomes more appealing. He said a big next step in nuclear energy development in the state would be increased development and implementation of microreactors, which are much smaller and more flexible portable sources of the energy.

Both Chen and Huff emphasized the importance of nuclear energy development in decreasing carbon emissions in order to reach President Joe Biden’s plan of net-zero emissions by 2035.

“Nuclear energy is the largest clean energy in the country,” Chen said. “It accounts for more than 70 or 80% of clean energy in the country, and it’s about 20% of total energy … nuclear energy has a greater potential, a greater penetration to our energy sector.”

Zara Roy is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle


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