For Jeff Powers, life is good.

The Lawrence Scholar working on his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley recently won third place in the “Isotope Transmutation” category of the 2010 Innovations in Fuel Cycle Research Awards Program. The competition, sponsored by the Office of Fuel Cycle Technologies of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), encourages innovation among scholars across the country.

Powers’ research at the Lab involves creating a thorium-fueled engine for Laser Inertial Fusion Energy, or LIFE. Jeff Latkowski, Powers’ mentor at LLNL, said, “Thorium offers some potential benefits, including a larger fuel supply and superior waste disposal characteristics.”

Powers’ thesis centers around developing a LIFE engine design based on fuel performance. This approach is both very unique and ambitious, for it requires an in- depth understanding of neutron transport, transmutation of nuclear fuels and nuclear materials.

Powers is conducting a comprehensive design optimization study for a thorium- powered LIFE engine. First, he will develop and verify a computational model to predict fuel performance within the system. Next, neutron transport and transmutation calculations will be done for more than 100 potential designs to simulate how various parameters would evolve during LIFE engine operation. This information, in conjunction with cost models, will enable Powers to use energy production, economic viability, and predicted fuel lifetime as criteria to ascertain the best overall engine.

“I think that one of the limiting factors will be fuel lifetime,” Powers said. He predicts that, “taking fuel performance into consideration from the outset of the optimization study could potentially lead to a radically different design.”

The Office of Fuel Cycle Technologies has proposed staging an innovators forum, where winners from the competition would meet with experts from academia and the government to discuss development in nuclear fuel cycle R&D.

“Jeff’s work and the recognition it is receiving is great for LIFE, the Lawrence Scholar Program and the Laboratory. This emphasizes the fact that we are doing exciting and relevant work that can help make a difference,” Latkowski said.

Originally from New York, Powers came to California to pursue his master’s degree in nuclear engineering at Berkeley and is continuing his studies there as a Ph.D. student. One of his professors from Berkeley told Powers about the LIFE program, and in 2008 he came to LLNL as an engineering and NIF summer scholar. The next summer, Powers rejoined the LIFE program as a Lawrence Scholar. “LIFE is good,” punned Powers.