David Moncton: From MIT graduate student to NRL Director

David E. Moncton
David Moncton: From MIT graduate student to NRL Director

The MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory has influenced David’s career since he was a senior in Cornell’s Engineering School. He had received admission to the MIT Physics Department for graduate school and, in March 1970, Physics Professor Clifford G. Shull wrote to recruit him to his research group saying “I have available in my Neutron Diffraction Laboratory a research assistantship as a means of support which I hope you will accept.” He added, “We have on campus a very good nuclear reactor.” Although David had been accepted to five other top-flight universities it was Professor Shull’s letter, and an opportunity to begin research immediately, that captivated him. “I had just taken my first course in solid state physics, and I had become fascinated with the idea that beams of x-rays or neutrons could enable us to see in great detail how elegantly atoms were arranged in materials of all kinds,” he remembers, and “these structures are the key to understanding the properties that we exploit in modern technology, as well as to life itself.”

Professor Shull was the world’s leading expert on neutron diffraction, making many seminal contributions for which he eventually received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1994. David recalls “I was so excited to begin research at the Nuclear Reactor Lab that I started work beginning in July, two weeks after my Cornell graduation.” His first scientific paper published in 1973, based on his Master’s thesis work, used the reactor’s neutron beams to study phase transitions in an intermetallic superconductor. When his work at the MIT reactor was interrupted by the conversion to a new reactor core called MITR‑II, Professor Shull made arrangements for him to do his Ph.D. thesis work at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s High Flux Beam Reactor. “There I found myself among some of the world’s best neutron scientists attracted to the new high power Brookhaven reactor and the advanced scattering instruments,” David remembers. This was the beginning of the era of large national user facilities, generally sponsored by the Department of Energy or the National Science Foundation. For 45 years now, David’s career has been intimately linked to the scientific exploitation and the development of major national user facilities.

Following completion of his studies at MIT, David took his first job as a member of the technical staff at Bell Labs. “It was THE place for condensed matter physics and materials research in the country at that time,” he recalls, “so I was fortunate to get such a productive environment to establish my research career.” David continued his interest in neutron scattering at Brookhaven, developed an in-house laboratory for x-ray research, and became very enthusiastic about a newly recognized way to produce intense x-ray beams using particle accelerators. He has fond memories of the years he spent at Bell Labs both for the challenge to work on some of the most exciting problems in condensed matter physics, but also for the opportunity to continue interactions with MIT. “I developed a very productive collaboration with Professor Bob Birgeneau in the Physics Department resulting in 15 papers and 6 student PhDs, and, together with (well-known MIT graduate) Shirley Jackson, we were designated the Bell Labs recruiters for both MIT and Harvard.” One of Moncton’s best recruits to Bell Labs was a student of MIT Professor John Joannopoulos named Bob Laughlin, who went on to share the 1998 Noble Prize in Physics for the work at Bell Labs on the quantum Hall effect shortly after accepting employment there as a post-doc.

David left Bell Labs in 1982 to work at Brookhaven Lab, primarily to shorten his commute to the reactor and take advantage of the new x-ray synchrotron being built there. “I had two young children, so it wasn’t easy to spend long periods of time away from home.” He became more involved in developing concepts for new x-ray sources, and taking a leadership role is advocating for a new-generation synchrotron facility that would make the world’s brightest x-ray beams. In 1987 he was presented the US Department of Energy’s prestigious E. O Lawrence Award for his research with synchrotron x-rays. Also that year, he accepted a position as Associate Director of Argonne National Laboratory with overall responsibility for the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a billion dollar project funded by the US Department of Energy with over 1 million square feet of buildings on 80 acres. “To have this level of responsibility at the age of 38 was so exciting, and also a bit frightening,” David recalls. But the project turned out to be a great success when it produced its first x-rays in 1996, 6 months ahead of schedule and $18 million under budget. The APS quickly ramped up its user community and now serves about 5000 users a year on roughly 50 different x-ray experimental stations.

The remarkable success of the APS project led to another adventure in David’s career. After many years of trying without success to launch a new research reactor project called the Advanced Neutron Source, Oak Ridge National Laboratory abandoned that idea, and embraced a new proton accelerator-based technology for generating neutron beams. But in its early design phase in 1997 and 1998, the $1.4 Billion Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) project encountered serious management problems and the DOE asked David to take over its leadership. Congress had cut its budget and threatened to kill the project if reforms were not instituted. Working at Oak Ridge from 1999 to 2001, David and a small team from the APS project, radically re-designed the accelerator systems to employ new superconducting technology, and corrected a wide array of management issues. David recalls that “it was a fantastic opportunity to put all the lessons of project management we had learned at APS on a fast track and save the SNS project from being terminated by Congress.” Groundbreaking took place in 2000 for what is now the most powerful neutron source of its kind in the world (SNS).

Although the decade of the 90’s was a busy period for David, he maintained a high priority for a continuing relationship with MIT. Starting in 1994, he served for eight years on the Advisory Board for the MIT Materials Science and Engineering Center. In 1998 he began a four-year term as a member of the MIT Corporation Visiting Committee for the department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. By the fall of 2001, David had decided to return to research and accepted a visiting professorship in the MIT Physics Department. In 2003 Alice Gast, then MIT’s Vice President for Research, offered David the directorship of MIT’s Nuclear reactor Laboratory. Together they discussed the future of the Laboratory and David’s vision to make NRL a national user facility like APS or SNS. “We are poised to propose a new phase for the Nuclear Reactor laboratory as a national user facility, (and) I believe you bring the ideal talents and experience to this position,” Professor Gast wrote in the offer letter. David became director of the NRL in January 2004. His mission was to restructure the Laboratory’s management and research portfolio to create the nation’s first user facility for in-core radiation of nuclear materials and fuels, while bringing the operation of the then 46-year-old facility into the 21st century.

In the years since that vision was developed, David says, “many at the NRL have contributed to making it a reality, but a major share of the credit goes to NRL’s director of Research and Services, Dr. Lin-wen Hu.” Today, as described in more detail on this website, the NRL boasts the most productive and innovative program for in-core studies of structural materials, new fuel cladding composites, new generations of nuclear instrumentation based on ultrasonic sensors and fiber optics, and studies of the properties of liquid salt in a radiation environment for use as a coolant in a new generation of high-temperature reactors. The NRL has become a key partner of the Nuclear Scientific User Facilities (NSUF) sponsored by Idaho National Laboratory, and the NRL has established a world-class reputation for its in-core irradiation program. In addition David has continued research into the development of new neutron and x-ray source technologies, with the aim to make sources more compact and cost effective for broader use in industry and in research laboratories throughout the world. In the course of this work he has had a dozen or more excellent students in the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities program.

Based on the accomplishments of the last decade, the NRL recently undertook a major strategic initiative in 2014 to broaden its vision for the future (NRL Future Committee Report). “Materials are key to the future of nuclear energy, and we need to understand their fundamental behavior under the most extreme radiation conditions,” David says. The vision for the future is to broaden the facilities at the NRL to include the ability to irradiate materials at much higher damage levels than are currently possible, using compact cyclotron technology being developed at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (cyclotrons at PSFC), and to track that damage as it is occurring on a microscopic scale with advanced neutron scattering and x-ray imaging methods. New methods to enhance the resolution and decrease the data collection time for x-ray (NRL Compact x-ray source research) and neutron experiments (NRL neutron optics research) have been under development at NRL over the last decade, and now these methods are coming together in an integrated concept that could greatly expand the scientific impact of the NRL in the years ahead.

Projects are also David’s passion in his spare time. He has enjoyed renovating three old houses, and building a new vacation home on the water in Cape Breton Nova Scotia. But his real love is building boats, and sailing, paddling, or rowing them. He has sailed with his wife, and sometimes with his two children, from Chesapeake Bay to the Canadian Maritime Provinces as far as Labrador. In his home shop he has built many kayaks and rowboats, a rowing shell, and a boat cradle for a grandchild. He also volunteers to help teach Boston grade-school children STEM skills through wooden boat building at the non-profit Community Boat Building where he also serves on the Advisory Board.

His most ambitious project has been the reproduction of a 31-foot sailing sloop whose plans from 1934 were archived in the MIT Hart Nautical Collection. He worked with the curator of the collection, Kurt Hasselbalch, to identify a suitable boat, secure the plans, engage a naval architect for updating the design, and then work with master boat builders in Maine and Cape Cod. AMANDA was completed in two years and launched in 2008. She is traditional wooden construction, but very modern in being propelled by a hybrid design incorporating an electric motor and a diesel generator. “It is amazing what you can do with all the resources that exist at this remarkable Institute,” David says as he reflects on the 15 recent years he has been at MIT, “especially if you’ve had an MIT education.”