Lin-wen Hu first became interested in nuclear energy during a high school physics class in her home country of Taiwan. “I was intrigued by how much energy fission can produce,” recalls Lin-wen, now the Director of Research and Services at the MIT Nuclear Reactor Lab (NRL). That intrigue led her to the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan where she received her bachelor’s and first master’s degree in nuclear engineering, and then to the United States in 1991 to pursue a second master’s degree and doctorate in nuclear engineering from MIT, despite it being unusual for a woman to be involved in a STEM field at that time.
Lin-wen built up an interest in the MIT reactor when she became involved in several experiment and reactor design projects performed at the facility during her graduate studies; a unique opportunity for MIT students that continues to be available today. She furthered this her professional interest by enrolling part-time in the NRL’s student operator training program while concurrently working on her graduate research; eventually receiving her Senior Reactor Operator license and working swing, night, and weekend shifts whenever she could.
During her busy graduate studies and part-time reactor operator training, she also started a family; she had her first son during the last year of her doctoral research and her second son a year after she began her full-time staff position.
Defining her role
Becoming familiar with both the operational and experimental sides of the facility gave Lin-wen an advantage that would help drive her career forward, unbeknownst to her at the time. As a graduate student, she never thought her career would land her in the position she holds today. “Back then, I had no female role models in the nuclear research community,” explains Lin-wen, “so I didn’t know what kind of work I could have or a career trajectory which would allow me to take care of my family while working full-time, simply no idea.”
Lin-wen continued to work full-time at the lab after receiving her doctorate, initially working as a relicensing engineer responsible for the safety analysis that led to the 20% power uprate of the MIT reactor and support for submitting a reactor license renewal to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Given her previous experience as a Senior Reactor Operator, she was able to jump into the project seamlessly. From there, she worked on reactor utilization and paved a path for herself, creating new and challenging opportunities she took on at the lab as she went along in her career; including overseeing the expansion of the NRL’s in-core experiments program.
Tapping into opportunity
Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT) medical research was the NRL’s primary focus up until late 2000 when funding for the research was significantly reduced. Around this time, Lin-wen was promoted to Associate Director for Research Development and Utilization with the primary responsibility of refocusing the lab’s efforts towards supporting nuclear technology development. By developing the technical basis for the lab to perform in-core fuel irradiations, and obtaining approval from the NRC allowing the NRL to become the first university research reactor to do so, Lin-wen’s efforts returned in-core experiments to the forefront of the lab’s research programs.
Expanding the lab’s horizons
With her expertise in reactor analysis, operations, and experiment facilities, Lin-wen’s research group has been able to develop and execute new experiments much quicker than previous groups were able to in the past. She proudly led a programmatic team effort to give the NRL traction as an internationally recognized leader in advanced materials, fuel, and sensor research and development by becoming a partner facility with the Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF) at the Idaho National Laboratory. “Partnering with NSUF really helps us in working more closely with international and national labs, other universities, and the Department of Energy by reaching out to a broader community,” says Lin-wen. “I’m very proud that as of today we have not just a national but an international reputation for being able to perform new types of experiments because of the excellent team effort at the NRL.” She received the MIT Innovative Solutions Award in 2012 for her effort and dedication to the success of this initiative.
While bringing life back into an aging facility with a limited amount of funding, Lin-wen has continued to do research of her own. Her work in fluid dynamics and heat transfer contributed to the establishment of the Thermal Hydraulics Laboratory within MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) department with Professor Jacopo Buongiorno and Dr. Tom McKrell, to study the thermal behavior of nanofluids and nanostructured surface applications. She finds her research conducted with NSE faculty and students to be very rewarding. “When you have these bright students working on projects, after one or two years they come up with better ideas than their advisors,” says Lin-wen. “They go through these ups and downs but you see them mature both academically and personally, and that’s a very rewarding experience.”
Building the future, today
As the nuclear field continues to change and develop, Lin-wen strives to keep the NRL at the forefront of the international research community. She credits the success of the lab’s research programs to the addition of several research staff members who help transform the lab into a dynamic and innovative workplace. Lin-wen hopes to further expand in other research areas that support advanced reactor development with the NRL’s new research initiatives in Fluoride salt High-temperature Reactors (FHRs) alongside Dr. Charles Forsberg of MIT’s NSE department and colleagues at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin. FHRs are a new reactor concept that operate at low pressure and high temperature, contributing to them being both safer and more efficient at producing energy compared to current commercial reactors. Lin-wen’s group is developing a conceptual design of a small, transportable FHR for off-grid applications to produce power in remote locations where it is impractical due to cost and transportation logistics to provide continuous fossil fuel shipments.
Another initiative being developed by Lin-wen’s group is a novel concept to implement an FHR subcritical facility at the NRL that can support multiple research and development programs to demonstrate molten salt reactor technology. This facility would provide a first-of-its-kind integrated test of FHR systems at relatively modest cost and more quickly than building a new test or demonstration reactor. “One of the major hurdles for the U.S. nuclear community is that no test reactor is being planned to be built in the next 5 to 10 years and we are losing nuclear expertise quickly as the aging workforce retires,” explains Lin-wen. "The NRL can play a major role in testing and demonstrating viable new technologies and providing hands-on training for next generation nuclear engineers.”
Work that’s a true reward
The creativity and innovation that the MIT community incubates has helped Lin-wen create a career for herself that she truly enjoys. For her, the reward comes from the ability to find new areas to explore and having the capabilities of growth and expansion to do so. She is an invaluable member of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Lab and continues to provide insight in her research by finding joy in her work. “I am very fortunate to be part of several exciting projects that allow me to work with collaborators both within and outside MIT,” says Lin-wen. “Even if I skip a couple of dinners at home, I can tell my family that I have a fulfilling career and help contribute to the advancement of nuclear technology.”