iPhone Helps Researchers Build Better Nuclear Power Plants

New nuclear power plants can be built faster thanks to new simulation tools on the iPhone and iPad.

A new iPhone app may aid in visualizing simulations of a nuclear reactor’s core.

A fission reaction in a nuclear reactor? Yup, there’s an app for that.

Researchers at the University of Utah are now using a visualization app from Apple's App Store that displays simulations of a nuclear reactor’s core on an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.

The reactor simulation allows researchers “to look at existing nuclear power plants and predict the performance if we want to increase the power or prolong their life,” said Tatjana Jevremovic, director of the nuclear engineering program at the University of Utah.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world

"With these modern and more detailed simulation tools, we can design new types of nuclear power plants in a faster fashion than 15 or 20 years ago,” she added.

Due to the sensitive and proprietary nature of the nuclear reaction data, this information is not yet publicly available. But "very soon we will generate something for use in the public domain," said Jevremovic, who added that the simulations and visualizations should be a great educational tool.

Looking inside a reactor core

A nuclear fission reactor core contains long, cylindrical fuel rods packed together vertically in a fuel assembly. The simulation follows the movement of subatomic particles called neutrons that collide with the radioactive element uranium to cause an energy-releasing fission reaction.

The computer simulations can show the density of neutrons in the reactor over space and time as well as display fission reaction rates.

"We can simulate any reactor with the simulation software package that we developed,” said Shanjie Xiao, a postdoctoral fellow in nuclear engineering at the University of Utah.

Named AGENT (Arbitrary Geometry Neutron Transport), this reactor simulation software has now been brought to life through a visualization app called ImageVis3D Mobile.

That app, which became available last September, is based on similar software for desktops and laptops. It does “3-D volume visualization” or “volume rendering” to make realistic 3-D pictures from medical, scientific and engineering data.

Watching uranium get pummeled

Jevremovic says reactor core simulations provide details about performance within a reactor, for example by showing where the most intense fission reactions take place, which should be in the middle of the assembly.

“We simulate everything now on a computer,” Jevremovic says. “Computer technology has developed rapidly, and we can do calculations and simulations we could just dream of five years ago.”

The app “can visualize a vast amount of data you create by using the software simulation packages,” she said. “Humans react much better to what they see than just looking at some numbers.”

IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world

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