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Students tackle nuclear security at Aggie Invent competition

Students tackle nuclear security at Aggie Invent competition

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More than 50 Texas A&M students are spending the weekend brainstorming and creating as part of the College of Engineering’s 33rd Aggies Invent competition — and for the first time the group is working with professional nuclear scientists.

Since Friday afternoon, 55 graduate and undergraduate students have been assembling prototypes and pitch presentations to be judged by a team of nuclear scientists and Texas A&M engineering faculty. Today, the group will learn which of their nine self-assembled teams has won a modest cash prize in first, second or third place with Aggies Invent.

As with every Aggies Invent race to create, the students were challenged with a broader theme of an engineering endeavor — in this case, nuclear security. They attached themselves to teams and then choose from one of about a dozen need statements regarding that subject, then spent two full days completing their projects for today’s submission.

This event’s need statements included prompts such as contamination detection, stealthy radiation detection, impact detection, black box recorders, heat generation exchangers and strain measurement systems, to name a few. Students could be perfecting safety features for a nuclear power plant, or devising better methods for discretely detecting dangerous materials in the making of weapons of mass destruction. Lloyd Brown, a retired Los Alamos scientist and former engineering professor with the U.S. Naval Academy — along with an additional nine Los Alamos representatives, including seven A&M alumni — served as a mentor to students and created the need statements prior to the event.

“The odds that students will come up with some solution that Los Alamos doesn’t already have aren’t high, but that’s not the point,” Brown said. “It’s about giving them a challenging problem to work on, and it’s just gravy if they come up with a workable idea. For us [at Los Alamos], it’s also a recruiting opportunity.”

One of the weekend’s nine teams consisted of students Tu Nguyen, a junior studying petroleum engineering; Jessica Ezemba, a junior studying mechanical engineering; Elohi Gonzales, a graduate student working toward her masters in nuclear engineering; Ahad Ali, a sophomore studying aerospace engineering; Liam Fortier, a sophomore studying nuclear engineering; and Antonio Ruiz, a freshman hoping to specialize in aerospace engineering.

Most of the team members did not know each other before this weekend, but by Saturday afternoon they had worked together closely to complete a prototype for a heat shield that can be easily manufactured in space using a 3D printer.

“I love learning about and experiencing anything concerning space, and a heat shield is something commonly used on spacecraft,” Ruiz said, noting his special interest in the topic. “I like to read about that a lot, and the thought that I could work with that, it is something that really interested me.”

Fortier, who also participated in a recent Aggies Invent competition that focused on cybersecurity, said the topic of nuclear security provides more of a challenge and leaves less room for creativity.

“This one more is focused on technical specifications, meeting very specific heat and pressure requirements,” he said. “The last [Aggies Invent weekend] was more about proofing, prototyping and getting a product out there.”

Brown and Rodney Boehm, the College of Engineering’s director of engineering entrepreneurship, both said that even with a topic as complex as nuclear science, the participation of non-engineering students is beneficial to the projects.

“I’ve been really surprised at how well students of other disciplinary backgrounds have been able to work with engineering material,” Brown said.

“We like to have non-engineering students engaged, too, because [engineers], left on our own, will create something nobody needs,” Boehm said. “...These are some very technical problems the students are going after, but they have to make the implementation and explanation simple enough so it can become relevant.”

In November 2018, nonprofit Triad National Security, LLC, which includes the Texas A&M University System as one of three principal members, was awarded a management contract of the Los Alamos lab by the U.S. Department of Energy. Now that Texas A&M has entered a close partnership with the lab, Boehm was able to facilitate the interaction of Aggie students with Los Alamos scientists through Aggies Invent.

Boehm said he will even travel to New Mexico in the coming months to conduct a professional version of Aggies Invent with engineers at Los Alamos, and hopes for more collaborations like this in the future.

“We just had a meeting about providing some certificates and potentially courses for researchers at that lab,” he said. “It’s all about how we can help each other and leverage those resources; how we can come together to form stronger bonds.”

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