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Ceramic, heal thyself
Date:4/18/2008

RICHLAND, Wash. A new computer simulation has revealed a self-healing behavior in a common ceramic that may lead to development of radiation-resistant materials for nuclear power plants and waste storage.

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that the restless movement of oxygen atoms heals radiation-induced damage in the engineered ceramic yttria-stabilized zirconia.

Scientists Ram Devanathan and Bill Weber modeled how well that ceramic and other materials stand up to radiation. "If you want a material to withstand radiation over millennia, you can't expect it to just sit there and take it. There must be a mechanism for self-healing," said Devanathan.

"This research raises the possibility of engineering mobile defects in ceramics to enhance radiation tolerance," Weber said. He noted that materials capable of handling high-radiation doses also "could improve the durability of key equipment and reduce the costs of replacements."

The researchers approached their investigation in three steps. First, they analyzed yttria-stabilized zirconia, a compound of yttrium and zirconium oxides that contains random structural defects called "vacancies." The defects occur because yttrium has a smaller electrical charge than zirconium. To correct the charge imbalance, zirconia gives up oxygen atoms. But the loss of these oxygen atoms leaves empty oxygen sites. The remaining oxygen atoms constantly jump in and out of those sites.

"It is like a classroom full of fidgety kids," said Devanathan. "When the teacher turns her back, the kids constantly jump into empty chairs, leaving their own chairs vacant until another kid leaps into the seat."

Next, the scientists simulated an atom undergoing alpha decay. An alpha particle shoots out of the atomic nucleus with such force that the remainder of the atom recoils in the opposite direction. The recoiling atom can cause significant
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Contact: Judith Graybeal
graybeal@pnl.gov
509-375-4351
DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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