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ORNL Faculty Research Profile: Amir Elzawawy

Mechanical engineering assistant professor puts on nuclear engineering hardhat


Amir Elzawawy

Dr. Amir Elzawawy spent 10 weeks of his summer in the Department of Energy Visiting Faculty Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, using computational modeling to analyze the design of nuclear research reactor fuel plates in order to improve the understanding of fluid-structure interaction during normal operation.

Dr. Amir Elzawawy, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in New York, put away his syllabus this summer to assume a temporary research position at one of the nation’s most prominent facilities: the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Upon return to Vaughn College in August, Elzawawy exuded confidence that his summer had benefitted not only himself and the nuclear research reactor community, but the students shuffling into his fall semester classes, as well.

“I applied for the Department of Energy (DOE) Visiting Faculty Program (VFP) to participate in research activities with DOE scientists and researchers,” said Elzawawy. “I knew the program would allow me to grow as a faculty member and teach my undergraduate engineering students current engineering challenges, in addition to providing them with the most up-to-date skills.”  

After browsing the DOE website and discovering the DOE VFP, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy, Elzawawy submitted a research project proposal and waited to hear back. A few weeks later, he received the letter in the mail: his project proposal was accepted, and he would spend his summer in East Tennessee engulfed in the highly sensitive and complex discipline of nuclear engineering.

The VFP is sponsored and managed by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) in collaboration with the DOE National Laboratories. The program seeks to increase the research competitiveness of faculty members and their students at institutions historically underrepresented in the research community in order to expand the workforce vital to DOE’s mission.

Elzawawy’s goal was to enhance the ability to simulate and understand the mechanical interaction between high-speed coolant flow and nuclear research reactor fuel plates, an internal component of the nuclear research reactor core. This understanding is necessary in order to facilitate the conversion of nuclear research reactors around the world from high-enriched uranium, which poses security and safety risks, to low-enriched uranium. To do this, he used a software platform called COMSOL Multiphysics to develop high-resolution simulations of the interplay between water and fuel plates.

“The simulation optimized the design for LEU conversion, which helped limit costly experimental testing,” said Elzawawy, who spent his days running simulations on several ORNL computers and communicating challenges and results with his mentor, Dr. James Freels of the Research Reactors Division.

Despite this heavy virtual component of his research, Elzawawy felt that the research was tangible in essence.  

“I had design drawings in front of me, and the reactor operating in a nearby building. So I faced realistic engineering constraints, which provided an in-depth learning experience,” said Elzawawy, who enjoyed cultivating his skills in modeling and simulation.

“The skills I learned and software I used can be utilized to conduct research to help build nuclear reactors and also can be used to study blood flow in arteries. It’s amazing to see how broad the applications are,” he said.

Upon his return to Vaughn College at the end of summer, Elzawawy implemented coursework in COMSOL Multiphysics to aid his students’ understanding of fluid mechanics, heat transfer, and aerodynamics.

All in all, he believes the program is a great developmental tool for young faculty interested in establishing a research career, and he recommends the program whole-heartedly.

“This summer was the most productive for me in terms how much I learned,” he said. “It is a ‘don’t miss’ opportunity for faculty career development.”