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ORNL Undergraduate Research Profile: Heather Young

University of Tennessee senior studies cost reduction technique for satellites


ORNL Intern Heather Young

Heather Young, an intern in the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), spent her summer in the Materials Science and Technology Division investigating cheaper, lighter alternatives for aluminum cold plates in satellites.

On her first morning as an intern in the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) program, Heather Young checked her cell phone for text messages, emails and the weather forecast. As she drove to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), she shared the road with hundreds of other scientists and interns who relied on an automated voice and turn-by-turn directions to arrive at their summer research destination.

While these individuals drove the long road to the heart of the ORNL campus, Young and her mentor James Klett, Ph.D., commenced a research project that could impact GPS and cell phone user experience and fees. With satellite utilization as universal as engineers’ desires to constantly improve and evolve modern technologies, Young and other researchers have made it a priority to lessen satellites’ load to broaden connectivity and reduce overhead cost.

The HERE program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy, and presents opportunities for students of all academic levels to study real-world energy and environmental problems in a top-tier federal research facility. Young spent her past two summers interning in the Materials Science and Technology Division of ORNL, gaining fundamental research skills like interpretation and analysis of data, experimental design and experience in technical software, such as SolidWorks and Star CCM+ software for computational fluid dynamics.

“The purpose of my research was to conduct an evaluation of the heat transfer characteristics of a material called high thermal conductivity graphite foam, which is used to cool the electronic components of satellites,” said Young, a senior in mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee. “Currently, satellites use liquid cooling with aluminum cold plates using cooling channels machined into the aluminum, but these aluminum cold plates are extremely heavy. Replacing these cold plates with lightweight, high conductivity foam could save significant weight on satellites.”

The lighter the satellite, the cheaper and easier to launch, which could lead to enhanced coverage area for television, cell phones or other forms of communications and entertainment.

“Smaller satellites mean more than one can launch on one rocket, thereby reducing costs by hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Young. “This will, in turn, reduce the cost to the end user and make our use of information more affordable and seamless.”

Young met with her mentor every morning and spent the rest of her time alongside other team members, preparing the foam for characterization and analyzing its properties using a scanning electronic microscope. The process, though time-consuming, enables researchers to effectively and efficiently study the pore size, density, thermal conductivity and physical structure of the foam. In time, the research will be used by satellite designers at MIT Lincoln Labs—ORNL’s strategic partner—to determine the foam’s suitability as a replacement for aluminum cold plates.

During the course of two summers, Young cultivated a robust professional network and gained unparalleled insights into the daily life of a researcher at a world-class federal laboratory. It’s a life she looks forward to leading.

“I chose a career in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, because I want to potentially make an impact on people’s lives through new designs and innovative ideas. The HERE program helped me realize there are ample opportunities at the lab to cross-collaborate to impact real change,” said Young. “My overall impression of this experience is very positive. I felt supported the whole way through as everyone wanted me to succeed.”