Three Decades of Persistent Quest in Fast Reactor Materials Research and Technology

Genesis of Metallurgy and Materials Group

The metallurgy and materials group (MMG) as it is known today had its formal beginning in 1974, when Dr. Placid Rodriguez came on transfer from Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) to Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research (IGCAR), then known as RRC, the Reactor Research Centre, Kalpakkam, with the specific mandate of starting a vibrant materials research and technology development program to support the then emerging Fast breeder Reactor (FBR) technology in the country. The beginning was truly humble, as the entire program had to be developed from scratch and on multiple fronts in a parallel manner; but thanks to the continued inspiration provided by Dr. Baldev Raj, Dr. S. L. Mannan, Dr. P. R. Vasudeva Rao, Dr. T. Jayakumar, Dr. S. Venugopal and Dr. A.K. Bhaduri and also owing to their far-sighted and holistic planning and execution, the MMG today has blossomed into a world class school with focus on materials research and technology development. The range of current research and development activities of MMG is extremely diverse and indeed sprawling. These may be grouped into seven independent portfolios:

  • Materials Design and Manufacturing Technology

  • Tribology and Hardfacing

  • Materials Mechanics

  • Physical Metallurgy and Characterisation

  • Non-Destructive Evaluation and Inspection

  • Post-Irradiation Examination

  • Robotics, Innovative design, Engineering and Synthesis

  • Corrosion Science and Technology

It must be added that as the constant undercurrent of the MMG program; - runs the guiding principle that all technology related research initiatives must be useful and relevant to FBR and other DAE programs as well; in case of basic research, the primary objective is to attain at par excellence with the best in the world; with the important proviso that directed basic research aimed at long term FBR relevance is given priority.

Research and Development Activities of MMG: A Brief Survey

A comprehensive expertise and core competence in various diverse fields has been the stronghold of MMG. These include: materials design; materials property testing and evaluation; microstructural characterisation at all length scales; modelling and simulation and manufacturing technology. Extensive experience in the design, construction and operation of hot cells and development of various in-cell characterisation facilities, besides state of the art post-irradiation examination capability for development of Core structural materials and design and optimisation of fuel cycle have been among the major accomplishments of MMG. A noteworthy achievement in this regard is the examination of irradiated carbide fuel from FBTR, the fast Breeder Test Reactor that has seen a burn up of 100 GWd/t. The Commissioning of Kamini (Kalpakkam Mini) reactor for carrying out neutron radiography is also a case in point. The development of specialised techniques for pre-service and in-service inspections, robotics, automation for the examination of fuel pins irradiated in FBTR etc., is an integral part of the infrastructure that are developed over the years in MMG. An array of conventional and modern NDE techniques have been established to meet the present and emerging needs of DAE with respect to ensuring a high reliability of quality assurance of large scale and precision engineering components. These include: X –ray and neutron radiography, acoustic emission, magnetic/acoustic Barkhausen noise, infrared thermography, ultrasonic and eddy current testing, residual stress measurement techniques, research and development of ferro-fluid sensors etc. These NDE techniques are developed to meet the challenging demand of stringent fabrication quality, condition monitoring and  structural integrity of reactor and reprocessing components and reprocessing components and systems. It is very important to add that matching basic research infrastructure has also been established on these lines to make today’s research paving way for tomorrow’s technology.

In the area of mechanical property characterisation, MMG hosts a battery of creep testing machines, low cycle and thermomechanical fatigue testing equipments, instrumented drop weight and impact testing facilities and most importantly, the in-sodium testing facility, the unique of its kind in the country. The research philosophy is directed at the fundamental enquiry into the nature of high temperature plastic deformation and fracture behaviour under static and dynamic conditions, with special reference to fast reactor structural materials. This has been recently complemented by the application modelling protocols to estimate or make predictions about the remaining life of the components once they have witnessed a certain extent of damage in-service. Studies in tribology and metal forming complement the applied R&D initiatives towards the critical component development for FBR.

Necessity is the mother of innovation. In the nineties, a small focused research group has been setup in MMG to tackle innovative engineering design related problems such as irradiation capsules for in-reactor experiments including creep, influence of residual stresses in weld and modelling of weld thermal cycles, precision machining, welding of miniature components and generation of precise calibration standards for NDT testing and evaluation. A dedicated and highly focused research initiative has also been launched into investigating the materials joining aspects of FBR structural and potential reprocessing related materials. The scope of R&D spans weldability studies, indigenous development and characterisation of specialised welding consumables, development of hard facing materials and wear resistant surfacing, in-situ and ex-situ repair welding of power plant and reprocessing components with provision for automation, development of innovative welding processes like activated TIG and intelligent welding processes etc. These welding technology research activities are also supplemented by focused basic research onto understanding the micrometallurgical issues involved in weld cracking phenomenon.

In the area of physical metallurgy, considerable expertise has been developed in microstructural characterisation at all length scales, using advanced microscopy techniques that include analytical and high resolution electron microscopy. Basic research into phase transformation and phase stability characterisation of FBR materials have been pursued using a variety of techniques. The research themes include the extensive application of static and dynamic calorimetry techniques in conjunction with CALPHAD modelling protocols. Quite recently, Development of corrosion resistant advanced titanium alloys containing tantalum and niobium for reprocessing applications is actively pursued at present. In addition, various aspects of microstructure design and management during component fabrication and subsequent ageing under service etc., have been one of the recurrent research themes pursued in Physical Metallurgy. Besides, these, considerable research expertise and experimental infrastructure exists with respect to thin film processing using magnetron and pulsed laser ablation techniques.

In the area of corrosion science and technology, extensive research on general and stress corrosion cracking related issues besides high temperature oxidation that are relevant to fast reactor, power plant and reprocessing applications have been pursued. Bio fouling and related basic studies in surface sciences and surface modification for improved corrosion resistance forms an integral part of corrosion science and technology research. The infrastructure includes two dynamic liquid sodium loops and corrosion fatigue facilities. On the corrosion science front, advanced surface characterisation as well as monitoring during in-situ corrosion has been a recent addition.

What has been listed above is a compact portrayal of the typical cross section of the entire gamut of R&D undertaken in MMG. Under the prevailing tough international scenario due to embargo, there has been a sustained effort in MMG right from its inception to develop indigenous FBR structural materials and advanced fabrication techniques with active technical and commercial coordination with industry. There are many successful examples to bear testimony to this effect. Some of these include: austenitic SS 316 L(N) and D9, modified 9Cr-1Mo grades such as T91/P91, ASTM A48, P2 steel plates, welding consumables for SS 316L(N) and P91 grades, Fe-Ni-Co magnetic switches and FeB control rod material. To this one may also add the developmental R&D performed on advanced ferritics like reduced activation steel for fusion reactor applications, Oxide dispersion strengthened (ODS) ferritics for future fast reactors, besides controlled phosphorous variety of D9 for the 500 MWe PFBR, that is currently coming up at Kalpakkam. In MMG, extensive materials R&D revolves around crucial reprocessing and end of fuel cycle related issues and all these activities truly interdisciplinary in nature. The actual list is very exhaustive to give a comprehensive enumeration here.

A high degree of self reliance in critical issues related to materials development for reactor and fuel cycle management has been the guiding motto of research in MMG. It is heartening to note that the drive towards indigenous materials development has quite nicely integrated with the opportunity to do quality basic research in searching for answers to some of unknowns thrown by this indigenous materials development initiative. At this juncture mention must  be made of the fact that besides working for Indian nuclear programme, MMG also lends a substantial helping hand in addressing some of the materials oriented technology issues encountered in Indian  strategic and core programme.Active collaborations with premier academic research organisations within the country as well elsewhere have lent an international character to the quality and relevance of materials research at MMG.

It is only natural that in the light of the projected increase in the quantum of electricity generated through nuclear option, and also in view of the anticipated spurt in overall growth in economy, the role of materials science and technology is certain to assume a pivotal position in the years to come.

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