After completing her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Julie Tucker worked in industry for five years as a lead scientist, helping design nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers at a government-owned, contractor-operated power lab in Schenectady, New York.
As time went by, however, Tucker realized the work she was doing wasn’t as fulfilling as she wanted.
She had taught a course or two at her workplace, and she enjoyed research, so she decided to send her CV to a number of universities, knowing the competition for tenure-track faculty positions was fierce.
“I figured if I got lucky, I might get one interview, learn some things, and then apply again in the future,” Tucker said.
It turns out Tucker got four interviews and a few job offers. She selected the College of Engineering at Oregon State, in part for the sense of community she found among the faculty and staff of its School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering (MIME).
“Now I absolutely love my job,” said Tucker, who has been at Oregon State three years. “It’s definitely my calling, and the great culture and community here in the school really helps, too.”
The 50-plus MIME faculty — half of whom are new assistant professors — have a weekly happy hour and other ways to connect so that Tucker has felt connected and well supported from day one.
“As new faculty, we’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support, and I’m passing that on to the new people coming in,” she said.
Instead of working on submarines and aircraft carriers, Tucker’s research now impacts everything from CO2 emissions to the materials used in Leatherman multi-tools.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said.
At the heart of Tucker’s research interest is the study of metals and other materials that can survive in extreme environments. “If we can understand why they break down, we can design materials that don’t,” she said.
For the Leatherman project, Tucker and her students are testing a range of new alloys that offer both corrosion resistance and strength for tools used in harsh marine environments and exposed to seawater. Her research for this project is funded by Leatherman Tool Group Inc. and the Oregon Metals Initiative.
“My students love applied research like this,” Tucker said. “It’s super sexy and they dream about working at a company like Leatherman.”
Another research project has Tucker and her students figuring out the best materials to use in the high-temperature, high-pressure environments of next-generation power plants that will use CO2 to drive turbines instead of steam.
These plants will cost less to construct because the turbines can be an order of magnitude smaller in size, requiring less energy input to produce the same amount of power. But researchers don’t yet know for sure how the CO2 will react with the material containing it.
“We’re basically helping figure out what you make the new power plants out of,” Tucker said. “Fossil fuel plants are interested, because they can also sequester their CO2 emissions.”
Total funding for this project is close to a million dollars, coming from the U.S. Department of Energy, Idaho National Laboratory, and a private company in Turkey.
Tucker also has a research project focused on improving the materials used to hold uranium fuel pellets at nuclear power plants. During the Fukushima power plant accident, the zirconium metal that holds the fuel became so hot it triggered a chemical reaction, which lead to a hydrogen explosion that released radiation. Tucker and her team are exploring silicon carbide, a ceramic, as an alternative to zirconium-based fuel cladding.
Tucker recently won a prestigious NSF CAREER Award, accompanied by $522,000 in funding, for her proposal to study alloys kept in service for many years at temperatures from 200-500 degrees Celsius – a range where temperature effects are very low in the short run but become significant over time. Knowledge of how alloys behave in this middle range of temperatures are essential in many important industries, including the aerospace, energy production, and petrochemical industries. As the materials degrade, their ability to perform as designed is compromised, which can lead to safety hazards. But because degradation can take decades, laboratory studies are impractical because they could last years. Tucker proposes to use radiation to accelerate the alloy degradation process, thus making laboratory evaluation feasible.
“We expect to be able to use this knowledge to design new alloys that are better suited to resist long-term thermal degradation,” said Tucker. The award goes into effect in June 2017.
Tucker won the Young Leaders Professional Development Award from the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society in 2016 and the Young Scientist Award from the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in 2010.
She sums up both her research and teaching philosophy in two succinct sentences: “I bring real life examples into the classroom and lab so my students see why this might matter. And I try to create a supportive, caring environment in which students can thrive.”
— Gregg Kleiner