UNEP Breakthrough

Faster and Smarter Nuclear Forensics

The University of Utah’s Nuclear Engineering Program (UNEP) recently made waves with its study published in the Nuclear Science and Engineering Journal. The research, led by PhD student Ted Goodell, focuses on improving the efficiency of nuclear forensics through rapid image analysis.

Ted and UNEP professors tackled the challenge of precisely analyzing particle morphology in electron microscope images of uranium oxides. Typically, this requires a great deal of manual labor to analyze large datasets using a program called Morphological Analysis of Materials (MAMA) from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). They modified MAMA to rapidly segment and quantify the morphology of massive image databases without human interaction.  By employing parallelization strategies in a high-performance computing (HPC) environment, they achieved an efficient approach, showcasing an Amdahl fraction of 0.985 and a rapid image processing rate of approximately 0.251 seconds per image.

This success not only contributes to our understanding of nuclear materials but also sets the stage for automating interactive image segmentation on a large scale. With support from LANL and the U.S. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration, this study reinforces UNEP’s commitment to pioneering research in nuclear science and engineering.

Congratulations to Ted and team for their significant step forward in advancing nuclear forensics!


The output of MAMA’s hierarchical watershed segmentation system. The original (left) is processed by MAMA to produce green outlines of the particles it segmented (right).

Speedup curves for each parallelization method on one node and curves created with the fitted Amdahl fractions.


Shredding Slopes and Solving Equations

Joe Davies: Engineering Major and Elite Skier

Engineering majors often have a lot on their plate due to the demanding curriculum. And then there’s Joe Davies, who’s (somehow) successfully balancing his studies with a career as a competitive cross-country skier and a key member of the University of Utah Ski team.

In addition to staying on top of coursework, Joe is currently gearing up for the U23 World Championship this February, and next month, he’ll be defending his title as Individual Champion at the NCAA Championships in Steamboat, Colorado (no pressure).

A third-year student at the University of Utah’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Joe’s journey in the world of competitive cross-country skiing began at the age of 10. After years of persistence and dedication, he’s now a proud member of the Division I University of Utah Ski team, while also taking his talents to the international stage by racing in the World Cup.

Having completed his first two years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and skiing across the globe, Joe could have chosen any path for his competitive spirit and high educational pursuits. But with its perfect blend of academic excellence and unparalleled access to the mountains, there’s no place quite like the U.

Beyond skiing, Joe’s ambitions at the U are deep-rooted. “Ever since I was a child I knew I wanted to pursue some sort of career in the environmental sector, I just didn’t know exactly what type of job that would be,” said Joe. After a gap year dedicated to full-time skiing, he decided that Civil Engineering would allow him to make the most positive impact in the environment.

Having completed his first semester at the U in the Fall, Joe has particularly enjoyed working with Dr. Lenart in his Technical Communications class as well as Professor Brockmann in his Engineering Economics class, and he looks forward to focusing more on Environmental Engineering in the coming years.

Being both a student-athlete and an engineering major presents its challenges, but for Joe, it’s a journey worth making sacrifices for. Balancing schoolwork with a rigorous racing schedule taught him the importance of time management and goal-oriented work ethic.

Outside the classroom, Joe enjoys backcountry skiing in the winter, mountain biking in the summer, brewing specialty coffee, and enjoying his vinyl collection.

Joe Davies exemplifies the dedication of an engineering student at the University of Utah. As Joe carves his way through both engineering challenges and snowy slopes, his story epitomizes the unique and vibrant culture fostered at the U, where academic excellence and a love for outdoor adventure are aplenty.

Join us in wishing Joe the best of luck with both this season and semester!

“I chose to come to the University of Utah for the large level of support it provides its student-athletes, as well as the opportunity to train with one of the strongest teams in the country.” – Joe Davies





Unveiling the World of Fracture Geomechanics

Dr. Shahrzad Roshankhah to Edit a Special Issue in Journal of Geosciences

We are thrilled to announce that Dr. Shahrzad Roshankhah has been invited to serve as a guest editor for a special issue in collaboration with Dr. Wenfeng Li of the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Journal of Geosciences.

This journal issue, titled “Fracture Geomechanics – Obstacles and New Perspectives,” will focus on understanding the challenges and exploring novel viewpoints within the realm of fracture geomechanics.

This special issue provides a unique opportunity for researchers interested in fracture geomechanics to share their insights and findings with a wider audience: Interested researchers can click here to find detailed information about the objectives of the issue, a comprehensive list of relevant topics, and guidance on the manuscript submission procedure.

For those eager to contribute or with any inquiries, Dr. Roshankhah and Dr. Li can be reached at mailto:Shahrzad.Roshankhah@utah.edu and mailto:wli23@lanl.gov, respectively. Engagement and questions are not only welcomed but encouraged as they contribute to the collaborative spirit of this initiative.

As a department, we are excited about the prospect of our faculty playing a key role in harboring collaborative research in the field of geomechanics. Best of luck to Dr. Shahrzad Roshankhah and Dr. Wenfeng Li in their spearheading this endeavor!




Utah Nuclear Engineering Program Relocates its Retired Reactor

The U Donates Nuclear Reactor to ISU

The AGN-201 reactor, the University of Utah’s inaugural reactor, was decommissioned in 1996, and all AGN fuel and nuclear instrumentation was transferred to Idaho State University (ISU). Yet the AGN tank remained, and occupying valuable lab space of the Utah Nuclear Engineering Program (UNEP) for over 20 years.

In November 2023, the AGN tank was finally transferred to ISU, but transporting it was a seriously complex operation. Andrew Allison, UNEP’s Reactor Operations Manager, orchestrated the logistics between Idaho State University’s reactor supervisor, the University of Utah’s project management office, and the University police. They arranged for a contractor to handle the rigging and transportation, all while maintaining the security of the facility, even with lab’s bay door open.

ISU stands to gain significantly from the AGN reactor, further enhancing nuclear engineering education. Originally built in the 1950s and 60s, AGN reactors served as a training tools for universities, shaping the first generation of nuclear engineering in higher education. Its design and fuel composition, utilizing 20% enriched U-235 in a polyethylene matrix with modest dimensions and a maximum power of 5.0 Watts, made it unique.

In contrast, UNEP’s current TRIGA Reactor is a swimming pool reactor that doesn’t require a containment building and is designed for diverse research and testing purposes. Using uranium zirconium hydride (UZrH) fuel, it boasts unique safety features, allowing safe operations up to 100kW.

With the removal of the old AGN tank, Andrew and UNEP can now repurpose the space for TRIGA reactor maintenance and other essential lab projects, ensuring the continuation of Utah’s sole Nuclear Engineering Program.




Pioneering Transportation Infrastructure

Utah Universities Partner to Launch Innovative Transportation Electrification Certificate Program

University of Utah is awarded around $600,000 by the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE)’s Deep Technology Talent Initiative to introduce a pioneering Transportation Infrastructure Electrification Joint Certificate Program. USHE’s Technology Talent Initiative aims to support the creation of multidisciplinary programs that would develop students’ proficiency for technology-focused job roles. This certificate program is going to be a collaborative effort pulling domain experts from two major state universities in Utah: the University of Utah and Utah State University. Dr. Cathy Liu at the UofU (program director) and Dr. Regan Zane (program co-director) at USU will be leading the effort.

The program will address critical challenges in the transition to a clean and sustainable electric power sector, particularly focusing on the integration of electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy sources into the existing power grid. The move comes as the nation grapples with the need for sustainable solutions to combat climate change and, importantly to Utah, improve air quality.

With its interdisciplinary approach, the program will prepare graduates to tackle complex societal issues while adapting to an increasingly interconnected world. The curriculum covers mobility-energy system modeling, renewable energy adoption, charging solutions, and AI-enabled learning. Additionally, modules on equity, policy, and economics provide students with a comprehensive understanding of technology adoption within a societal context.

The certificate program, stackable on top of a regular graduate degree, consists of 15 credit hours and welcomes students from diverse backgrounds. Courses will be offered online and in-person, encouraging collaboration across campuses.

This program marks a big step in developing a skilled workforce for electrified transportation. Its launch showcases Utah’s dedication to shaping a sustainable future through education and innovation.



Dr. Cathy Liu Earns Prestigious Educator Award

CvEEN Professor Earns 2023 Outstanding Educator Award

The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) is a global organization dedicated to improving transportation systems and creating smarter, more livable communities. Within this vast network, the Mountain District ITE represents the U.S.’s mountain states and recognizes outstanding educators in the field.

Dr. Cathy Liu has been honored with the Mountain District ITE Outstanding Educator Award. The annual award acknowledges educators who go above and beyond for their students. Dr. Liu’s passion for transportation education and her dedication to her students has earned her this recognition.

Her work focuses on sustainable transportation systems, including public transit, managed lanes, transportation modeling, GIS-based infrastructure management, and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). Dr. Liu’s contributions have expanded our understanding of these areas and have inspired countless students to explore the transportation professions and research further.

Dr. Liu’s receipt of the Mountain District ITE Outstanding Educator Award will be recognized in the prestigious ITE Journal. Her dedication and innovation have set a high standard in the transportation field, inspiring future generations of professionals to make a lasting impact.



Balancing Academics, Athletics, and Environmental Advocacy

Chloe Kockler: Remarkable Student-Athlete and Engineering major

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to balance a demanding engineering major with a student-athlete lifestyle and still find time for passions outside of academics? Meet Chloe Kockler: a remarkable student-athlete and a Civil and Environmental Engineering major at the U.

As a fifth-year student, Chloe is pursuing a degree in Environmental Engineering with a minor in Nuclear Engineering, and she’s also on the U’s cross country and track teams.

Chloe Kockler, Student-Athlete and Engineering Major

Chloe is a committed engineering major, driven by a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world, with aspirations to potentially earn her Ph.D. Yet Cloe’s academic journey began in a different place.

Chloe started as a biology major, with hopes of eventually attending medical school. Yet, during her freshman year, the desire to create a positive impact on the environment became an overwhelming passion for her. Fueled by a desire to champion sustainability and ecological well-being, she made the huge switch to Environmental Engineering.

To be a better champion of sustainability, Chloe introduced a minor in Nuclear Engineering in her third year, which allows her to research innovative, carbon-neutral energy solutions that hold the potential to transform the world’s current energy landscape.

Combining the rigorous demands of an engineering major plus a minor with the responsibilities of a student-athlete is no easy feat, and Chloe’s experience has been anything but linear: The journey has been marked by injuries and health challenges. Chloe’s fortitude has been tested, and she’s a stronger student and athlete for persevering.

“As an engineering major, I think being determined and resilient is really crucial to success,” said Chloe. “In addition, being a student athlete also teaches you to have a really strong work ethic and great time management skills. I can attribute my success both in and outside of the classroom to both of those characteristics.”

The work ethic Chloe has on the track and cross-country course is present in her research as well. She passionately works alongside Dr. Emily Marron in her lab.

“My experience with her has been nothing short of amazing. She is such an inspiring person in and out of work, and her professional experience is really unmatched.”

Chloe is currently immersed in her honors thesis research project under the guidance of Dr. Marron.

In her rare free time, Chloe enjoys a diverse array of activities. Skiing, reading, horseback riding, rock climbing, and painting are just a few of the hobbies she enjoys. These breaks serve as a rejuvenating escape, allowing her to explore the year-round outdoor adventures Utah has to offer.

We eagerly await Chloe’s future accomplishments and the positive changes they will undoubtedly bring to the field of Environmental Engineering!



Searching for a Sustainable Future

Empowering Geoscience and Engineering Education for the Energy Transition.

Dr. Rasoul Sorkhabi, a CvEEN Research Professor, and Milind Deo, a Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Director of the Energy & Geoscience Institute, are pioneering a transformative approach to geoscience and geoengineering education. Their work, recently featured in the prestigious “Issues in Science and Technology” magazine by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, seeks to position geoscience and petroleum engineering departments to be at the forefront of the energy transition movement.

In a changing energy landscape where petroleum engineering and geoscience employment has declined and program closures loom, Dr. Sorkhabi and Dr. Deo call attention to the importance of subsurface geoscientists and engineers in bringing the world towards a low-carbon future.

To preserve and revitalize these programs, they argue, universities can design curricula centered on energy sustainability and environmental responsibility. By offering core courses that focus on energy transition research and development, students can acquire the interdisciplinary skills necessary for adapting to the evolving energy sector.

Geoscientists and engineers are uniquely equipped to explore Earth’s interconnected systems in 3D and 4D, enabling them to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of energy. Their expertise can be applied to various domains, including critical minerals, carbon sequestration, hydrogen storage, and geothermal energy development.

Moreover, these programs can serve as models for fostering innovative collaborations between academia and industry, embracing diversity and interdisciplinary work, and addressing pressing societal and environmental challenges. By reshaping geoscience and engineering education to meet the demands of the future, it’s time to inspire a new generation of students passionate about sustainable energy solutions.

Read Drs. Sorkhabi and Deo’s full publication in “Issues in Science and Technology” here.


Understanding Studtite:

Nicholas Kurtyka’s Award-Winning Research in Nuclear Engineering

Nicholas Kurtyka, a Ph.D. Nuclear Engineering candidate at the U, has been honored with the prestigious U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) award. The esteemed award recognizes Nicholas’s SCGSR research proposal, titled “A Mechanistic Study of the Thermal Decomposition of Studtite and its Intermediates.”

Nicholas will carry out much of this research, as part of his doctoral dissertation, at the historic Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

The opportunities this award affords will not only advance Nicholas’s Ph.D. studies, but also make significant contributions to the mission of the DOE Office of Science: Dr. Ping Yang, a prominent researcher at LANL, will provide invaluable support for Nicholas’s research. Her mentorship will play a pivotal role in achieving the goals of Nicholas’s Ph.D. dissertation, bridging the gap between experimental findings and a fundamental understanding of underlying mechanisms.

In essence, Nicholas’s research aims to unravel the intricacies of the thermal decomposition of studtite, a secondary uranium mineral, into α-UO3. This computational study combines Molecular Dynamics (MD), specifically employing the nudged elastic band method (NEB), and DFT to model the various phases involved in the decomposition process. This includes creating a realistic structure for the intermediate am-U2O7, determining the energetically optimal decomposition pathway, and proposing a pathway from am-U2O7 to α-UO3. Achieving these objectives will significantly enrich our comprehension of how studtite transforms during calcination, thereby benefiting the development of nuclear fuels and the long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel.

Nicholas is most appreciative of Dr. Luther McDonald, his CvEEN advisor, Dr. Ping Yang (his sponsor at LANL), and Dr. Aurora Clark (committee member) for all of their help in creating and refining the scope of the project.­



U of U Professor Enhancing Earthquake Infrastructure Resilience

The Next Generation Liquefaction (NGL) Project

Dr. Steven Bartlett, funded by a pool-fund USDOT project, the Mountain Plains Consortium, and the Utah Department of Transportation, is one of the Lead Investigators researching earthquake-related infrastructure protection.

Specifically, the project focuses on liquefaction, a perilous event where water-saturated soil momentarily loses its strength and rigidity due to earthquake vibrations, causing it to act like a liquid temporarily.

The hazards arising from liquefaction are numerous. Just a few include:

Infrastructure and Structures:

  • Lateral spreading can undermine roads, buildings, and especially bridges.
  • Bridges and elevated highways might fail if their foundational supports become destabilized.

Geological and Environmental Hazards:

  • Dams are at risk of failure, potentially leading to downstream flooding.
  • Underwater landslides induced by liquefaction can trigger tsunamis.

Utilities and Contaminants:

  • Underground utilities, including pipes and cables, are prone to breakage.
  • Areas impacted by liquefaction might undergo permanent subsidence.
  • Contaminated soils, when liquefied, can spread pollutants to cleaner regions or even water sources.

Grasping the complexities and risks of liquefaction is pivotal in urban planning and civil engineering. This knowledge is essential to devise strategies that can effectively mitigate damages during seismic events.

Titled The Next Generation Liquefaction (NGL) Project, this international project is advancing the state of the art in liquefaction research and working toward providing end users with a consensus approach to assess liquefaction potential within a probabilistic and risk-informed framework. Specifically, NGL’s goal is to first collect and organize liquefaction information in a common and comprehensive database to provide all researchers with a substantially larger, more consistent, and more reliable source of liquefaction data than existed previously. Based on this database, we will create probabilistic models that provide hazard- and risk-consistent bases for assessing liquefaction susceptibility, the potential for liquefaction to be triggered in susceptible soils, and the likely consequences.

The project, in collaboration with the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research (PEER) Center, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), and others, consists of two phases: (1) building a comprehensive database and (2) developing predictive models. They have created a well-documented database with historical cases of worldwide liquefaction-induced lateral spread from several earthquakes.

Dr. Bartlett is leading the efforts in gathering information regarding liquefaction-induced lateral spread This type of earthquake-induced land sliding is caused by horizontal soil movement resulting from soil liquefaction during earthquakes. Such movements can cause considerable damage to infrastructure. Dr. Bartlett’s research focuses on enhancing empirical and numerical methods to estimate this ground displacement.

The recently published report highlights advancements in empirical modeling, including a large dataset and thorough comparisons of existing models through simulations. Importantly, it introduces new metrics and techniques, such as Bayesian statistics and a modified linear regression model, while expanding the probabilistic framework for predicting lateral spread.

The Wasatch Front in Utah has a considerable liquefaction and lateral spread hazard. More information and maps regarding the severity and extent of the liquefaction hazard zones can be found here. This webpage contains several reports completed primarily from funding from the United States Geological Survey funded by the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP).