A "Crash Course" in Materials Science – Pt 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the long-awaited Nuked Radio Special on The Wigner Effect, with Leuren Moret and Laurens Battis. Over the next few weeks we will be posting a series of articles that will address the following question from a multitude of perspectives:

Is Fukushima Radiation causing problems with aviation and infrastructure?

Part 1 in the series introduced my guests, and gave an overall view of what the Wigner effect is, and how entropy figures in when we are discussing the escalation of flight emergencies and radiation, from an engineering and data collection standpoint.

This second article will more specifically address metal and glass – from nuclear reactors to aircraft – and the historic evidence of radiation-induced damage known in the field of materials science. There are 2 videos embedded below of my interview with Leuren Moret and Laurens Battis. Our discussion on these two topics will continue in the next installment of the series, when we breakdown what was observed in automobiles following nuclear detonations in the 1950’s, and the government response to those issues.

Materials science, also commonly known as materials science and engineering, is an interdisciplinary field which deals with the discovery and design of new materials. Though it is a relatively new scientific field that involves studying materials through the materials paradigm (synthesis, structure, properties and performance), its intellectual origins reach back to the emerging fields of chemistry, mineralogy and engineering during the Enlightenment. It incorporates elements of physics and chemistry, and is at the forefront of nanoscience and nanotechnology research. In recent years, materials science has become more widely known as a specific field of science and engineering.

It is an important part of forensic engineering (the investigation of materials, products, structures or components that fail or do not operate or function as intended, causing personal injury or damage to property) and failure analysis, the latter being the key to understanding, for example, the cause of various aviation accidents. Many of the most pressing scientific problems that are faced today are due to the limitations of the materials that are available and, as a result, breakthroughs in this field are likely to have a significant impact on the future of technology.

EPSON DSC picture

History Repeats

Present-day anomalies in materials science almost always have a reference from the past. This is especially true when it comes to the nuclear industry, with its long history of leaks, accidents, and fubar events. We have been nuking the planet long enough to know (and document) the effect of radiation on materials such as metal and glass. We also have the published works of Eugene Wigner, the Manhattan Project scientists, the IAEA, and other nuclear watchdog organizations – as well as nuclear weapons labs such as Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Oak Ridge. We continue to gather data from failed storage projects such as Yucca Mountain, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the underground Gorbelen nuclear waste storage in Germany, and the most ambitous-but-essentially-abandoned-containment-project-ever-attempted  – the Onkalo in Norway. What may be the most defining point of this entire series is the fact that these events are not confined to a sub-atomic space, even when it’s buried under a mountain, ‘frozen’ in glass tubes, or encased in solid bedrock. The rads have an uncanny way of defying any and all efforts to contain them. The accidents and failures of these nuclear nightmares plus many others have been escaping into the environment for more than half a century, and continue to move through the biosphere as effortlessly as an organism breathes oxygen or absorbs nutrients. Which brings us to the present day, and the grandaddy nuclear accident of them all, at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan – which is still steaming, leaking, and pouring radiation into the Pacific Ocean 1300 days later. But for now, let’s review what the nuclear industry has known ever since we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that is, that radiation greatly accelerates the breakdown of many materials.

Crash course nuke diagram


There are a multitude of defects that can affect metals from environmental factors, such as corrosion, fatigue, and stress. Bombardment of metals by alpha, beta, gamma, and x-ray radiation causes acceleration in the breaking of the crystalline structure inside metal at a molecular level; such changes are referred to as radiation induced embrittlement, swelling, or creep. Thickness of metal will add to the integrity for the long-term, and the structure required for a part to be within specs is determined by engineering and mathematics. The point at which a metal loses integrity is determined by exposure to stress and temperature (see: entropy). As these rates increase so does the failure rate of a specific material. Radiation greatly increases this effect, which was defined by the work of Eugene Wigner, and is referred to as The Wigner Effect.

Had aviation engineers had the foresight that the planes they were designing would be flying through radioactive fallout, calculations for this Crash course hydrogen embrit 2acceleration (or in the case of metal what is referred to as discomposition) on different parts of the aircraft could have been carefully considered, adjusted for, and factored in to their design plans. But improving structural integrity in radioactive fields would translate into thicker metals and associated connections to that metal, which means heavier planes, thus increasing – in the very least – fuel consumption, and adding in other complexities to the overall design. The only solution to this problem for the aircraft in current circulation would be to greatly reduce the amount of time a plane is commissioned to fly, with increased maintainance outside the scale of what is currently an acceptable standard. Without the proper calculations, what we are left with is incipient (and unexpected) breakdowns in the various systems. This breakdown is only appreciated when it becomes noticeable that plane emergencies and crashes are happening at a greater frequency than what we are used to. A future article in the series will address the statistical significance of the data we have collected so far.

Unlike the Wigner Effect on aircraft, it is no secret that the aviation industry has been in financial trouble for some time. This has unfortunately translated to skimping on maintenance, when in actuality it should have been increasing, considering aging air fleets and the radiological releases the planes have been flying through since the Fukushima Accident. You may think of this in terms of owning a car. When times are good you may have used premium gas, had separate sets of summer tires and winter tires, or perhaps even a different car altogether for winter driving. However, when money is tight, you use the cheaper gas, drive on tires til they wear out, and sell the second car to save on insurance and costs. Instead of preventative maintenance, you only fix things when they break. This is known as running equipment to failure…one of the few things the nuclear industry actually excels at. An experienced driver will have a rough idea of when things will actually break down, but if the car is exposed to unforseen circumstances that cause the car parts to age faster, that breakdown will occur sooner rather than later. When it comes to aviation, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that cutting corners will exacerbate the frequency of flight emergencies and crashes. But when you then factor in the current radioactive bombardment affecting the entire system – something the industry heads have not done despite early reports of planes being contaminated with radiation   – it becomes much more apparent that the aviation industry is in big trouble right now, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

2: Metallurgy in Reactors and Planes



Crash course close up fract glassUnfortunately for pilots, flight crews, and frequent fliers everywhere, the Wigner Effect doesn’t stop at just metal; it affects almost every component of the aircraft, such as hoses, fittings, pipes, electronics, computer chips, mechanical parts, hydraulics, and even the cockpit glass.

Leuren goes into much greater detail about glass in segment 3 video (linked below), and we will touch on the other various components and their anticipated failures as well.

An example of failure analysis in cockpit glass can be found here.

3: The Effect of Radiation on Glass

Rocket Scientists

Some of the best studies (and quotes) in Materials Science and radiation bombardment have come from Space Programs.

“There is an equivalent of a Mach 1 — a sound barrier — that exists, in terms of galactic cosmic radiation,” Alvin Drew, manager of NASA’s Deep Space Habitat Project, said during a presentation with the agency’s Future In-Space Operations working group. “Until we solve that, we are still in the age of wooden ships and canvas sail for going out in space,” added Drew, an astronaut who has flown on two space shuttle missions. “Until we get to a point where we are looking at steam engines and ships of iron, we may be very limited in how far we can go.”

This limitation is not only from the health effects of cosmic radiation on astronauts, but the integrity of the structures they are encased in, and whether or not those structures will be sound enough for a trip back to Earth.




Some additional sources of knowledge regarding space exploration and radiation effects encountered should include the following links:

NASA: What is Space Radiation?

NASA: Space Radiation Protection and design criteria

NIST: NASA Space Radiation Program Overview

Radiation Effect on Satellites – a JPL Perspective (ppt) – requires MS Office

Radiation Effects on Space Electronics – University of Oslo

Structural Framework for Flight: NASA’s Role in Development of Advanced Composite Materials for Aircraft andSpace Structures

Guidelines on Lithium-ion Battery Use in Space Applications

The Space Radiation Analysis Group (SRAG) at the Johnson Space Center is responsible for ensuring that the radiation exposure received by astronauts remains below established safety limits. To fulfill this responsibility, the group provides:

  • Radiological support during missions.
  • Pre-flight and extra-vehicular activity (EVA) crew exposure projections.
  • Evaluation of radiological safety with respect to exposure to isotopes and radiation producing equipment carried on the spacecraft.
  • Comprehensive crew exposure modeling capability.
  • Radiation instruments to characterize and quantify the radiation environment inside and outside the spacecraft.

An Atmospheric Radiation Analysis Group for Aviation Safety is what is needed to deal with the Wigner Effect post-Fukushima.

At this point, researchers who have studied the radiological releases from the Fukushima Accident should now realize something of extreme importance, if they haven’t already; that aircraft have been flying for three-and-a-half-years through radioactive fallout, something they were never designed to do.  This will become much clearer as the series progresses.

The conversation will take on yet a whole new level of complexity when we start to factor in the static buildup on aircraft (especially helicopters), nuclear chemistry, the electrical charge of radioactive particles, and aggregation kinetics.

Next in the Series: Weapons Testing and Automobiles; Location of Fallout & Flight Emergencies

Crash course 3 cockpit

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