Alum studies safety of nuclear energy

Sola Talabi, a Pitt alumnus and founder of Pittsburgh-Technical, is researching advanced nuclear reactors in Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Photo of Sola Talabi)

Sola Talabi always had a vision that one day he would “turn the lights on in Africa.”

“Five thousand children die every day in Africa because they don’t have access to power,” he said. “I call that an emergency.”

Talabi’s vision motivated him to spend the last 20 years pursuing a cost-effective solution to the energy crisis that endangers millions of people in Africa and around the world.

Talabi — a 39-year-old engineer and Pitt alumnus — works in the Pittsburgh area testing the safety of small modular reactors, or SMRs, which can be used to produce nuclear energy. He founded Pittsburgh-Technical in 2014, a research company that looks to develop safe and efficient nuclear energy for use in both developed and developing countries.

“The message is that nuclear power is OK and our research is gonna show that,” Talabi said. “People fear nuclear energy in the same way they fear planes, despite the fact that statistically, planes are much safer than cars.”

Born in Nigeria, Talabi received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Pitt in 2001. He eventually received three more degrees from Carnegie Mellon — a master’s in mechanical engineering, a master’s in business, and a Ph.D. in engineering and public policy. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he worked as an engineer for Westinghouse Electric — a company that produces nuclear power — for more than a decade.

“The people [at Pitt] were so welcoming and the staff was extremely helpful,” he said. “It was because of the University that I was even able to get my start at Westinghouse.”

Talabi’s job at Westinghouse jump-started his career in nuclear engineering and eventually led him to his current research with SMRs. He said SMRs only produce energy when specific natural conditions — such as gravity — are met within the containment of the SMR. If a condition isn’t met, the SMR stops functioning, but its safety mechanisms still work — meaning the reactor won’t melt down and will cool off much quicker than a larger reactor. The containment of the SMR is also composed of material that absorbs radionuclides — radioactive atoms that can produce harmful radiation.

You might be familiar with some of the accidents that have occurred — Fukushima [Daiichi nuclear disaster], Chernobyl [disaster],” Talabi said. “We have designed this reactor so that these accidents cannot occur, so we are calling it an accident-proof reactor.”

Talabi’s said his research in Pittsburgh — funded by the U.S. Department of Energy — involves simulating scenarios in which a SMR would experience a severe accident and showing that the accident would present minimal risk. Using a system of cameras and laser sensors, he can monitor a mock SMR and record how it functions during different scenarios. He said these trials aim to prove the technology is safe so it can be approved for broader use. He estimates SMR technology will be widely used in five to 10 years and that the final report of his research to be filed in March 2018.

“What I really envision for [SMRs] is for one to power, say, a whole town as opposed to having an energy plant power multiple areas at once,” he said.

SMRs were invented to power submarines — although they have never been fitted to power anything else up to this point — and so they are significantly smaller and produce a relatively small amount of energy than the larger nuclear reactors currently used to produce power. As a result, SMRs are safer, and cheaper, than larger nuclear because they are less complex and require less man power to maintain — making it more feasible that they could be available in developing countries.

Tom Congedo, a Pitt adjunct professor with several decades of experience working with nuclear reactors, has met with Talabi a few times to learn about his research.

“He is really a next level thinker,” Congedo said. “Talabi is pushing for nuclear energy to move beyond what is currently accepted.”

Congedo — along with Dan Cole, director of Pitt’s Stephen R. Tritch Nuclear Engineering Program, and Heng Ban, a Pitt thermophysics researcher — hopes to form a research partnership between Talabi and Pitt in the future. Cole said this research partnership would benefit both University research and the nuclear engineering field as a whole, although the team still doesn’t know exactly when the partnership will form or what it will involve.

Cole said the partnership would have a particular emphasis on student education and getting students involved in nuclear research.

“We would have the opportunity to have students work on projects that would be the next generation of nuclear reactors,” Cole said.

Talabi said in the future, the SMR could be transported by truck to a town that needs energy. Then, it could be easily plugged into that town’s power grid to provide clean and efficient energy for several decades. He hopes SMRs will one day be as common as any other commercial technology.  

“If cell phones could fix the issue of telecommunications, I believe that this technology could fix [the energy crisis] just as easily,” Talabi said.

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