Tag Archives: second law

Graphite for Very High Temperature Reactors (VHTR)

One of the implications of the second law of thermodynamics is that the thermal efficiency of power stations increases with their operating temperature.  Thus, there is a drive to increase the operating temperature in the next generation of nuclear power stations, known as Generation IV reactors.  In one type of Generation IV reactors, known as the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR), graphite is designed to be both the moderator for neutrons and a structural element of the reactor.  Although the probability of damage in an accident is extremely low, it is important to consider the consequences of damage causing the core of the reactor to be exposed to air.  In these circumstances, with the core temperature at about 1600°C, the graphite would be exposed to severe oxidation by the air that could change its material properties and ability to function as a moderator and structural element.  Therefore, in recent research, my research group has been working with colleagues at the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) and at the National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) in Taiwan to conduct experiments on nuclear graphite over a range of temperatures.  Our recently published article shows that all grades of nuclear graphite show increased rates of oxidation for temperatures above 1200°C.  We found that large filler particles using a pitch-based graphite rather than a petroleum-based graphite gave higher oxidation resistance at these elevated temperatures.  This data is likely to be important in the design and operations of the next generation of nuclear power stations.

The work described above was supported by the NTHU-University of Liverpool Dual PhD Programme [see ‘Citizens of the world‘ on November 27th, 2019] and NNL.  This is the fifth, and for the moment last, in a series of posts on recent work published by my research group.  The others are: ‘Salt increases nanoparticle diffusion‘ on April 22nd, 2020; ‘Spatio-temporal damage maps for composite materials‘ on May 6th, 2020; ‘Thinking out of the box leads to digital image correlation through space‘ on June 24th, 2020; and, ‘Potential dynamic buckling in hypersonic vehicle skin‘ on July 1st, 2020.

The image is figure 5: SEM micrographs of the surface of petroleum-based IG-110 graphite samples oxidized at various temperatures from Lo IH, Tzelepi A, Patterson EA, Yeh TK. A study of the relationship between microstructure and oxidation effects in nuclear graphite at very high temperatures.  J. Nuclear Materials. 501:361-70, 2018.


Lo I-H, Yeh T-K, Patterson EA & Tzelepi A, Comparison of oxidation behaviour of nuclear graphite grades at very high temperatures, J. Nuclear Materials, 532:152054, 2020.

Meta-knowledge: knowledge about knowledge

As engineers, we like to draw simple diagrams of the systems that we are attempting to analyse because most of us are pictorial problem-solvers and recording the key elements of a problem in a sketch helps us to identify the important issues and select an appropriate solution procedure [see ‘Meta-representational competence’ on May 13th, 2015].  Of course, these simple representations can be misleading if we omit parameters or features that dominate the behaviour of the system; so, there is considerable skill in idealising a system so that the analysis is tractable, i.e. can be solved.  Students find it especially difficult to acquire these skills [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018] and many appear to avoid drawing a meaningful sketch even when examinations marks are allocated to it [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018].  Of course, in thermodynamics it is complicated by the entropy of the system being reduced when we omit parameters in order to idealise the system; because with fewer parameters to describe the system there are fewer microstates in which the system can exist and, hence according to Boltzmann, the entropy will be lower [see ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th, 2017].  Perhaps this is the inverse of realising that we understand less as we know more.  In other words, as our knowledge grows it reveals to us that there is more to know and understand than we can ever hope to comprehend [see ‘Expanding universe‘ on February 7th, 2018]. Is that the second law of thermodynamics at work again, creating more disorder to counter the small amount of order achieved in your brain?

Image: Sketch made during an example class

Time at the heart of our problems

This week I started teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students for the first time in twelve months.  I have had a break for a year because my course, which is only delivered once per year, was moved from first to second semester.  Although I have continued to teach postgraduate courses, it’s been like a sabbatical enforced by timetable changes.  Sadly, it’s over and I am back in the large lecture theatre in front of a couple of hundred of students – that makes it sound as if I don’t enjoy it which is not true but it does increase the intensity of the job because all of the other aspects of the role continue unabated.  So, for me time appears to accelerate as I attempt to jam more activities into a week.

Time lies at the heart of much of thermodynamics although we tend not to deal with it explicitly; however, it is implicit in our use of changes in the state of a system to understand it.  Quote Anaximander, the pre-Socratic philosopher & pupil of Thales of Miletus: ‘We understand the world by studying change, not by studying things’.  Time also lies at the centre of the tangle of problems found at the intersection of the theories of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.  As Carlo Rovelli has remarked we are still in the dark about this tangle of problems; so, I will touch on it in my thermodynamics course but just to show students the limits of our knowledge and perhaps inspire one or two of them to think about tackling them in postgraduate studies.

Meanwhile, I plan tackle my challenges with time by slowing it down once a week with a walk in the Clwydian Hills where the landscape appears unchanging so that time stands still allowing me to relax.


Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Wohllerben P, The hidden life of trees, London, William Collins, 2017.

An expanding universe

I attended a workshop last month at which one of the speakers showed us this graphic.  It illustrates that the volume of information available to us has been approximately doubling every year.  In 2005, the digital universe was 130 Exabytes (billions of gigabytes) and by 2020 it is expected to have grown to about 40,000 Exabytes.  The second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy or disorder of the physical universe is always increasing; so, is this also true for the digital universe?  Claude Shannon proposed that information is negentropy, which implies that an increasing growth in information represents a decrease in entropy and this seems to contradict the second law [see my post ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th, 2017].  Perhaps the issue is the definition of information – the word comes from the Latin: informare, which means to inform or to give someone knowledge.  I suspect that much of what we view on our digital screens does not inform and is data rather than information.  Our digital screens are akin to telescopes used to view the physical universe – they let us see what’s out there, but we have to do some processing of the data in order to convert it into knowledge.  It’s that last bit that can be stressful if we don’t have some control mechanisms available to limit the amount of disorder that we ask our brains to cope with – we are back to Gadget Stress [see my post on April 9th, 2014] and Digital Detox [see my post on August 10th, 2016].

Source: Atsufumi Hirohata, Department of Electronics, University of York www-users.york.ac.uk/~ah566/lectures/adv01_introduction.pps

Image: http://japan.digitaldj.network.com/articles/9538.html