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KNOXVILLE — While he’s far from endorsing sticking silverware in your kitchen microwave, Ed Ripley, nuclear metallurgist at Y-12 National Security Complex, and his colleagues have found safe and efficient ways to use microwave energy to process metals.

Ripley will discuss this technology Friday at the University of Tennessee Science Forum with his lecture, “Who Says You Can’t Microwave a Fork? — Microwaving Metals at Y-12.”

This line of technology will help the United States become more competitive in the metal industry, Ripley said.

“The United States has basically gotten out of the business of producing metal castings because of foreign competition and the increased cost of labor and energy,” he said. “The products that we do produce are generally low quality products that are cranked out in large volumes. The microwave gives us an energy advantage and the technology allows us to do more.

Ripley said Y-12 has been processing metals for nearly a dozen years using microwave energy. The researchers at Y-12 use microwave units 12 times as large as the average consumer microwave to test the heating and molding of metals into products for consumer use.

Though it’s generally thought to be dangerous to put metal in a microwave, the researchers have developed a special container that absorbs the microwave energy and transfers the heat to the metal to prevent the arcing that causes electrical problems in most home microwaves.

“There’s nothing special about our microwave, it’s just all about the experimental setup,” he said. “The beauty is it’s all very easily done in a microwave–it’s much easier and much more controlled. It’s basically performing a really complicated task with a very simple technology.”

Ripley said the microwave technology matches up very well with vacuum induction melting, the industry standard for performing similar operations.

“It’s a lot more energy efficient, but it does take a little bit longer,” he said. “But when you do the net balance, it’s a tremendous savings.”

While Y-12 has licensed this process to a few companies, Ripley said he doesn’t expect the field to take off over night.

“Most companies are going to use equipment that has already been paid for,” he said.

But Ripley does believe when new facilities are established they will look to microwave energy because of its efficiency and ability to process multiple materials.

“It’s a special technology that can process more materials than any other single technology today,” he said.

The UT Science Forum is a weekly, non-technical lecture and discussion designed to help others better understand research across many disciplines. It is held every Friday at noon in Thompson-Boling Arena in dining rooms C and D. Attendees may bring their own lunch or purchase it at the arena. Each presentation should last around 40 minutes followed by a question and answer session.

Additional upcoming Science Forums follow:

• “When Ants Rule the World–Oh Wait, They Already Do,” Friday, April 21, Nathan Sanders, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

• “Brain Tumors: The Switches Are Flipped, But Are the Lights On?” Friday, April 28, Mahlon Johnson, professor of pathology.


Jay Mayfield, media relations (865-974-9409, jay.mayfield@tennessee.edu)

Ed Ripley, nuclear metallurgist at Y-12 National Security Complex (865-574-1893, ripleyeb@y12.doe.gov)

Mark Littmann, forum program chairman, (865-974-8156, littmann@utk.edu)