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Two faculty members in the Tickle College of Engineering have received Early Career Awards from the Department of Energy for their work in nuclear fusion and structural materials for nuclear energies, respectively.

Assistant professors David Donovan, of nuclear engineering, and Haixuan Xu, of materials science and engineering, will each receive a $750,000 grant over five years for their research. The Department of Energy announced earlier this week the 84 scientists to receive the Early Career Award.

Haixuan Xu
Haixuan Xu

“I’m very privileged and thrilled to have this award,” Xu said. “I really appreciate the recognition and the support from Basic Energy Science of DOE.”

Along with funding students and post-docs who will work in their labs, the awards are also a recognition of the importance of their work, Donovan said.

“It means they see your work and they believe that it’s worth building this program,” Donovan said. “There’s value beyond the tangible, monetary worth.”

Donovan’s work in plasma physics and fusion energy research centers on the interaction between the plasma and the fusion reactor vessel. Hydrogen isotopes are confined by magnetic fields, heated to 100 million degrees Celsius, and fuse together. These extreme operating conditions gradually degrade the vessel walls. That wall material, often tungsten, will make its way into the plasma causing parasitic power loss.

David Donovan
David Donovan

“Part of our goal is to understand how quickly are particles eroding from the walls and reaching the plasma? Can we control it in a way that stops the wall particles from getting to the hottest part of the plasma?” Donovan said. “It’s a key area to making nuclear fusion work because they’re really two things that don’t typically go together — super hot gas and a solid wall.”

Xu was recognized for his work studying the fundamental mechanisms in structural materials used in nuclear reactors. These materials develop defects from radiation that damage the materials over time.

“We want to understand the mechanisms so we can control material property changes and performance and develop advanced materials with improved radiation resistance,” he said.


Megan Boehnke (, 865-974-3242)

David Goddard (, 865-974-0683)