Meet new Queen's engineering professor, Laurent Béland

Posted on February 07, 2018

A NEW ADDITION: One of Queen’s newest assistant professors, Laurent Béland, is applying his expertise in computational materials science to some of the enduring structural materials engineering problems, including those used in nuclear reactors, containment vessels and concrete structures.

By Matt Mills, FEAS communications staff

When atoms of Uranium 235 in the fuel supply at the heart of a nuclear power reactor are struck by neutrons they break apart. That nuclear fission reaction produces heat energy which, when transferred to water, can be harnessed for the generation of electricity. That’s where almost 17 percent of the electricity consumed in Canada comes from.  

But heat isn’t the only by-product of nuclear fission. There are also radio isotopes of elements like iodine and molybdenum, gamma radiation, and more neutrons to speed off into other U235 atoms to perpetuate the reaction. All these unstable atoms and high-energy particles swirling around in a nuclear reactor can, over time, change the physical properties of the materials used in the reactor’s construction. Steel pipes and beams can become brittle and weak. Concrete containment vessels can swell and lose their strength and stiffness. Determining how long a nuclear reactor can remain safe and serviceable, designing the best storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel, and developing new materials best suited to withstand such hostile conditions, are ongoing engineering problems.

This is where new Queen’s engineering professor, Laurent Béland, comes in. Béland is a computational materials scientist. He builds computer simulations to help predict the effects of radiation on various building materials. He’s also one of the newest assistant professors in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering here at Queen’s.

“Queen’s is really building nice strong nuclear materials group and that was something that was super attractive to me,” says Béland. “There is great success with a Nobel Prize in the nearby physics department. We have some really nice computer resources that are really where we need them to be to have a successful research work in computational material science. It seems like a really exciting moment to be here.”

Béland has an impressive academic pedigree. He earned his Bachelor’s and PhD at Université de Montréal before working on reactor materials research, mostly involving metals, at the US government’s storied Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He then put in some post-doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology near Boston where he studied durability issues in cement paste, including cases where cement is used to contain nuclear spent fuel.

“Something I’ve developed through the years, that I’m eager to share with students, are ways to simulate the effects of radiation, atom-by-atom, at time scales much longer than those usually associated with computer simulations,” says Béland. “Historically, simulations can be used to predict time scales of a few nanoseconds or hundreds of nanoseconds. I’ve developed methods that let us reach milliseconds and seconds: relatively realistic times for experiments. These are methods that I think will be very useful for students to learn and then apply to a whole bunch of problems.”

Béland is still settling in here at Queen’s but already has plans in the works to recruit graduate students.

“I have a Master’s position I’d like to fill with someone working out nice ways to predict how different types of atoms, especially for alloys, will behave using methods a little more tractable and inexpensive than quantum mechanics,” he says.  “I’m also looking for two PhD students, ideally one Canadian and one international, to explore simulations of how dislocations – the ways in which materials get plasticity, can bend without breaking – allow materials like stainless steel to flow over reasonable time scales.”

What is Béland looking for in new students?

“You need to be curious; that’s sort of the number-one thing,” he says with an easy smile. “You have to be willing to go out of your comfort zone because we’ll be exploring big problems in mechanical and materials engineering using tools from the worlds of physical chemistry, solid state physics, and software engineering. And you have to be very adaptable. I’m here to give you a hand but, especially as you get towards the end of your PhD, chances are you’ll be able to do things I can’t. This is why the experience is so valuable.”