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Researchers Use Data Analytics to Ensure Safety and Reliability in Nuclear Industry

Jamie Coble.

A team in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Tickle College of Engineering is using data analytics to make informed decisions about the nuclear power industry and help usher in a dependable carbon-neutral energy future.

Jamie Coble, Southern Company Faculty Fellow and associate professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, leads the team whose research falls under the broad category of instrumentation and controls. Coble specifically focuses on empirical modeling methods for process and equipment monitoring and on anomaly detection, diagnostics, and prognostics in nuclear power plants.

“Our group looks at how we can use the data already being collected from nuclear power and fuel cycle facilities to monitor what’s happening in the system and make data-driven, risk-informed decisions,” said Coble, who additionally serves as assistant department head for undergraduate studies and service.

One significant impact of her work is helping regulators and plant operators make effective, reliable decisions about how to keep existing nuclear power plants online and bring new ones online in the future. This process involves data analytics and the use of various algorithms to process and discover unexpected data relationships.

“I’m most passionate about making nuclear power more economically viable while maintaining safety and reliability,” said Coble. “It’s a lot of answering the question ‘What can we learn from data that will save us trouble down the line?’”

Maintaining safety and reliability in the nuclear industry is not without its challenges. A specific obstacle Coble’s team meets in their research is that nuclear facilities rarely encounter equipment failure. As a result, her group does experimental work running components, such as motors and bearings, under accelerated conditions to try to cause breakdowns.

“One of the problems we encounter when monitoring for faults is that things are built to last,” said Coble. “So if you just run equipment under normal conditions it can take, in some cases, decades for it to break on its own. We try to break things and see if there were any early indicators that things were going to break.”

Coble has filed five disclosures with the UT Research Foundation, including one for which she is the co-inventor alongside former colleague Fan Zhang, now an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, on a technology designed to detect insider attacks of critical industrial control systems. Last year, Zhang formed the start-up Sentinel Devices to license the technology, and UTRF filed a patent application for the technology in November 2020.

“Dr. Coble is a brilliant, dedicated researcher whose work will help keep our country’s nuclear fleet operating and safe for years to come,” says Andreana Leskovjan, a technology manager at UTRF. “UTRF is proud to support innovators like Dr. Coble who not only do incredible work but are passionate about UT’s programs and resources.”

An East Tennessee native, Coble received all her degrees—undergraduate through doctoral—at UT, in large part because of the quality of the university’s nuclear engineering program and its proximity to Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Tennessee Valley Authority among other assets. After working for two years at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory following her graduation, Coble returned to UT as an assistant professor in 2013.

“From a professional standpoint, this is the best place for the type of research that I want to do,” said Coble. “Personally, I have a lot of family in the area. Most of my family is within 100 miles, so it’s easy to come back.”

Original article from the University of Tennessee Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the commercialization of UT intellectual property, encourages an entrepreneurial culture, contributes to state and regional economic development, and promotes research and education to benefit the people of Tennessee and beyond. While UTRF is a separate entity from UT, it provides assistance and resources to the research activities of the faculty, staff, and students of the UT System (including campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Martin, the UT Institute of Agriculture, the UT Institute of Public Service, the UT Health Science Center in Memphis, and the UT Space Institute in Tullahoma). UTRF works to help move ideas to the marketplace.


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