NUCLEAR POWERMaking Nuclear Energy More Competitive

By Poornima Apte

Published 8 March 2023

Through research on high burnup fuels and improving the design of nuclear power plants, NSE doctoral student Assil Halimi is adopting a dual approach to addressing some of the industry’s toughest challenges.

Assil Halimi has loved science since he was a child, but it was a singular experience at a college internship that stoked his interest in nuclear engineering. As part of work on a conceptual design for an aircraft electric propulsion system, Halimi had to read a chart that compared the energy density of various fuel sources. He was floored to see that the value for uranium was orders of magnitude higher than the rest. “Just a fuel pellet the size of my fingertip can generate as much energy as a ton of coal or 150 gallons of oil,” Halimi points out.

Having grown up in Algeria, in an economy dominated by oil and gas, Halimi was always aware of energy’s role in fueling growth. But here was a source that showed enormous potential. “The more I read about nuclear, the more I saw its direct relationship with climate change and how nuclear energy can potentially replace the carbonized economy,” Halimi says. “The problem we’re dealing with right now is that the source of energy is not clean. Nuclear [presented itself] as an answer, or at least as a promise that you can dig into,” he says. “I was also seeing the electrification of systems and the economy evolving.”

A tectonic shift was brewing, and Halimi wanted in.

Then an electrical engineering major at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Lyon (INSA Lyon), Halimi added nuclear engineering as a second major. Today, the second-year doctoral student at MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) has expanded on his early curiosity in the field and researches methods of improving the design of small modular reactors. Under Professor Koroush Shirvan’s advisement, Halimi also studies high burnup fuel so we can extract more energy from the same amount of material.

A Foot in Two Worlds
The son of a computer engineer father and a mother who works as a judge, Halimi was born in Algiers and grew up in Cherchell, a small town near the capital. His interest in science grew sharper in middle school; Halimi remembers being a member of the astronomy club. As a middle and high schooler, Halimi traveled to areas with low light pollution to observe the night skies.