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Unexpected Outcomes Enhance Learning

Claudia Rawn and student

Experimental research is dynamic. Sometimes everything happens just as it was modeled or predicted. Sometimes experiments have surprising outcomes or complications. However, these complications can lead to new competencies and stronger outcomes.

Claudia Rawn, associate professor of materials science and director of the Center for Materials Processing, encountered one such issue while working on her current JDRD project. Rawn’s project investigates the impact of molten salts on chromium-containing alloys, work that requires a controlled environment.

“When I wrote the proposal, I had no appreciation for how much water some of the materials take out of the air,” said Rawn. “We’re taking a lot of care to keep water out of our system, so that requires a glove box and sealed ampules; starting materials that have been handled very carefully.”

Because of this unexpected complication, Rawn’s research has branched out from her original plan to include measuring just how much water some of the compounds she’s working with actually take in. This has led to additional training and competencies for the students working with Rawn on the project.

“The students that worked for me previously didn’t have experience using a glove box or having to carefully control everything. Everything they made they could just make in air. They’ve really gained expertise and they can now do this kind of detailed synthesis where exposure to the atmosphere can cause differences,” said Rawn.

Rawn’s JDRD work has supported the efforts of her Oak Ridge collaborator Stephen Raiman, research associate in corrosion science. Raiman is investigating chromium in structural materials that come into contact with molten salts in places like nuclear and concentrated solar reactors.

“The molten salt is in contact with different structural components and there is concern about the chromium leaching out into the salt,” says Rawn. While Raiman’s team has been investigating the interactions between molten salts and these structural alloys, Rawn’s team has focused on the salts themselves.

To study these salts, Rawn and her team have made use of the diffraction facility at the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Advanced Materials. The team has also consulted with researchers at the Simulator Materials Research Center at ORNL on the water issue. Rawn hopes the project will conclude with a strong external proposal and the opportunity for further investigation.