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David Carpenter: Purpose driven to the core

When he first reported to MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL) as an undergraduate in 2002, David Carpenter anticipated a challenging research opportunity. To his surprise, he found his calling.

It all began with a project investigating durable new materials for use in reactors.

“We were testing silicon carbide, which looked like a good possibility for an accident-tolerant fuel,” recalls Carpenter ’06, SM ’06, PhD ’10. “We were irradiating it inside the reactor — it was the first time anyone had ever done this — and I realized that when we pulled the material out, we would get to see something no one had ever seen before,” he says.

After 15 years at the NRL conducting research and earning degrees in nuclear science and engineering, Carpenter’s appetite for scientific discovery remains sharp, as does his commitment to improving both the performance and safety of current and next-generation nuclear reactors. Today, as the group leader for reactor experiments, he juggles projects brought to the facility by industry, government, and academic institutions. Throughout this time, he says he has never lost his appreciation for the NRL as a singular laboratory for scientific discovery.

“I see the reactor as a machine that generates radiation for testing, and when you put things inside, you can get knowledge out,” he says. “I also appreciate that I get to work each day with this machine and understand how really unique it is, and to some people, maybe a bit mysterious.”

It’s a job that also provides purpose. “I do have a sense of mission, an interest in pushing nuclear engineering to gain more acceptance, developing a real piece of technology for the future that can bring a carbon-free source of substantial energy,” he says.

The MIT Reactor (MITR) is a light-water cooled facility and one of the few on-campus reactors of its kind. It operates 24 hours per day, 7 days per week throughout the year, except for planned maintenance…

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