Volkan Yildirim

CCI intern developed methods for synthesizing neutron detectors and strengthening 3D-printed magnets

Internship program: CCI; SULI
Year: 2017; 2018; 2019
Undergraduate institution: Northwestern Michigan College; Michigan State University
Major: Mechanical Engineering 
Host DOE laboratory: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Oak Ridge, TN
Mentor name: Mariappan Parans Paranthaman; Charlotte Barbier

What was your research topic during your internship?
I participated in CCI for two terms; over this time, I worked on two main projects. In my first project, I developed methods for synthesizing scintillators. Scintillators are materials that emit photons when excited by ionizing radiation, and they are used in instruments at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) facility to detect neutrons emitted by the SNS. My research objective was to develop a transparent scintillator with an excellent ability to differentiate between neutrons and gamma rays. This is critical for researchers using the SNS to characterize the properties of different materials, such as the glass used to make cell phones or the enzymes bacteria use to breakdown antibiotics.

My second project aimed to improve a method for manufacturing neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) magnets, which are the strongest magnets on earth and used in applications ranging from computer hard drives to wind turbines. However, neodymium (Nd) is a critical rare-earth element in the US, and the domestic supply chain can constrain NdFeB magnet production. A process called additive manufacturing can be used to 3D-print NdFeB magnets with less waste while maintaining magnet performance, reducing the supply chain problem. I focused on finding ways to improve the strength of printed magnet, and accomplished this by aligning the NdFeB powder with the magnetic field during 3D printing.

What was it like coming to a National Lab for your internship?
It was an incredible environment, both academically and socially. All the people who work at ORNL were more than willing to help me to make my internship experience as comfortable and productive as possible. I could not have had a smoother experience. ORNL is a very welcoming environment for all students, whatever their background.

Describe a concern you had while considering or applying to the internship. What advice would you give to help a student with the same concern today?
No one knows everything. If you feel like you do not have enough experience or that you are not qualified for this internship for another reason, I encourage you to see that an opportunity to challenge yourself, and not as a reason not to apply.

Think of a time you experienced success during your internship. What did this success look like?
My first project was to develop neutron detectors for SNS. I was having a hard time grasping the advanced chemical knowledge required to synthesize the detectors. After receiving unbelievable support from my mentor, Dr. Parans Paranthaman, I started to make progress on the procedure for the detectors. Approximately six weeks later, I started to have good results from my detectors and by the time I was done with my internship, my detectors were almost four times better than the commercial detectors that SNS was using.

Think of a time you experienced failure during your internship or academic career. How did you feel at the time? How did you deal with the failure and work past it?
While working on the magnet project, I felt discouraged by the lack of experience and knowledge I had in the field. I passed through this phase with the support from my peers, including the people that were not working in our department. They explained the essence of research and made me understand that there was nothing more normal than not knowing. It made me to focus more and kept me in track of deliverables.

What are your hopes for your career?
After I complete my Masters, I plan to pursue a PhD. I then hope to gain some experience in private industry, before returning to a National Lab to work on cutting-edge technology.

Did you make any important personal connections during your internship?
I made long-term, if not lifelong, friendships during my internship. I now have a network that will let me know about opportunities at other National Labs to gain more experience. I have people I can go to for career advice, or help with academic issues or any other aspect of my life.

What are your values? How do express your values through your academic or professional career?
I believe that hard work is always rewarded in the end, that setting my mind to a goal and working towards it does not go unseen. My hard work and perseverance served me well during my internship at ORNL, and they continue to help me get through hard times in my professional career.