AFIT student wins Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Award

First Lt. Ashwin Rao checks equipment alignment for his laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy experiments at the Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

First Lt. Ashwin Rao checks equipment alignment for his laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy experiments at the Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Rao received the Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Award sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Fuel and Supply Chain for his paper on ‘Comparison of Machine Learning Techniques to Optimize the Analysis of Plutonium Surrogate Material via a Portable LIBS Device. (Courtesy photo)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

First Lt. Ashwin Rao, a nuclear engineering doctoral student within the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Graduate School of Engineering and Management, recently received the Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Award sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Fuel and Supply Chain.

"I am extremely humbled and honored to accept this award for my journal article. This is the latest of many great opportunities I have been given in my time in the graduate nuclear engineering program at AFIT,” said Rao.

The Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry published his award-winning research paper, “Comparison of Machine Learning Techniques to Optimize the Analysis of Plutonium Surrogate Material via a Portable LIBS Device,” in January 2021. Rao’s award announcement was made on July 30, 2021.

“I am delighted to hear the great news of this prestigious federal-level award for Lieutenant Ashwin Rao. When our students do what they do best, our external stakeholders take note positively,” said Dr. Adedeji Badiru, dean of the Graduate School of Engineering and Management. “This extremely competitive award demonstrates that AFIT is always on the leading edge of innovation. It is even more gratifying when the innovation work is directed at nuclear technology R&D.”

The award program is for university students, and in 2021, the Department of Energy awarded 22 prizes for student publications relevant to innovative nuclear technology. Rao's publication was judged in the category of Competition for Students at Universities with Less than $600 Million in 2019 R&D Expenditures.

Rao’s doctoral advisor, Dr. Anil Patnaik, explained that Rao developed a novel method to rapidly measure trace elements in plutonium alloys by using machine learning to enhance the measurement precision of a portable laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy device.

“This research is critically important to increasing the rate of plutonium component production in order to ensure the necessary capacity of U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure in the future,” said Patnaik.

A press release from the award administrators states that in order to be successful and retain its leadership role in nuclear technologies, the United States must foster creativity and breakthrough achievements to develop tomorrow’s nuclear technologies. The Department of Energy has long recognized that university students are an important source of breakthrough solutions, and a key component in meeting its long-term goals. The department developed The Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Awards program for this purpose.

“I am grateful to my dedicated doctoral committee members who have supported my research endeavors and helped me push my publications out into the field. I am also thankful for the support of my department, as well as the efforts of my collaborators at Los Alamos National Laboratory who made this project possible," said Rao.