Sometimes patterns are repeated in nature. Spirals appear in sunflowers and hurricanes. Branches occur in blood vessels and lightning. Limiao Zhang, a doctoral student in the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Engineering at MIT, found another similarity – between road traffic and boiling water, to prevent nuclear failures.
Zang, who grew up in China, loved to see her father fix things around the house. He did not achieve his dream of becoming an engineer, but instead joined the police force, but Zhang took that opportunity to study mechanical engineering at Three Gorges University. She is not discouraged by the fact that she is one of only four girls out of 50 men. “My father always told me that girls can do anything,” she says. She graduated from the top of her class.
In college, she and her classmates won a national engineering competition. They developed a Carousel model powered by solar, hydroelectric and pedal power. One judge asked how long the system could work safely. “I never had an answer,” she recalls. She realized that engineering meant not only what they made but also what products they could withstand. So for her degree at Being University, she turned to industrial engineering to analyze critical infrastructure reliability, especially traffic networks.
“Nuclear power plants are the most important of all critical infrastructure,” said Zhang. Although a person can be energized by carbon-free energy, failure to do so can have serious consequences. So she decided to change fields again and study nuclear engineering. At the time, she did not have a nuclear background and did not study in the United States, but she said, “I tried to get out of my comfort zone.” I just applied and MIT accepted me. Her supervisor, Matthew Buchi, and classmate explained the basics of fission responses as they adjusted to the new material, language, and environment. She doubted herself: “My friend said, ‘I saw a cloud above you.’ ‘
Much of the work in the Buchichi lab involves the so-called crisis. It cools water in applications such as many nuclear factories and powerful computers. When hot floor water boils, bubbles stick to it before it rises, but if they are too large, they merge into a layer of steam that covers the floor. The heat is not going anywhere – a boiling crisis.
Seeing the connection between traffic and heat transfer, she partially invited Buchichi Zhang to the lab. The data plans for both events are remarkably similar. “The math tools she did for traffic jams were a completely different way of looking at our problems,” said Bucky, “using something that is really unrelated.
One can see bubbles as a car. The more they do, the more they interfere with each other. Researchers have focused on the physics of individual bubbles. Zhang instead uses statistical physics to analyze behavioral patterns. “She brings a different set of skills, a different set of knowledge to our research,” says the Post-Doc in the lab. “That is very refreshing.”
In her first article on the fermentation crisis, Physical Review Letters, Zang uses theories and simulations to identify quantitative behavior during fermentation: similar patterns appear in traffic, in space, or in the afternoon. Both small and large bubbles are important. Using this understanding, the team obtained specific physical parameters that could predict the fermentation crisis. Zhang’s math tools both explain experimental data and suggest new experiments to test. For the second paper, the team gathered a lot of information and found ways to predict the crisis in many different situations.
Zhang Thesis and the third paper are both in progress, proposing universal law to explain the crisis. She translates the method into physical law, as F = ma or E = mc2, ”Says Bukchi. She came up with an equally simple formula. Zhang says she has learned a lot from her colleagues in the department who have developed new nuclear power plants or other technologies.
Buchi describes Zhang as determined, open-minded, and self-critical. Sue says she is cautious, optimistic and courageous. “If I had to move from a heat transfer to a city plan, that would be impossible for me,” he says. She has a strong mind. Last year, when Zang was researching, she gave birth to her own son. (At the time of the outbreak, her husband was stuck in China.) “For me, this could be supernatural,” says Bucci.
Zhang graduated at the end of the year, and began looking for work in China. Although she is not a nuclear power, she wants to continue in the field of energy. “I use my vast knowledge,” she says. I hope I can design safer, more efficient and more reliable systems to empower our society.