The University of Michigan’s XR Initiative and the Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory Project

The University of Michigan‘s Center for Academic Innovation founded an XR Initiative in September 2019, to work with all the U of M’s schools and colleges to fund new projects and provide consultation on the use of VR/AR/MR technology to support teaching and research.

The State of XR and Immersive Learning Outlook Report 2021 (available to download here), recently published by the Immersive Learning Research Network, describes one such project:

At the University of Michigan, the Center for Academic Innovation seeded six new XR projects in spring 2020 as part of an ongoing effort to fully embrace immersive education. One upcoming project explores the challenges of working within nuclear reactors. The school’s Ford Nuclear Reactor in Michigan permanently shut down in 2003 and was decommissioned in the years following, leaving the top-ranked university program without a research reactor. This XR project will develop an Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory simulation where students can virtually walk around the reactor, look into the core, and interact with the control panel.

As Brendan Kochunas, project manager and assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences described it (2020): “In reality, one does not simply walk up next to an operating nuclear reactor core, but in virtual reality one can. We can also overlay simulation results on the virtualized physical systems allowing students to experience neutron fields or temperature fields visually, where in reality this is not possible.”

The faculty and staff newspaper UM Record provides some more background:

The College of Engineering is home to the No. 1 nuclear engineering program in the country. For several decades up to the early 2000s, the program included training at a physical nuclear reactor. The Ford Nuclear Reactor, originally established as a WWII memorial under the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, permanently shut down in 2003.

It was decommissioned over the next four years, leaving U-M as one of the only programs without a research reactor, both in the Top 5-ranked university programs and the Big 10, said Brendan Kochunas, project manager and assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences.

The Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory simulation would allow some retired courses that used the Ford Nuclear Reactor to be taught again to upper level undergraduates and graduate students.

“I hope to gain experience and insight into how to apply XR technologies in a practical way to enhance education and research in the field of nuclear engineering,” Kochunas said. “I think XR has such potential for this area of science, or really any area of science where the reality is you have a physical system that is expensive or potentially hazardous.”

An article by Sara Norman on the University of Michigan College of Engineering website describes the project in more technical detail:

Over the past year, a project team within the U-M Department of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences (NERS) has been working with the XR Initiative in the Center for Academic Innovation to develop the Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory—a virtual representation of the now decommissioned Ford Nuclear Reactor (FNR) that was once the center of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project (MMPP).

Yuxuan Liu, a member of the project team and an Assistant Research Scientist within NERS, has received a Simulation Grant from the Office of the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education (ADUE) to develop a simulation of heat transfer in the original FNR. Understanding the heat transfer in a nuclear power reactor is essential to its operation and maintaining safety, making this virtual experience an important lesson of the NERS Extended Reality Nuclear Reactor Laboratory course. The other member of the project team is NERS Prof. Brendan Kochunas.

The XR Initiative is a good example of a university-wide program to make XR technology more accessible on campus and encourage its use in higher education, working with university faculty to actively look for new ideas and opportunities to support immersive learning projects, and enhance students’ learning experience. I look forward to seeing other such initiatives spring up on university campuses!