22.033 | Fall 2011 | Undergraduate, Graduate

Nuclear Systems Design Project



Welcome to 22.033/22.33! This course is designed to be a capstone course for most, if not all, of what you have learned so far as a nuclear engineer. It will give you the chance to use most of what you have been studying in separate subjects in an integrated fashion, plus it will give you the chance to acquire new skills that traditional “graded exam” courses cannot teach.

Each year, the class takes on a different project. In this year’s class, you will designed a power plant that ties together the creation of emission-free electricity with carbon sequestration and fossil fuel displacement. A high quality final design will likely be met with appropriate recognition, in the form of a conference paper, entry in a design contest, or journal publication with you as the authors.

Past projects have included using a fusion reactor for transmutation of nuclear waste; design and implementation of an experiment to predict and measure pebble flow in a pebble bed reactor; and development of a mission plan for a manned Mars mission, including the conceptual design of a nuclear powered space propulsion system and power plant for the Mars surface, a lunar/Martian nuclear power station, and the use of nuclear plants to extract oil from tar sands.

Course Meeting Times

This course meets three times per week. Nominally, it follows this structure:

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Recitations: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session

For more details, see the calendar page.

Course Level and Prerequisites

This course is open to both upper level undergraduate students and graduate students.

22.033 is the undergraduate credit designation. There are no required prerequisites.

22.33 is the graduate credit designation. Graduate students are expected to complete additional assignments. 22.312 Engineering of Nuclear Reactors is a prerequisite for 22.33 credit.

Overall Goals of the Course

This course aims to teach you how to work on an open-ended, “no right answer” problem that requires choosing design parameters, optimizing them, and backing up your judgment as a team. Individual work as well as teamwork will be required to successfully complete this project. The main goals for this course are as follows:

Design Problem

The main goal of this course is to design the plant introduced in the Introduction section. It will develop your skills in approaching a large, seemingly intractable problem, breaking it up into manageable pieces, solving the smaller sub-problems, and integrating them together in an organized fashion. Iterative optimization of your results will also be performed, in order to ensure that your design is arguably the best one possible.

Skill Development

As mentioned in the Introduction section, this course is your chance to prove what you have learned, by applying the concepts you have studied individually to solving a new, difficult problem. In addition, this course will require you to think about these concepts in an integrated fashion, always keeping in mind how changing one system or parameter can affect all the others. Finally, this course offers you the chance to develop your research and literature searching skills, as you will definitely have to delve into new, unfamiliar fields to get the answers and results you want.

Rather than asking you to answer questions, this course will teach you how to figure out which questions to ask. This is often the hardest part of any design.


This problem is far too big for one person to complete on his/her own in the time given. This is why you are working as a team. As such, you will often have to discuss design strategies and parameters with each other, to ensure that your ideas and changes bring the maximum amount of benefit to the project as a whole.

Figure 1. Project Team Organization.

The project is split up into four major sub-tasks, as outlined in section 4.3, and as shown in the diagram above. Each person will be assigned to one of these sub-tasks, along with 3–4 other classmates. One person from each team will serve as the focus area lead. This person will be in charge of ensuring that their team is keeping up with the design schedule and requirements. In addition, this person will ensure that reports and presentations given by each sub-task team fit well into the overall project design. Finally, the focus area leaders will be responsible for ensuring that their group’s contribution to the final report is complete and integrated. Focus area leaders will be chosen from each group by its members within the first week of classes.

In addition, one person will serve as the integrator. This person, who will hopefully volunteer for the role, will be responsible for ensuring that the four focus area leads are on track, and that the group’s final report and presentation are coherent and complete.

The Design Problem

The design problem for this course is to design a complete power plant from a systems point of view. This plant must be able to both generate electricity and produce hydrogen and liquid synthetic fuels as outputs. Which outputs these are and how they are to used is up to you to decide. This should be a conceptual design, characterized by sufficient detail to demonstrate that the design is technically feasible, licensable, and economically competitive.


With upcoming improvements in safety and materials, nuclear power is still poised to be the dominant emission-free source of baseline electricity production. It also will continue to ensure domestic independence from foreign sources of energy production. However, the cost of such plants continues to rise, from a combination of more expensive materials, safety concerns, risk aversion (which leads to higher interest loans), and other factors. In addition, the leftover heat from power plants is usually discharged into the environment, either as steam or as hotter cooling water. Nuclear electricity production on its own also does nothing to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil and other fossil fuels, leading to sub-optimal decisions based on protecting more interests abroad.

This plant design therefore aims to recover some of this lost energy and respond to changing market demands, by producing two products that displace the need for fossil fuels. One, hydrogen gas, can be used in fuel cells, chemical processes, or other output products. The other, liquid synthetic fuels, can be made from biological sources (algae…) or direct chemical methods (syngas…) to produce hydrocarbons that can displace the need for oil. These liquid synthetic fuels have the added benefit of sequestering carbon in their production, so burning them does not add to carbon emissions overall.


This is a very open-ended problem, with many possible solutions. In order to help narrow down the choices, the following constraints are set on the problem:

  • The reactor technology must not be a conventional light water reactor (LWR), meaning a PWR or a BWR. (Supercritical water is possible)
  • The processes for making hydrogen and liquid/gaseous synthetic fuels must be somewhat demonstrated technologies (not just described on paper).
  • The reactor must be able to produce at least 100 MWe.
  • The plant must be able to produce at least one alternative fuel source in a form ready to be delivered to a customer.
  • Concerns about plant siting, public opinion, political concerns, or financial markets should be considered, but shouldn’t unduly detract from the needed focus on executing a technically viable design.


This problem can be divided into four main sub-tasks, each of which can function semi-autonomously, while still maintaining an integrated design approach. These sub-tasks are:

Core The core group is responsible for choosing a reactor coolant for its core, and for optimizing the operating parameters in terms of electricity production, core materials issues, and nuclear plant safety. Detailed rationalization for the choice of a core technology, overall design parameters, and safety issues specific to the chosen core must be given.
Process heat The process heat group is responsible for optimizing the thermodynamic parameters for moving heat from the core to the two fuel production facilities. This includes overall plant layout, thermal circuit analysis, heat storage & delivery, and primary/secondary cycle optimization, as well as safety & materials concerns.
Hydrogen The hydrogen group is responsible for choosing and optimizing a technology to generate hydrogen using the process heat from the reactor. This includes selecting a method/technology for hydrogen production, constructing an overall H2 plant diagram, and dealing with materials & safety issues related to hydrogen production. This group is also responsible for calculating the output of their sub-plant, both in terms of monetary income as well as determining how much fossil fuels can be displaced by using their H2.
Biofuel The biofuel group is responsible for choosing and optimizing a technology to generate liquid and/or gaseous synthetic fuels. This includes method/technology selection, the design of a fuel production plant based on available heat loads, and dealing with the specific materials & safety issues related to liquid fuel production (such as organic material compability, biological corrosion, and environmental contamination concerns). This group is also responsible for calculating the output of their sub-plant, both in terms of monetary income as well as carbon sequestration.

Course Structure

Class meetings will mainly be dedicated to two tasks: 1) lectures and informational sessions relating to design specifics that the team chooses, and 2) presenting team progress, for the purpose of keeping everyone informed about the current state of the project. A general outline of how the course will proceed is below, though it will be subject to minor revisions during the term. See the calendar page for more details.

Weeks #1–4: Introductory Talks, Major Design Choices

During the first four weeks, sub-task teams will form, focus area leads will be chosen, and one student will volunteer or be chosen to be the overall project coordinator (the integrator). During these weeks, a series of lectures will be given to help you decide on major design parameters, such as which core coolant, heat storage/transport strategy, hydrogen technology, and liquid fuel technology to pursue. These lectures will be given by both the instructor as well as by experts in each field.

By the end of week 4, the team should have established a solid plan for the remainder of the work.

Weeks #5–8: Research, Design and Optimization

The next four weeks will be dedicated to research, design and optimization. Each class will end with short (10-15 minute) progress reports by one or two sub-tasks, for the purposes of informing everyone about each sub-task, its progress, and issues that need to be addressed by the whole group in terms of integration. The other time during each class will be spent as teams on their design project, with help from the instructor.

By the end of week 8, the design should be nearly finished.

Weeks #9–12: Fine Tuning, Secondary Concerns

The next four weeks will be dedicated to an evaluation of the plant design in an integrated fashion, as well as to addressing concerns of safety, licensability, material compatibility, and plant siting. Points raised during this period may or may not change the final outcome. If good documentation was kept during the research, design & optimization phase, changes to parameters should be easy to implement.

By the end of week 11 (just before Thanksgiving vacation), almost all the written and presentation materials should be finished so you can relax during the break.

Weeks #13: Final Report and Presentation

The final week will be spent preparing the final report and presentation for the course. The final presentation will be open to the public, and interested MIT community members will be invited to attend. Therefore, one to two practice runs will be required, along with tips and critique on how to give a well-balanced design presentation.


The deliverables for the course include two individual progress reports (“short journal communications”), three sub-task progress presentations, and a final report & presentation. As you can see from the schedule below, the course is front-loaded. The reason for this is that if the schedule is followed, all the major work for the course will be finished before the Thanksgiving vacation. This will leave you more free to focus on final exams for other courses when you need that time the most.

When writing your short communications and final report, I recommend using a software package called LyX for preparing the written material. It allows you to link figures, tables, sections and references by tag, rather than keeping track of every section, figure and reference number. It will remove most of the grunt work from writing reports, allowing you to save time and focus on your results.

Individual Progress Reports (Short Journal Communications)

Each class member is responsible for one short progress report once a month. This report will be written in the style of a short journal communication, not more than 1,000 words in length. The goals of these communication papers are to:

  1. Highlight each individual’s research and contribution to the project
  2. Develop scientific writing skills for publishing one’s work in a peer-reviewed journal

Sub-Task Progress Presentations

Each team will be responsible for one presentation and one oral progress report per month. The oral progress report is designed to be more informative for the class, and will not be graded. The presentation is supposed to be a demonstration of your progress and presentation skills thus far, and will be graded. Presentation times for each sub-task are listed on the calendar below.

Final Report

The entire class is responsible for a final report with the group’s overall design, rationale, and results. This report will ultimately be assembled by the overall project coordinator. However, it is the responsibility of each focus area lead to ensure that his/her group’s contributions are complete, and it is up to each individual to ensure that his/her contributions are accurate and spoken for.

In putting together the final report, you are encouraged to make use of the short communications that you will write during the course, to make maximum use of the work that you produce.

Final Group Presentation

The class as a whole will be responsible for a final presentation, giving all the overall results of the work. You are encouraged to use slides and materials from your oral progress reports in the final presentation, in order to maximize the benefit from work you have already done. The final presentation will be open to the public, and the department as well as interested MIT community members will be invited.


Grading for the course will be a combination of your individual efforts, those of your sub-task, and those of the overall group.

Short journal communication (x3) 30%
Sub-task oral presentations (x2) 30%
Sub-task final report contribution 15%
Overall final report 15%
Overall final presentation 10%

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2011
Learning Resource Types
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Lecture Notes
Projects with Examples
Written Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights