As the world looks for solutions to curb climate change, nuclear energy is anticipated to play a key role in the low-carbon transition. Now, Queen’s welcomes an internationally recognized scientist whose research into nuclear materials may help the industry find ways to build safer and longer-lasting reactors.

Yanwen Zhang will join the university as the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Impact of Radiation in Energy and Advanced Technologies.

"I am absolutely thrilled and honoured to be part of the prestigious CERC program," says Zhang, "which will see me come to Canada and join a group of leading experts in nuclear materials at Queen's University. My research is uncovering connections among seemingly disparate phenomena and pushing the boundaries of materials science, so we can better understand the role of nuclear in our transition to a low-carbon future."

Designed to recruit top researchers to Canada, the CERC is among the most prestigious and well-funded programs supporting leading-edge research globally. Zhang’s chair is valued at $8 million over eight years, and it will see her relocate her research program from the Idaho National Laboratory, where she also holds a joint faculty appointment at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She was previously Distinguished R&D Staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The CERC program was established in 2008 to help grow Canada’s international reputation in research and innovation and make the country a destination for scholars looking to advance world-class research. In November 2023, the Government of Canada announced $248 million to support the appointment of 34 new CERCs at 18 post-secondary institutions across the country. Zhang will join Paul Kubes, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Immunophysiology and Immunotherapy at Queen’s, as the second CERC to join Queen’s in this funding round.

Zhang was previously the Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Center for Energy Dissipation to Defect Evolution. In 2005, she was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honour bestowed by the US federal government and conferred by the White House. She also holds two PhD degrees: one in science from Beijing Normal University and one in nuclear physics from Lund University in Sweden.

"The CERC is an extremely competitive program. We are proud to have secured another Chair for Queen’s and recruit a leading researcher to Canada," says Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research). "Queen’s is already recognized globally for expertise in nuclear materials research, and Dr. Zhang will catapult this strength to new levels. The mission of the CERC is to do just this – increase Canada’s competitiveness on the world stage in areas where there is already significant momentum."


Advancing Canada’s energy transition

Nuclear reactor systems support approximately 15 per cent of Canada’s overall energy production. In Ontario, that number is 60 per cent, and demand for nuclear energy is growing. The deployment of safer, longer-lasting production facilities, however, hinges on advancing our understanding of how alloys perform in nuclear reactor components, such as the cladding that protects reactor fuel.



Dr. Zhang is a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honour bestowed by the US federal government and conferred by the White House.


Zhang’s research seeks to predict the degradation of alloys in the high-intensity environments of nuclear reactors. Her goal is to uncover insights into "self-healing" mechanisms, structural stability, and deformation tolerance under high stress, temperature, radiation, and other extreme material conditions. Critical to this research will be Queen’s Reactor Materials Testing Laboratory (RMTL), a state-of-the-art proton and helium accelerator that mimics the changes to materials occurring in a nuclear reactor.

Through collaborative efforts with the Nuclear Materials Group at Queen’s, partners, national labs, and the nuclear industry, this work has the potential to impact various sectors. It will also enhance the efficiency, reliability, safety, and cost-effectiveness of nuclear energy systems and is vital to ushering in a new era of safe, resilient, and high-performing nuclear energy.

"For nearly three decades, I have dedicated my work to understanding defect dynamics and radiation effects in materials," explains Zhang. "I am excited to be continuing this research at Queen’s – a university with a long history of expertise in materials science and a commitment to advancing research to combat climate change."

Zhang will begin her term in Spring 2024. To learn more about the CERC program, visit the Tri-Agencies website.


This article, written by Special Projects Officer Kayla Dettinger, appeared originally in the Queen's Gazette.