Jordan Argyle: MS Nuclear Engineer Focused on Food Irradiation
Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by how the world around me works. This fascination led me to engineering, where I could learn both to understand the world we live in, and utilize science to improve the lives of others.
In my undergraduate mechanical engineering work, I took a class introducing nuclear engineering, as I wanted to better understand how nuclear power reactors operate. During the class, we spent a week discussing medical imaging, a fascinating application of radiation. We then spent a single lecture discussing “other” nuclear technologies. These other nuclear applications seemed like magic to me: nuclear systems that can detect problems in oil pipeline flow, the fill level in cans of Coke, and find microcracks without damaging the material; thermal batteries that last decades in space, systems that can age a chunk of metal years in only a few days, and food treatment processes that leaves food healthier, better tasting, and longer lasting than the chemical or temperature treatments in use now.
At the time I was in the class, the conflict in Syria had escalated to a humanitarian disaster, reminding us that 70 million people around the world had been forcibly displaced by various conflicts and were struggling for clean water and accessible food. At the same time, a friend of mine returned from Kenya, a place where the majority of the population lived in relative peace, but very many lacked access to clean water. I began researching the feasibility of developing a long-lasting, practical sanitation system using radiation to help the folks in these dire situations.
The deeper I got into that research, the more I realized the need and the power of a nuclear solution. Not only can such a system sanitize food and water, but it can also extend the storage and shipping capabilities of food. In fact, most tropical fruits in the US have been irradiated–otherwise they wouldn’t last long enough to make it to our stores. A single system could both prevent diseases, and allow higher quantities of more diverse foods to be stored for longer. It seemed like the perfect solution for global hunger and the epidemic of food poisoning–600 million people each year fall ill from contaminated food or water, and hundreds of thousands of those, mostly children, die from diseases that can fairly easily be prevented.
After finishing my degree, I applied for graduate work in nuclear engineering to better develop my understanding of radiation science. I was surprised that many people, even in the nuclear field, are unaware of the versatile technologies that drove me to the field, and the benefits they offer. As I thought about it, radiation is probably the single most significant discovery by humanity. In addition to these incredible, non-intuitive technologies already mentioned, we enjoy radio, television, and the internet, all sent using low-energy radiation. We have telephones that can place a call virtually anywhere, sending our voice to loved ones and business associates over radiation waves. We can heat food in minutes thanks to microwave radiation. We can look through skin to see bones and build detailed, 3D tissue images using higher-energy x-ray radiation. And I could go on.
While these everyday uses of nuclear are understood and appreciated by all, the industrial uses seem to be used quietly, and only for very specific applications. This seems a waste to me. Here we have a tool that can replace much more expensive or more dangerous processes, but we aren’t bothering to develop and utilize it. I have decided to take this cause up as my own, turning a passion to help others and save lives (and to a lesser extent, money) into a career.
We can’t live without nuclear technology anymore, and I would argue that we need significantly more of it. From nuclear power plants to provide reliable, high quantities of electricity with no emissions, little geographic footprint, and very little waste to food treatment to provide healthier, tastier, longer lasting food, we simply need more nuclear. For me, the magical properties of radiation in all of it’s applications could make our world so much better for all the inhabitants of our little planet.
tl;dr: After learning that nuclear technologies have diverse beneficial uses, I applied my desires to save lives and alleviate suffering to my training and future career in nuclear engineering. The truth that drives me in my studies and future career: no other technology offers as many benefits to humankind as nuclear technology.