ChBE Alumnus Profile: Supathorn Phongikaroon

Class of: 1997 (B.S.), 2001 (Ph.D.)
Advisor: Professor Richard V. Calabrese

supathorn phongikaroon
Supathorn Phongikaroon (Ph.D. '01)

Supathorn Phongikaroon is currently an assistant professor with the University of Idaho's Department of Chemical Engineering, where he explores new and better ways to process and recycle nuclear waste. We chatted with Supathorn to learn more about his experiences at the University of Maryland and his current work.

What kind of research did you do while you were a student?

[I studied] drop size distribution in rotor-stator mixers in the Multiphase Flow Lab. The most important application of this work is using it to understand the dynamics of droplet break-up in aqueous systems, and the mixing of dilute solutions that can affect the dynamics of mixing and dispersion.

What was the best thing about your experience in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UMD?

Interaction between students and advisors, and the guidance that my advisor provided.

What sort of research do you do now?

My research is in the area of pyroprocessing technology, the third part of the spent nuclear fuel process.

Spent fuel from the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) [at the Argonne West complex of the Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho] is currently being treated in electrorefineries at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). In electrorefining, uranium is oxidized at the anode while simultaneously being reduced and deposited at the cathode. Plutonium, sodium, and fission products are oxidized to form chlorides in the electrolyte. The overall objective of pyroprocessing is to separate uranium from fission products and other actinides [the 15 elements on the periodic table with atomic numbers 89–103], so both groups can be converted into waste forms appropriate for long term storage in geological repositories.

The reason my group is working on this process is to minimize waste products. Currently, there is a big need to use this technology to reduce the metal fuel that already exists from the EBR-II. It can also be beneficial for the recycling of actinides and, in the future, could be implemented in the recycling process for nuclear energy production.

My research also involves advanced processes that will allow this technology to work with the oxide fuel from Light Water Reactors (LWRs) as well.

Who or what inspired you to become a professor?

It was my dream and vision when I was younger. 

It seems like in the sciences, you really need to have a post-doc position before you can apply for faculty positions. Is that true or does it just give you an edge? Did you have a post-doc or industry position, and if so, doing what?

Yes, a postdoctoral position allows you to move up from the graduate Ph.D. platform into being a strong principal investigator. It is important in the process of obtaining a faculty position. I had a National Research Council [postdoctoral] Fellowship at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

What was the application process to become faculty like?

Tough, unique, and hard to make logical sense out of it.

When you arrived at the University of Idaho, were you given a lab that was already there, or did you have to furnish one from the ground up? Could you please tell us what it was like to set up your very own lab?

The university provided a space and equipment money for the lab. Then, I wrote couple proposals to get more [funding] for additional equipment. It is a tough process to build your own laboratory, but the Nuclear Engineering Program [at Idaho] has been providing the best support for me. 

You've gone from being a student to managing them. What was it like to teach courses and recruit your advisees?

It is hard to transition from one role to another, but it is not quite as difficult for me because I love teaching. Advising students, on another hand, is very challenging in trying to balance between being a supportive advisor and tough advisor. I think, in general, it is an interesting experience trying to recruit students to work in an area [of the country] that is not as well known as the big cities. Idaho Falls is a small town surrounded by nature. In order to recruit students, I have to also promote all the wonderful outdoor activities that students can [participate in] around Idaho Falls Campus as well.

What surprised you (in either a good or bad way) during your first year as a professor?

Nothing, to be honest. I am quite lucky for having worked in a national laboratory for three years prior transitioning to faculty at the University of Idaho. In addition, the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is located within 30 miles of the Idaho Falls Campus, so I was able to transfer my funded projects to the university. Due to my connection with the lab, my experience with other colleagues [there], and knowing what types of problems they are having, it is slightly easier to write a proposal and obtain funding.

What advice do you have for students considering a career in academia?

Dr. [Richard V.] Calabrese helped me a lot in advising me and providing me with assistance when he knew that I wanted to be a professor. One piece of advice that I would give is, "Work hard, be innovative, and be honest." I think I learned that from Rich. One more thing that I've learned throughout my life dreaming of becoming what I am today is, "Don't give up. Believe in yourself."

Have you received any honors or awards?

I received a National Research Council Fellowship for my postdoctoral work, and an AIChE teaching assistant award when I was a graduate student.

Have you participated in any interesting engineering projects, school-related or personal?

I mentored several High School Students through the George Washington University High School Scholarship program and Idaho National Laboratory Young Summer Internship program, which provide engineering experiences for high school students. I also run an "assistance in organizing a career" workshop for engineering students [at Idaho].