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Graduate Student Spotlight – Halstenberg

Phillip Halstenberg is a chemistry graduate student currently conducting research in the Dai Group.

Halstenberg is originally from Kannapolis, North Carolina and attended the University of North Carolina at Wilmington for his BS in chemistry where he began working in the chemistry laboratories under the guidance of Dr. S. Bart Jones and Dr. Robert Hancock.

Sheng Dai, Professor and ORNL-UT Joint Faculty was invited to give a presentation during the UNCW’s guests lecture series. Dai visited the labs and met Halstenberg as their lab was collaborating with Dai on complexometric titrations related to the Uranium from Seawater Project. “We spoke about my efforts toward the research objectives and my plans for medical school and my intention to work for a year or so prior to applying,” Halstenberg said. “He told me that if I was interested, I could continue my work toward the Uranium from Seawater Project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during my gap year. I quickly expressed interest in the opportunity and subsequently began work as an intern via the Higher Education Research Experience program offered by Oak Ridge Associated Universities.”

“A few years later I was still working at ORNL now a Post Bachelor Research Associate long since deciding my calling was not toward medical, but chemical sciences,” Halstenberg said. “I soon realized that in competitive research environments, such as a national laboratory, a PhD can be a requirement for certain advancement opportunities.

Halstenberg had been working on projects related to the most recently developed, generation IV, nuclear reactors for about a year when he decided to apply to chemistry PhD programs. “I feel strongly that technology related to the latest molten salt reactors will have a substantial societal impact if developed and implemented correctly,” Halstenberg said “My goal was to enter a graduate program where I could work toward furthering our understanding of these systems from a fundamental chemistry perspective.”

Sheng Dai had joined the efforts of recently established Energy Frontier Research Center: Molten Salts in Extreme Environments and the Nuclear Energy University Program. “We spoke about my efforts toward molten salt, and I decided to attend UTK and complete my PhD working for these programs,” Halstenberg said. “It helped my decision when I realized that UTK was home to Gleb Mamantov, who made many of the first breakthroughs in molten salt research ~60 years ago. ORNL has also always been on the cutting edge of these molten salt reactors.”

Halstenberg’s research focus is molten chloride salts. Over the last three years, he has built a world class experimental salt chemistry facility in Buehler Hall on UTK’s main campus. These labs support research efforts related to molten chloride salts  worldwide. All the experiments are related to understanding the fundamental chemical interaction in molten chloride systems. The facility provides the salt matrices required across all of the collaborating institutions and assist in the development of their experimental methodology.

“In addition to providing the salt mixtures, the focus of my molten salt work in the UTK laboratory is the quantifying impurities, spectroscopic speciation studies, characterization of thermophysical properties, characterization of colloidal mixture properties, development of ultra-high temperature magnets, bulk metallic glass formation and analysis, containment corrosion studies, and novel synthetic pathways,” Halstenberg said.

“I enjoy the diversity of research being conducted within the Dai group,” Halstenberg said.  “This coupled with the encouragement of a collaborative group effort results in an environment that is very conducive to research progress.”

“Much of my work prior to graduate school was covered under various confidentiality agreements that prohibited its open publishing,” Halstenberg said. “Although, I have coauthored 16 peer reviewed journal articles since entering graduate school in 2018.”

“Upon graduation, I will continue working with national laboratories on research toward advancing the fundamental chemical understanding of these molten chloride systems. After proper technological maturation, I intend to move from research to development,” Halstenberg said. “I will take the knowledge I have gained synthesizing and purifying these materials on a laboratory scale and use it to build the supply chains needed to provide materials for industrial scale production of molten salt reactors.”