A win-win situation

Posted: April 19, 2013 - 1:01pm

Research and development efforts can be time-consuming. There are papers to read, ideas to ponder, experiments to run. Many projects end up taking years to complete — if they’re ever completed at all. On top of that, most Y‑12 researchers must divide their time between numerous projects, often delaying or abandoning promising work when more pressing tasks arise.

Y‑12’s formal partnership with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville offers a simple solution: graduate research assistants.

“Using a graduate assistant is a phenomenal value,” said James Bradshaw of Y‑12’s Analytical Chemistry Organization. “We get a lot more done for the taxpayer’s dollar.”

Bradshaw has taken advantage of the Y‑12/UT partnership to collaborate with UT professor Michael Sepaniak and PhD candidate Jennifer Charlton on a project that is optimizing chemical processes and developing instrumentation to analyze a massive number of soil, water and surface samples.

The project, which was originally envisioned by ACO’s Darrin Mann, has potentially significant benefits for responses to nuclear crises, like the disaster that occurred at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011. The initial assessment of an event’s severity — of how much radioactive material was released, where it went, and who might be affected by it — relies on accurate and timely measurements of nearby surfaces.

Those measurements are currently done by a manual process — collect a soil sample, process it, digest it in acid, wait two hours — that works in 12-sample batches. Then there’s the analysis time, which can take hours or days. In total, two researchers using these techniques can expect to complete roughly 100 samples in a 24-hour period.

Bradshaw and Charlton hope to dramatically increase that throughput to up to 10,000 samples a day for two operators.

“Current methods only allow for the isolation of one actinide, such as uranium, at a time,” Charlton said. Actinides, elements 89 through 103 on the Periodic Table, are the radioactive elements of interest to researchers and crisis responders. By detecting specific actinides, responders, medical personnel, and clean-up crews can act quickly and efficiently to provide relief and assistance.

“We’ve modified the chemistry to include the rest of the actinides,” Charlton said. “We’ve also taken the manual actinide separation process and automated it. Our system utilizes robotics to streamline the process and allow large batches to be analyzed simultaneously.”

The successful modifications came, like many scientific discoveries do, by trial and error. That process benefitted from Charlton’s undivided attention. While other employees might have daily interruptions as other tasks demand their time, Charlton’s here just to work on this one project.

“We took the uranium separation chemistry and modified it — let’s increase the amount of this or decrease the amount of that and see what happens — to include the rest of the actinides,” she said. “We ran probably 150 experiments in 4 or 5 months.”

They ultimately found the right combination of chemicals to separate all actinides simultaneously, resulting in a much greater amount of data coming out of each sample analysis. That, combined with their work to automate the once-manual process, will allow field researchers to gather and analyze as much data and information as they can in as little time as possible. In the event of a disaster where many people are exposed, this technology will be able to rapidly identify those individuals whose exposure levels merit further medical treatment.

“The chemistry of this is not novel, but it’s always been used for just one source — uranium or plutonium, for example,” Bradshaw said. “What Jennifer’s done is found a way to use the same chemicals in a completely non-trivial way to isolate all the actinides.”

Bradshaw noted the project’s potential benefits for NNSA researchers, other Y‑12 ACO processes and, eventually, first responders. But he also highlighted the ways in which this collaboration benefits Charlton, who is performing much of the work as part of her doctoral thesis.

“She gets the academic experience plus field experience, laboratory experience, U.S. Department of Energy experience, and very specific training,≵ Bradshaw said. “A large portion of the expertise to do this type of work is at Y‑12.”

Now, thanks to the Y‑12/UT partnership, graduate researchers like Charlton have the opportunity to work with and learn from Y‑12’s expertise, which in many cases can’t be found elsewhere.

“We’re getting a lot of work from a very skilled individual,” Bradshaw said. “We can actually deliver quality results while educating the next generation of scientists — this is a no-brainer.”