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Materials Science & Engineering News

A world leader in radiochemistry

By Will Ferguson

WallA growing nuclear industry paints a bright future for radiochemists.

The International Energy Agency predicts more than $25 trillion will need to be invested in nuclear reactors, radioactive waste storage facilities and the cleanup of contaminated sites globally in the next 15 years to help meet energy and carbon emission goals.

Here in the U.S., the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, six new reactors are scheduled to be completed by 2020. Additionally, the U.S Nuclear medicine market is estimated to reach $1.69 billion by the end of the year.

Despite its growth, both the public and private sectors of the U.S. nuclear industry are in dire need of highly qualified radiochemists to carry on the work of an aging cold-war era workforce.

This is where Nathalie Wall, assistant professor of chemistry at Washington State University and one of the world’s foremost radiochemists, comes in.

Wall and her team of graduate and doctoral students work with leading scientists at WSU and elsewhere across the globe to investigate the fundamental chemistry of radioactive materials. Their work provides valuable data for the remediation of contaminated sites, the construction of nuclear waste repositories and to ensure radioactive materials don’t fall into the wrong hands.

“Any place where there has been nuclear energy production or weapons testing there has been some form of radioactive contamination,” Wall said. “What we do is the fundamental chemistry to better understand how these radioactive elements got into the environment in the first place, how they can be detected and how they can be safely stored for a long period of time.”

Wall is one of six faculty members in the WSU radiochemistry group, making it the largest program of its kind in the country. Each faculty member has a different specialization ranging from fuel separation and radio pharmaceuticals to computer-based nuclear modeling and nuclear forensics.

“We have a really unique program unlike anywhere else in the country,” Wall said. “If I don’t have the answer to a graduate student’s question, chances are another professor here does. In addition to our human resources, we have access to cutting edge facilities including a nuclear research reactor.”

Wall’s former students have a track record of being heavily recruited by national laboratories and the private sector.

Mark Boggs, a 2012 WSU PhD graduate in radiochemistry, researches the sorption of plutonium onto clay materials at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He was offered the post-doc position nine months before completing his degree at WSU.

“The WSU radiochemistry program is a very tight-knit and approachable group of people that includes six of the world’s most renowned scholars on the subject,” he said. “I wasn’t just treated as a student. I was treated as a professional at the beginning of a career.”

Alex Samuels, a 2014 WSU radiochemistry graduate, is currently a LC/MS specialist at Agilent Technologies in San Diego. His research at WSU focused on finding a way to extract rhodium, a precious and rare metal, from spent nuclear fuel. During his work, an atomic emission spectroscopy machine he used continuously needed fixing.

“Alex tinkered with it and became so familiar with how the machine worked he began talking to the instrument manufacturer and other companies which led to him being recruited,” Wall said.

Annually, WSU awards degrees to half of the nation’s graduates earning doctoral degrees in radiochemistry.

For more information about applying to WSU’s radiochemistry group visit http://materials.wsu.edu/application-and-admission/

Using a cool instrument to take a new look at rocket fuels

With the hope of developing better future rocket fuels, a group of researchers is developing instrumentation to test super cold fuel mixtures.

Led by Jake Leachman, assistant professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, the researchers received support from the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation (JCATI) and from Aerojet Corporation to develop the instrumentation, which will be able to look at gelled mixtures of new kinds of high energy density fuels, like hydrogen and methane mixtures.

To send a rocket into space requires a fuel with high specific energy and energy density. Rocket fuels have changed little in the past 40 years, but recent advances have created new lightweight and strong fuel tanks that can store fuels at high pressures. With a significantly lower cost for liquid natural gas, aerospace companies are interested in investigating new types of gelled fuel mixtures.

“For many years, we didn’t have a lightweight container to allow us to store these new kinds of high pressure fuels,’’ says Leachman. “We didn’t have the logistics. The new tanks have created a new opportunity.’’

Leachman is interested in testing mixtures of methane and hydrogen at cold temperatures. The gelled mixture would be similar to wet snow, with methane being the ice slush and the hydrogen behaving like water. By mixing the two fuels, one can increase its energy density, which makes it a more attractive possible fuel with many possible applications. Nobody has done careful density measurements of such a fuel, with only one data set since 1960.

To measure the energy densities, Leachman is retrofitting an instrument that precisely measures density and sorption, or the ability of a material to hold or take up another substance. Leachman first saw the instrument as an undergraduate at the University of Idaho in the late 1990s. The instrument, called a Rubotherm Isosorp 2000, has since been sitting unused for several years. To retrofit it, the researchers are “strapping a refrigerator to it,’’ he says. Then, they can measure mixtures at temperatures as low as 3 Kelvin, or -454 degrees Fahrenheit. Using the same basic way of measuring that Archimedes discovered in his bathtub, the researchers will precisely measure density by seeing how much liquid their materials displace.

“Once retrofitted, this instrument will be unique and advantageous to the aerospace industry in the state,’’ says Leachman. “The potential gains to established aerospace technologies are substantial, and the capabilities resulting from this work could be substantial for the aerospace community in Washington State for years to come.’’