Collaboration between Tennessee Tech University's chemistry department and Oak Ridge National Laboratory has led to unique opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to participate in important research projects over the last six years.
So far, the project has provided research projects for six master's students, including Ben Harmon, Viola Meadors, John Partridge, Matt Gott, Jordan Dunne, and Talon Hill, and four undergraduate students, including Jacob Buckner and Chris Shults, from Cookeville; Matt Morgan; and Erica Stoner.
"In 2005, we began working with the ORNL, specifically the Chemical Separations Group and scientists Bruce Moyer and Laetitia Delmau, on a project dealing with removal of radioactive cesium in legacy waste generated during the Cold War," said Dale Ensor, chemistry professor and one of the project's principal investigators.
The solutions that Ensor and his students are working with simulate the composition of the high-level waste stored at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. The cleanup of this waste is one of the most costly and complex problems faced by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The ORNL Chemical Separation Group developed a process called the Caustic-Side Solvent Extraction that successfully removes cesium, the predominant radioactive element in the salt waste found at the Savannah River site. Over the past two years a new process has been developed called the NG-CSSX, or Next-Generation Caustic-Side Solvent Extraction, that improves the efficiency of the cesium removal. Funded by a five-year grant from ORNL, the TTU group is now working to develop a better understanding of how the NG-CSSX process works.
"This summer, Talon, Matt, Jacob, and Chris worked under my direction to develop an empirical formula that predicts the behavior of cesium in the NG-CSSX under a wide variety of starting conditions," Ensor said. "They made hundreds of measurements which now are being analyzed in an attempt to improve our understanding of the system."
Through these experiments, the students get to use specialized equipment, including a gamma auto counter and ion chromatograph, which provides them unique opportunities that aren't available at most schools.
"TTU is one of the few universities in the country that offers students the opportunity to conduct radiochemical research," Ensor said. "Through this, the students gain an understanding of the factors necessary to conduct fundamental research.
These experiences are important and can lead to summer jobs, employment after graduation, or the motivation to pursue continuing education opportunities."
Partridge currently works at ORNL, and Gott and Stoner are doctoral students at the University of Missouri and University of Alabama, respectively.
Some of the students working on this project may also get the opportunity to work on-site at ORNL. Ensor, who teaches one of the few remaining laboratory classes in radiochemistry in the nation and has received two Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Grants from the National Science Foundation to purchase radiochemical counting equipment for class and research uses, has also been a visiting scientist at ORNL.
"It is a great resource for ORNL and our group to get students from TTU. Not only are they already trained in radiochemistry, which is relatively rare and allows them to "step right in" when they come for a summer internship, but they are only 1.5 hour away, which allows us to continue a close collaboration year around," said ORNL scientist Laetitia Delmau.
"The chance to work with Dr. Delmau gives me the feeling that I am working on a serious project with real world applications and that my research has a useful purpose," said graduate student Talon Hill.
"Through this project, we show students how to deal with real-world problems," Ensor said, "But the value comes in that we're also providing solutions through our research."
"In addition to this being an excellent example of real-world problems tackled by graduate students at TTU, this demonstrates how undergraduates gain essential research experience outside the traditional classroom laboratory, one of the longstanding strengths of the chemistry department," said Jeff Boles, chemistry department professor and chairperson.