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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 researchers at the Y-12 National Security Complex must divide their time between numerous projects, often delaying or abandoning promising work when more pressing tasks arise.

Instead of manually transferring samples, chemicals and test tubes, the system uses robotics to streamline the
process and allow large batches to be analyzed simultaneously. Photo by Brett Pate, Y-12 Photography.

Y‑12’s formal partnership with UT 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 taxpayers’ dollar.”

Bradshaw has taken advantage of the UT/Y-12 partnership to collaborate with chemistry professor Michael Sepaniak and doctoral candidate Jennifer Charlton on a project that 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.

Through the project, Charlton has gained academic, field, laboratory, and US Department of Energy experience.

“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.”

The initial assessment of a nuclear 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 twelve-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 twenty-four-hour period.

Bradshaw and Charlton hope to dramatically increase that throughput to as many as 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. “We’ve modified the chemistry to include the rest of the actinides.” 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 also taken the manual actinide separation process and automated it. Our system uses robotics to streamline the process and allow large batches to be analyzed simultaneously,” Charlton said.

The outcome has potential benefits for National Nuclear Security Administration researchers, other Y‑12 processes and, eventually, first responders.


-Written by Y-12’s Eric Swanson