Research

A view into a deep mining tunnel with tracks running down the middle.
Colorado School of Mines underground classroom, the Edgar Experimental Mine. Photo: Agata Bugucka

While the U.S. continues to look for new energy sources, our reliance on mining for rare minerals grows. Unfortunately, miners often work in dangerous environments where there is a risk of mine explosions, fire, poisonous gases and flooding in tunnels. Mine accidents have killed over 40,000 mine workers worldwide in the past decade.

Mine safety demands a scalable, low-cost solution to enable sensing, communication and tracking in underground mines to detect precursors to emergencies and to aid rescue efforts in the aftermath of an accident. In spite of requirements for data and voice communications in underground mining growing significantly, the high cost of deploying a safety infrastructure often leads to companies only meeting the minimum required safeguards.

The National Science Foundation awarded a three-year $750,000 grant to the project, “Enabling Smart Underground Mining with an Integrated Context-Aware Wireless Headshot photo of Qi Han, associate professor of Computer ScienceCyber-Physical Framework,” in order to solve this problem. About $338,000 will go to Colorado School of Mines researchers, led by Computer Science Associate Professor Qi Han, in collaboration with Carl Brackpool, a research associate in the Department of Mining Engineering. Han shares in the grant with fellow CS researchers at Colorado State University.

“I’ve been passionate about using my research expertise to improve mine safety for quite some time, so it’s very exciting that the NSF has chosen to support this research,” said Han. “I’m most interested in designing algorithms to support the co-existence of high quality voice streams in noisy underground environments. Providing voice streaming support will significantly improve situational awareness.”

The project will devise, design, prototype and test a fundamentally novel framework of low-cost, energy-efficient and reliable sensor nodes and commodity smartphones to improve safety in underground mines. The wireless cyber-physical framework would bypass GPS, cellular and other signals that we take for granted above ground.

The researchers will field-test their system in Colorado School of Mines’ Edgar Mine, used for research and education. They also will partner with Hecla Mining in Idaho, which has expressed interest in the proposed technology.

While useful for mining, the technology could lead to a host of other applications in the realm of next-generation smart workplaces and various “Internet of Things” applications. It could also be used in the aftermath of disasters for survivor rescue efforts.

CONTACT:

Deirdre Keating, Communications Manager, College of Engineering & Computational Sciences | 303-384-2358 | dkeating@mines.edu
Ashley Spurgeon, Editorial Assistant, Mines magazine | 303-273-3959 | aspurgeon@mines.edu

 

Chemical and Biological Engineering Associate Professor Sumit Agarwal has been awarded $615,000 over four years by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative to develop a scalable and more cost-effective method of manufacturing ultra-high-efficiency solar cells.

CBE Associate Professor Sumit Agarwal and postdoc Noemi LeickMost silicon-based solar cells in the market today have 16 to 18 percent efficiency, said Agarwal, while the maximum efficiency achieved in the lab is over 25 percent. “Our objective is to make it easier and cheaper to bridge this gap between the lab and industrial-scale devices,” he said.

Agarwal and his team, which includes postdoctoral researcher Noemi Leick and members of Silicon Photovoltaics project group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory led by Paul Stradins, aim to fabricate solar cells with around 23 percent efficiency using their new method. The research will be performed both at Mines and NREL and will take advantage of NREL’s state-of-the-art deposition and new silicon device cleanroom facilities.

Mono-crystalline silicon (c-Si) solar cells provide the most promising pathway to electricity generation at costs that are comparable to conventional energy sources. Solar cells work by absorbing light and releasing separate positive and negative charges to create a current, and using c-Si minimizes the loss of energy from the recombination of these charges.

The efficiency of these cells is further improved by collecting both charges on the back side of the cell, as opposed to the traditional front-grid architecture, where metal contacts cover up some of the cell and prevent some light from being absorbed.
 


Diagram of solar cell with interdigitated back contacts.

Solar cells that use this design, however, only account for a small fraction of solar cells currently being manufactured, as they require the use of interdigitated back contacts, where the contact materials are arranged similarly to interlocked fingers. This requires a complex, repeated process where layers of material are added and sections of it are then removed.

Agarwal proposes to bypass these steps, using light and chemical vapor deposition to put down the material for the back contacts in the desired pattern. “Only the lit areas will get material growth,” Agarwal said. He believes this is a technique that can be translated into large-scale manufacturing.

In addition to the SunShot Initiative funding, the project will also receive a 10 percent match from Mines.

 

The grant is part of $107 million in new projects and planned funding announced by the Energy Department Sept. 14 to support clean energy innovation through solar technology. Under the SunShot Initiative, the department will fund 40 projects with a total of $42 million to improve PV performance, reliability, and manufacturability, and to enable greater market penetration for solar technologies.

In addition to the new projects, the department intends to make up to $65 million, subject to appropriation, in additional funding available for upcoming solar research and development projects to continue driving down the cost of solar energy and accelerating widespread national deployment. One of SunShot's goals is to drive down the levelized cost of utility-scale solar electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour without incentives by 2020.

Contact:
Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 | ramirez@mines.edu
Ashley Spurgeon, Editorial Assistant, Mines magazine | 303-273-3959 | aspurgeon@mines.edu

Nuclear Engineering PhD student Michael ServisA PhD student in nuclear engineering has been awarded a prize in the Innovations in Fuel Cycle Research Awards, sponsored by the Department of Energy Office of Fuel Cycle Technologies.

Michael Servis’ award-winning research paper, “A Molecular Dynamics Study of Tributyl Phosphate and Diamyl Amyl Phosphonate Self-Aggregation in Dodecane and Octane,” was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry in February 2016.

The awards program is designed to recognize graduate and undergraduate students for innovative research publications relevant to the nuclear fuel cycle, demonstrate the Department of Energy’s commitment to higher education in fuel cycle-relevant disciplines, and support communication between students and DOE representatives.

The program awarded 17 prizes in 2016. Servis, advised by Chemistry Assistant Professor Jenifer Braley and Chemistry Professor David Wu, was a winner in the competition for students who attend universities with less than $600 million in research and development expenditures in 2014.

Winners receive cash prizes, as well as travel and conference opportunities.

Contact:
Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 | ramirez@mines.edu
Deirdre Keating, Communications Manager, College of Engineering & Computational Sciences | 303-384-2358 | dkeating@mines.edu

Seventy-five students from across the country and around the world gathered at Mines this past July for the first graduate student summer school on thermoelectrics in the United States in two decades.

International Summer School on Thermoelectrics group photoPhysics Assistant Professor Eric Toberer organized the International Summer School on Thermoelectrics, which took place July 25 to 27, with Alexandra Zevalkink, assistant professor at Michigan State University. Funding came from the Mines Office of Technology Transfer and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“Our objective was to provide an opportunity for students to develop new collaborations and to hear from leaders in the field about the current state of the art and fundamentals,” Toberer said. “Breakout discussions were a big part of this conference, largely as a forum to have graduate students interact with each other and gain insight from experts.”

Topics ranged from the physics of thermoelectric materials to materials synthesis, to practical module design. Speakers included scientists from NREL, Northwestern University, Georgia Tech, Duke University and Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.

Attendees came from the U.S., Switzerland, South Korea, Japan, India and Spain. “We had a 100 percent acceptance policy for graduate students in thermoelectric research groups,” Toberer said. Several undergraduate Mines students who have been conducting research in thermoelectrics also took part. “The summer school paid for lodging, food and registration; the students simply had to arrive,” Toberer said.

Brenden Ortiz, a Mines PhD student, received the Journal of Materials Chemistry A poster award for best overall presentation.

The organizers hope to collaborate with the International Thermoelectric Society for next year’s summer school and hold it in conjunction with their national meeting in Los Angeles. “After that, I hope to make it an annual event at Mines that alternates between introductory and advanced topics,” Toberer said.

Contact:
Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 | ramirez@mines.edu
Ashley Spurgeon, Editorial Assistant, Mines magazine | 303-273-3959 | aspurgeon@mines.edu

Faculty in the departments of Chemistry and Chemical and Biological Engineering have been awarded $320,000 by the National Science Foundation to turn bacteria into a more sustainable source of jet fuel.
 

Fiona Davies and Nanette Boyle inspect a dish of blue-green algae.

Chemistry Assistant Research Professor Fiona Davies, left, and Chemical and Biological Engineering Assistant Professor Nanette Boyle inspect a dish of blue-green algae.

CBE Assistant Professor Nanette Boyle, principal investigator, and Chemistry Assistant Research Professor Fiona Davies, co-PI, are using photosynthetic bacteria commonly known as blue-green algae to produce a compound called limonene.

“Limonene is the compound in citrus essential oils which gives them their distinctive scent,” Davies said. “It’s an ideal precursor for aviation fuel because of its high energy density and structural similarity to jet fuel.” This means limonene can simply be blended with current petroleum-based fuels with no changes needed in the existing transport fuel infrastructure.

While some of the increasing demand for energy in the transportation sector can be replaced with vehicles that run on renewable electricity, the aviation, shipping and long-haul trucking industries will still require liquid fuel.

The bacteria—Synechococcus sp. PC 7002—is very similar to plants in that it grows on carbon dioxide and light alone. It essentially functions as a catalytic factory where enzymes in the cell directly convert carbon dioxide into limonene.

“It doesn’t produce limonene naturally, but we have engineered it to produce limonene by introducing a single enzyme from a limonene-producing plant—spearmint,” Boyle said. “Our current limonene production yields are not high enough to be economically feasible, therefore the funded research is focused on rewiring the metabolism of the cell to direct more carbon toward limonene.”

Boyle and Davies will use computational modeling to predict how they can divert more carbon flux to limonene, then use genetic engineering techniques to modify the bacterium’s metabolism to increase production.

Cyanobacteria—or bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis—have been engineered to produce various industrially useful compounds such as ethanol, butanol and isoprene, which Davies has worked with previously. However, yields are typically low, and little progress has been made because the metabolism of the cell is so tightly controlled. “Our study will actually pinpoint where the tightly controlled parts of metabolism are so that we eliminate them specifically,” Davies said.

“Overall, our work will develop a far more sustainable and environmentally friendly source of fuel for the aviation industry because it is produced directly from carbon in the atmosphere instead of the limited fossil fuel reserves, and it removes carbon from the atmosphere to assist with efforts to reduce global warming,” Boyle said.

The project will also include educational activities, with Boyle and Davies mentoring a team of college and high school students to participate in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. The program, also known as iGEM, promotes active learning in the field of molecular biology.

 

Contact:
Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 | ramirez@mines.edu
Ashley Spurgeon, Editorial Assistant, Mines magazine | 303-273-3959 | aspurgeon@mines.edu

A multidisciplinary team, led by the Ben L. Fryrear Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Tzahi Cath, has received a $1 million award from the National Science Foundation to develop an innovative monitoring and control system for small wastewater treatment facilities.

The project, titled “Self-Correcting Energy-Efficient Water Reclamation Systems for Tailored Water Reuse at Decentralized Facilities,” draws on the bioreactor at Mines Park, which treats more than 7,000 gallons of domestic wastewater each day, and will integrate existing and new wireless sensor networks to monitor water quality and for process monitoring and control.

“Improved monitoring of water quality and early warning of treatment system vulnerabilities are critical to protecting the public and the environment,” said Cath. “The smart service system we are building uses a network of simple, existing sensors and a novel wireless sensor network. These new, smart sensor technologies can learn from past performance, predict future performance and adapt the system to achieve preset objectives.”

Water pipes with electronic gauges are shown, as the professor kneels to read the information and a student records the data.

Professor Tzahi Cath and a graduate student take readings at the AQWATEC Laboratory.

In addition to being more energy and resource efficient, the new system will benefit many small communities that operate decentralized wastewater treatment facilities and don’t have the resources to improve their system.

Cath also attributed the project’s selection to the foundation laid by the Engineering Research Center for Re-Inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure, also known as ReNUWIt, at Colorado School of Mines. “All of this is only possible because ReNUWIt at Mines that has been building these partnerships in an effort to develop new strategies for water management and treatment,” said Cath.

After testing the new monitoring and control system at Mines Park, the team will work with industry partners from Aqua-Aerobic Systems and Kennedy/Jenks Consulting as well as broader context partners such as Ramey Environmental in Frederick, Colorado, to deploy, incorporate and test the system at existing small, decentralized treatment plants.

The team includes Professor Tracy Camp from the Division of Computer Science, Assistant Professor Salman Mohagheghi from the Division of Electrical Engineering, and Associate Professor Hussein Amery from the Division of Liberal Arts and International Studies, as well as professors Amanda Hering and Michael Poor at Baylor University. The team will also include graduate and undergraduate students from CEE and CS.

The grant is one of 13 awarded by the NSF’s Partnerships for Innovation: Building Innovation Capacity program, in support of innovative partnership projects that create new human-centric service systems.

 “The National Science Foundation fosters innovation and partnerships between academic researchers and industry, catalyzing interdisciplinary projects to understand and design smart systems and technologies of the future,” said Grace Wang, acting assistant director, NSF Directorate for Engineering. “These 13 projects are at the forefront of the human-technology frontier, driving innovation to solve problems to benefit society and improve life as we know it.”
 

CONTACT:

Deirdre Keating, Communications Manager, College of Engineering & Computational Sciences | 303-384-2358 | dkeating@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 | ramirez@mines.edu

A physicist with four degrees from Colorado School of Mines is part of a research team that has found a possible solution to one of the major challenges of facial recognition systems: makeup.

Alex YuffaMines graduate Alex Yuffa, with lead researcher Nathaniel Short, Gorden Videen, and Shuowen Hu, was published in the July 2016 issue of the journal Applied Optics with a paper titled “Effects of surface materials on polarimetric-thermal measurements: applications to face recognition.” The researchers are part of the Image Processing Branch of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Maryland.

Face recognition has become a key tool in fields such as security and forensics. Although the accuracy of visible-spectrum facial recognition systems has rapidly increased, and techniques to address changes in light, pose and expression have been developed, cosmetics still pose a challenge as they distort the perceived shapes of faces.

The researchers found that polarimetric-thermal imaging—which measures the thermal infrared emissions of an object, or in this case, faces—are essentially immune to the effects of makeup. The materials commonly used in cosmetics and face paint are good thermal emitters, meaning they have little impact on the heat transferred from the face. This means polarimetric-thermal images provide additional facial details that could otherwise be concealed.

The team determined this by applying various cosmetic and similar materials to a metallic sphere and measuring their thermal conductivity, as well as comparing thermal imaging of faces before and after the application of makeup.

“Our study has demonstrated polarimetric-thermal imaging can be substantially more robust to face paints, and to a degree cosmetics, for facial recognition than visible imaging,” said Short. “Our experiments show how face paints and cosmetics degrade the performance of traditional facial-recognition methods and we provide a new approach to mitigating this effect using polarimetric-thermal imaging.” This technique could also provide advantages in nighttime conditions.
 

Polarimetric-thermal imaging can reveal facial details in the presence of surface materials such as face paints and cosmetics. Photo courtesy of Eric Proctor, William Parks, U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Maryland, USA

One of the challenges of using this technique is the small size of the existing polarimetric-thermal facial database. “Large sample pools are needed to develop and train complex machine-learning techniques such as neural networks, computer programs that attempt to imitate the human brain to make connections and draw conclusions,” Short said.

“This work was started by my postdoc advisor and me as a fun side project, namely, reconstructing a 3D human face from 2D polarimetric images,” Yuffa said. That work was featured on the cover of Applied Optics in 2014. “After the initial success, we teamed up with image processing collaborators (aka face-recognition people) and used what we learned in that application context.” Yuffa said this most recent research has resulted in one pending patent, and more on the way.

Yuffa earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering physics and math, and holds an MS and PhD in applied physics, all from Mines. “I’m a high school dropout who came to Mines via the Red Rocks Community College route,” said Yuffa. After 12 years at Mines (1999 to 2013, with a two-year break), he joined the Army Research Laboratory in 2013 as a postdoctoral researcher, then as a physical scientist.

“I really liked my time in Mines, and Meyer Hall was my second home,” Yuffa said. The most useful skill he acquired in Golden is the ability to teach himself almost any subject. “On numerous occasions in my career, I had to master new areas with little to no guidance by relying on the independent learner skills that I obtained at Mines,” he said, giving particular credit to Physics faculty members John DeSanto, David Wood, Paul Martin and John Scales.

Yuffa is returning to Colorado this September to join the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder as a physicist.

Read the paper: https://www.osapublishing.org/ao/fulltext.cfm?uri=ao-55-19-5226&id=345154

 

Contact:
Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 | ramirez@mines.edu
Deirdre Keating, Communications Manager, College of Engineering & Computational Sciences | 303-384-2358 | dkeating@mines.edu

 

Mines Mechanical Engineering faculty are part of a project that has been awarded $1.6 million to improve the design of soft magnetic materials, which would increase the efficiency of electrical systems. Mechanical Engineering professors Aaron Stebner and Cristian Ciobanu are collaborating with faculty at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Minnesota on the project, titled “Accelerated Soft Magnetic Alloy Design and Synthesis Guided by Theory and Simulations.”

Soft magnetic materials, such as iron and nickel-iron alloys, are labeled soft due to their low loss and high permeability characteristics. They are essential to all aspects of daily life, especially in the generation, conversion and conditioning of electric power. Even small improvements in energy efficiency from the magnetic components can result in large energy, financial and CO2 emissions savings. Stebner and Ciobanu plan to advance the alloy design cycle through a multidisciplinary approach involving materials science, applied physics and electrical engineering.  

Graph showing the iterative process in creating a database of alloy properties

“The research in this grant is aimed at creating an ability to computationally explore new chemistries and microstructures for soft magnetic materials,” said Stebner. “By developing computations that can assist with evaluating new chemistries in the computer instead of in the lab, that process could be reduced to five years or less, and we could also discover well-performing magnetic materials that metallurgists have not thought of before.”

As technological advances lead to soft magnetics operating at higher frequencies and higher temperatures, the challenge becomes retaining their inherent strengths. Stebner explained, “If we think about our power grids, they operate at 60-120 Hz and near room temperature. Looking to applications like the new hybrid-electric airplane program announced by NASA, the goal is for the energy conversion systems to operate at the same efficiencies as our power grids, but at 50-100 kHz and temperatures up to 400 C.”

Ciobanu’s research will focus on the density functional theory, while Stebner’s team will investigate fine element modeling in micromagnetics. The $1.6 million grant award is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer Our Future program. Figure 2, below, captures the experimental and computational collaboration between Mines faculty, Matthew Willard from Case Western’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Richard James from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics. 

Workflow chart showing collaborative process of alloy processing to thermodynamic modeling and micromagnetic modeling on the computational end as well as experimental models looking at structural and magnetic characterizations

 

Contact:
Deirdre Keating, Communications Manager, College of Engineering & Computational Sciences | 303-384-2358 | dkeating@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 | ramirez@mines.edu

PhD student Alyssa Allende Motz in an engineering physics lab at Mines.For PhD student Alyssa Allende Motz, physics is not just about learning how matter moves through space and time or the complicated laws that govern our understanding of energy and force. She says that physics is more about “teaching you how to learn and how to think of things so that you can make more conclusions that lead you to more questions.”

Allende Motz is not new to the world of physics. She earned her bachelor’s degree in engineering physics in 2011 and her master’s degree in applied physics in 2012, both from Mines. But she decided to return to Mines to pursue a PhD, because she wanted to continue searching for answers. “The more you find out,” she says, “the more you find out that you don’t know.” And she speaks from experience.

She regularly works with nonlinear optics and nonlinear microscopy, or, in other words, focusing a laser beam to a very small point to the diffraction limit of light to get high-resolution imaging. “In my research, we wanted to push the resolution limits, and we thought this really wouldn’t change the scope of something called a lifetime measurement,” she says. “What we found out was that at first what appeared to be lifetimes that looked incorrect was actually a feature of the measurement being different from the macroscale measurement. It actually led to more questions. But then more was found out with the same kind of measurement, just on a different kind of scale.”

Allende Motz’s research in particular focuses on photovoltaics, which generate electricity directly from sunlight. Specifically, she deals with a technology called thin-film photovoltaics, which she explains is a promising technology because of its potential to be an inexpensive energy resource while also being effective. But researchers are still working out a few questions in the lab. “There’s a theoretical efficiency of these solar cells, and we’re not quite hitting that theoretical efficiency,” Allende Motz explains. “And we’re not quite sure why yet.”

She says the reason for this inefficiency is most likely due to grain boundaries—defects in a crystal structure that tend to decrease the electrical and thermal conductivity of the material. “These grain boundaries are only 50 nanometers or so wide, so you have to have a very high-resolution system to study the nature of these grain boundaries and how they interact with the material and how they affect solar cell efficiency; specifically, what is leading the degradation,” Allende Motz says. She aims to develop a microscope that will have a high enough resolution to determine the physics of grain boundaries and learn more about improving the efficiency of thin-film photovoltaics.

PhD student Alyssa Allende Motz inspects a machine in the engineering physics lab at Mines.The end goal of this technology? To make solar cells that are inexpensive enough and produce enough electricity to make them market competitive with fossil fuels. And although she isn’t directly involved with making these solar cells, her work is just as important. “We don’t make the materials,” she says. “But we make the tools that characterize the materials.”

But Allende Motz’s research isn’t limited to energy-related applications. “I have this idea of studying neurons with something similar to excitons, which is basically the movement of charge. So you could study the movement of charge through neurons, and maybe that could help study things like Alzheimer’s,” Allende Motz says.

There are clearly many benefits to her research and the technology she is developing. “We try to find problems that need solutions,” she says. “What I hope to do with this microscope once I complete my research, is apply for some sort of postdoc grant and continue study with it. I want to show the versatility of the instrument by studying different samples besides just PV, like biological samples.”

While her research answers many questions, Allende Motz isn’t intimidated by the questions that it also uncovers. “I like it, because I get to do something that I feel is creative and artistic, and it’s also applicable to something concrete and realistic,” she says. “We’re discovering new things about materials that are going to help researchers find better materials in the future.”

 

Contact:
Ashley Spurgeon, Editorial Assistant, Mines magazine | 303-273-3959 | aspurgeon@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 | 
ramirez@mines.edu

A rare study of the radioactive element berkelium, co-led by Mines Chemistry Assistant Professor Jenifer Braley, has been published in Science, one of the world’s top academic journals.

Chemistry Assistant Professor Jenifer BraleyBraley, also a faculty member in the Nuclear Science and Engineering Program at Mines, and Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt of Florida State University led an international team of researchers. The article, “Characterization of berkelium(III) dipicolinate and borate compounds in solution and the solid state,” appears in the journal’s August 26 issue.

“Basically, the article addresses the chemistry of one of the heaviest and rarest elements on earth,” Braley said. “It’s not as explored as we thought it was.”

The availability of berkelium for research and its short half-life of 320 days have been the biggest factors in this knowledge gap. While elements with atomic numbers 1 (hydrogen) through 92 (uranium) can generally be found in nature, useful amounts of elements with higher numbers—transuranic elements—can only be created artificially.

“Since berkelium is frequently used for the discovery of new elements, its availability for chemical studies has been extremely limited over the past 30 years,” Braley said. For this study, the berkelium was created by Oak Ridge National Laboratory using its High Flux Isotope Reactor, a process that cost about $500,000 and resulted in 13 milligrams for Albrecht-Schmitt and half a microgram for Braley.

Braley said her main finding was that berkelium appears to be a transitional element, sharing similar properties with both heavier and lighter actinide elements. Actinides are the 15 metallic elements with atomic numbers from 89 to 103, with berkelium sitting just past the halfway point at 97.

“For the longest time, it was understood that the ‘basement’ of the periodic table basically behaved the same way,” Braley said. This study shows that the chemistry of the heaviest elements is more nuanced than previously believed. More recent, yet-to-be-published work from the group using californium, a heavier actinide isotope, supports these observations and their results will be presented in an upcoming article.

“We’re very much at the beginning of this, and there’s a lot of very rich, unexplored chemistry that builds support for further heavy-element research,” Braley said.

Braley’s research took place in the recently completed Radiochemistry Laboratory in the Mines General Research Laboratory. “It’s a beautiful facility,” she noted. The lab is licensed by the state as able to handle actinides as heavy as einsteinium, although the amount of material Braley received meant no extreme protective measures were necessary.

“Half a microgram is not big—you can’t even see it,” Braley said. “It’s in a vial as big as my thumb.” The berkelium was shipped by FedEx, in a “lead pig” about the size of a Nerf football.

“Just having the material was exciting,” Braley said. Access to these elements is obviously limited, and Braley said her body of work in the field—particularly receiving a Department of Energy Early Career Research Program award in 2014 to study the heaviest available actinides—led to her being approved for this research.

“For a couple of years it was just Tom (Albrecht-Schmitt) studying this chemistry by himself,” Braley said. “You want other people testing these hypotheses, and they saw how I could be an important complement to that work.”

Read the article in Science: Characterization of berkelium(III) dipicolinate and borate compounds in solution and the solid state
Chemical and Engineering News: Berkelium chemistry exposed
 

Contact:
Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 | ramirez@mines.edu
Kathleen Morton, Digital Media and Communications Manager, Colorado School of Mines | 303-273-3088 | kmorton@mines.edu

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