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A Perfect Storm

New Radiochemistry Annex to Expand EMSL Research Capabilities

Radiochemistry Annex, Lab-by-Lab

Scheduled to be fully operational in early 2013, the Radiochemistry Annex is supported through a combination of BER and ARRA funding, as well as EMSL programmatic support. The 6,000 square foot complex features five laboratories and two sample preparation rooms.

  • SEM Laboratory: Two scanning electron microscope (SEM) units that image sample surfaces with high-energy beams of electrons. Outfitted with focused ion beam capability, one SEM instrument was purchased with ARRA funding at a cost of $1.55 million. The second SEM was recently purchased by PNNL's Energy and Environment Directorate.
  • TEM Laboratory: Ultra-thin radiological samples analyzed with transmission electron microscopy (TEM), which focuses a beam of electrons to generate an image of the surface. This lab is equipped with an existing JEOL 2010 FE TEM with Gatan electron energy loss spectroscopy.
  • XPS and SPM Laboratory: An X-ray photoelectron spectrometer (XPS) with an electron microprobe (EMP) and a scanning probe microscope (SPM) are used to analyze solid radiological samples. The Kratos Axis 165/Ultra XPS with attached environmental chamber is funded with $960,000 of ARRA funding. The DI Nanoscope IV atomic force microscope is an existing instrument.
  • NMR and EPR Laboratory: Two nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers, a Bruker 750 MHz high-field unit and a Magnex 100 MHz low-field unit. Combined, these provide a range of capabilities unique among radiochemistry laboratories. This lab also features a Bruker electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectrometer to analyze either powdered solid or liquid samples. The $2.5 million, 750 MHz NMR was purchased with ARRA funds. The other two units are existing EMSL instruments.
  • EMP Laboratory: An electron microprobe (EMP) is used to image and map the chemical composition of solid samples at high resolution. A $2.2 million JOEL JXA 8530F EMP was purchased with ARRA funding.
  • Electron Microscopy Sample Preparation Laboratory: Features advanced sample preparation equipment for SEM and TEM analysis, including microtomes, ion mills, sputter coater, carbon coater and polishers.
  • Sample Receiving and Preparation/Analytical Chemistry Laboratory: Houses a large number of analytical instruments for measuring chemical concentration of both radiological and stable elements. These include four dual-chamber environmental chambers, fume hoods, UV-Vis-NIR spectrophotometer, KPA uranium analyzer, and more.
  • Radiochemistry Annex brochure

In the early 1990s, the proximity of the Hanford Site and its legacy contamination was a key factor in the Department of Energy's (DOE) decision to locate EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences laboratory, at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). However, when the new EMSL complex opened on October 1, 1997, the capacity to work with radiological samples at EMSL was restricted to non dispersible materials, volumetric released and sealed sources.

Radiochemistry research was relegated to labs at the nearby Hanford Site. Nevertheless, EMSL scientists continued to be motivated by the idea of using state-of-the-art molecular science tools to analyze radiological samples to help develop improved remediation strategies.

About ten years ago, PNNL Laboratory Fellow Andy Felmy began conversations about the importance of a full-capability radiochemistry lab in Richland. "With our legacy Hanford issues, it just made sense to the scientific community to locate a state-of-the art facility here," he said.

The conversations continued when Felmy joined EMSL as the new Chief Science Officer five years ago. At that time, a group of EMSL officials continued the conversation when they traveled to Washington DC to meet with the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) to gain support for an EMSL annex designed for radiological work. With the Hanford Site buildings scheduled for demolition and cleanup, the concept of a new facility was supported, but funding was lacking.

Nancy Hess with one of the instruments, photo

It wasn't long until a combination of events created what Nancy Hess calls a "perfect storm."

"We were still in discussions with BER when the new Physical Sciences Facility (PSF) broke ground at PNNL," recalled Hess, EMSL's Lead Scientist for Geochemistry, Biogeochemistry and Subsurface Science. The five-building, 200,000 square foot PSF complex will replace much of the radiological research capabilities previously performed at the Hanford Site.

According to Hess, a research group that was scheduled to be in PSF was relocated to an interim facility during construction. "They liked their interim location so much, they decided to stay put and gave up their new lab space. This opened the door to EMSL for a laboratory complex in a facility permitted for work with radiological samples."

Rather than a new building, EMSL required only BER funding for customized laboratory space in the new facility.

The third element of Hess' "perfect storm" was the recent federal stimulus investment program. "ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funding allowed the purchase of scientific instruments needed for this work," she said. "These three events came together at the right time and in the right order to make the Radiochemistry Annex possible."

Design work on the new, 6,000 square foot laboratory complex is underway. Scheduled to open early in 2013, the $4.5 million facility is funded programmatically through BER. Scientific instrumentation, meanwhile, is funded with $6 million in ARRA funds and through relocation of existing EMSL instruments.

A Place for Users and Ideas

At the new Radiochemistry Annex, EMSL users will work side-by-side with EMSL researchers on environmentally contaminated samples—a collaboration not possible at the Hanford Site facilities. "Like all other EMSL capabilities, users will have access to a full suite of instrumentation to study contaminated materials, examine radionuclides and chemical signatures," said Hess. "This laboratory offers our users robust NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) capabilities and surface science capabilities, such as X-ray photo emission spectrometers, electron microscopy, electron probe microanalyzer (EPMA), transmission electron microscopy and scanning electron microscopy."

"Users also work with our scientists, who not only provide expertise on the instrumentation, but work with users to develop effective research strategies," she added.

Ian Farnan, a Senior Lecturer at Cambridge University's Earth Science Department and a member of the EMSL Science Advisory Committee, is eager for the new lab to open. "This is going to be one of the most modern radiochemistry labs in the world," he said. "Here in the U.K., we closed down these nuclear research capabilities several years ago, so what EMSL is providing—a wide variety of modern instruments under one roof—is quite exciting."

In Europe, adds Farnan, there are established labs with good radiochemistry capabilities, but the equipment tends to be older and not co-located. And if researchers want to examine radiological samples with another method, transporting them to different labs can become "quite complex and bureaucratic."

The collaborative atmosphere of users from all points on the globe working with EMSL scientists from various research fields in one facility sparks Hess' enthusiasm. "The 'Rad Lab' will be an environment where ideas and thinking are cross-pollinated, and where the pace of discovery can only accelerate over time," she said. "People are realizing that we can't solve problems from just one approach. But if we attack problems at an integrated level, and we understand the linkages between disparate fields of research, we will develop a greater understanding of our global challenges."

Farnan agrees with Hess's appraisal, adding, "The new Radiochemistry facility will draw researchers from around the world, especially as research performed at the Annex is published and demonstrates the significant impact this capability will have on our understanding of radiological science."

A decade after Felmy started the argument for expanded radiochemistry capabilities at EMSL, his vision is close to realization. "I believe this will be the finest radiochemistry facility in the world," he said. "It's a long time coming and long overdue!"

Learn more about EMSL's mass spectrometry and spectroscopy and diffraction capabilities.