By Kimberlee Papich

Newswise — Things were different when, during "normal" times, scientist Sebastian Mergelsberg was ready to apply intense beams of X-ray light (think a million times brighter than the sun) to his research samples to better see their chemical and physical makeup. He would fly with the samples from Richland, Washington, where his radioactive waste research is performed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), to Chicago to access specialized X-ray light-producing equipment at Argonne National Laboratory.

But the Covid-19 pandemic that began in March 2020 introduced times that weren’t “normal.” Covid brought virtual work and travel restrictions to the lives of many and forced Mergelsberg to rethink his research. Instead of flying, Mergelsberg and teammates discovered a way to ship and receive the complex samples. Then, from the safety of his home office, a room he shares with his orange tabby cat Lola, and a surplus of toilet paper, he and his virtual colleagues found a way for Mergelsberg to remotely use a robotic arm to operate the X-ray light-producing equipment, called a synchrotron, from almost 2,000 miles away.

Said Mergelsberg, above the noises of his spouse making a smoothie in the kitchen, “It was imperative to continue this research, performing high-energy X-ray light analysis to understand the chemical and physical properties of the radioactive waste. This is fundamental to better waste retrieval and processing. We were able to continue testing samples under simulated harsh conditions where radiation is at play, and at really high salt concentrations, for example. This is how we test modifications to the waste at a small level to further optimize processing of the waste at a real-world scale down the line.”

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This story of creative innovation during Covid inspired an illustration that’s been submitted by Interfacial Dynamics in Radioactive Environments and Materials (IDREAM) researchers for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) “Science in the Time of Covid” art contest. Sponsored by the DOE Office of Science’s Basic Energy Sciences program, the contest aims to educate, inspire, and entertain audiences about the extraordinary science, innovation, and people in DOE’s Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), Energy Innovation Hubs, and Computational Materials and Chemical Sciences programs. IDREAM is one of the 41 EFRCs, representing a multi-institution partnership led by PNNL. Its illustration for the contest was created by PNNL graphic designer Stephanie King.

“Amid the chaos of this pandemic, a door was opened, making science more visible to the public. This offers not only an opportunity to highlight what we were able to achieve in the face of Covid, but to also contribute to making science more accessible,” said Carolyn Pearce, IDREAM’s director and a PNNL chemist. “IDREAM has a story to tell in how our critical work fills knowledge gaps in complex chemistry and helps our nation to meet its goals associated with treatment of radioactive waste, yet our scientists’ work is typically published in academic journals. We’re viewing this illustration as a way to tell our story more broadly and further support openness in science.”

Shining a light on radioactive waste

Mergelsberg’s samples in Chicago simulate the type of complex nuclear waste found in tanks at DOE sites like the Hanford Site. IDREAM’s pivot to virtual use of technology, with the help of Linda Young, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and key IDREAM researcher, enabled remote use of the robotic arm and synchrotron. This adaptation allowed Mergelsberg and teammates to continue applying intense X-ray light beams to the samples. Collaborative use of this in situ, high-energy application is an essential function of the Advanced Photon Source at ANL, helping EFRC researchers to examine minerals of interest and their structure in different solutions. Ultimately, this allows researchers to produce atomic-scale measurements.

Of particular interest is gibbsite, an aluminum hydroxide mineral commonly found in tank waste. Greater scrutiny of its chemistry, at play in the simulated tank waste, allows the team to relate the gibbsite properties to molecular-scale processes. These results provide a link between the chemistry of the radioactive waste in the tanks and how these wastes will behave during retrieval and processing.

IDREAM also continues to look more closely at how gibbsite forms and reacts on a molecular scale under different conditions. Depending on synthesis conditions, the gibbsite particles formed can exhibit a number of defects. Understanding how gibbsite forms and reacts under different chemical conditions informs the study of tank waste and provides insights for nuclear experts to optimize the environment for waste processing.

Scientific pivot

These insights would not have been possible without the team’s remote integration of high-powered computers to process data and perform complex calculations at high speeds. Additionally, video conferencing and real-time messaging technology enabled the participation of other IDREAM interdisciplinary team members like Yihui Wei, a Washington State University visiting chemist; Xiaosong Li, a University of Washington chemist; and Emily Nienhuis, a materials science postdoctoral researcher at PNNL. And of course, Lola the cat made appearances during the experiments.

With their adaptations and continued use of the synchrotron, these researchers maintained their solution work, looking at high-salt-concentration liquids. These are conditions not explained well by society’s current understanding of chemistry, leading the team to further examine solids present in the sample and chemical and physical interactions taking place.

Harder to portray are the less tangible aspects of Covid's impact on IDREAM research. It’s no longer just about researchers completing an experiment. In contrast to Mergelsberg’s previous, singular control of just the synchrotron, he’s now also manipulating a robotic arm and dealing with multiple inputs from screens—running the gamut from data to video streaming to equipment control—while also trying to communicate with other researchers.

Covid has forced them to do more with less, which also means optimizing their time and processes. As they build out infrastructure to accommodate virtual studies using remote equipment and nontraditional techniques, they’re thinking ahead to how other research could benefit from these innovations.

Making science accessible

Ultimately, Mergelsberg feels these more thoughtful approaches to experimentation have led to better science; science he believes is worth sharing.

“While I was working on my PhD degree, we set up a whole new lesson plan for a local high school on biomineralization, which sounds like a complicated topic, but it’s really just the process by which living things can produce minerals,” said the Virginia Tech grad. “It occurred to me that there’s no reason to keep current research at a college or higher level, especially if it’s easy to communicate and if there’s rapid progress being made. That’s what I like about this contest, it’s putting cutting-edge science within everyone’s reach.”