November 17, 2020 | Published: September 28, 2020 | Bryan Gentry
When you’re reinventing the way America stores nuclear waste, it helps to have the most cutting-edge technology at your fingertips.
Two years ago, Kristen Pace started making frequent trips to the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina. As a doctoral student in chemistry at the University of South Carolina, her job was to test crystal structures designed by chemists and engineers and see whether they would work to safely contain the highly radioactive elements found in nuclear waste ― elements she could only work with inside the highly secure laboratory.
“I got to do hands-on research with neptunium and plutonium,” Pace says. “That had been my goal ― to work with some of the heavier elements.” The laboratory equipment and the other scientists helped her do more than she could have done on her own.
“Anything that you want to do is possible in terms of the science,” she says.
New joint appointment
Pace´s research could take a leap forward, and more students could have the chance to work in that environment, thanks to a new partnership between the lab and the university. UofSC professor Hans-Conrad zur Loye now has a joint appointment position with Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL). This position provides more opportunities for faculty and students to collaborate with laboratory scientists and visit the site for research.
“My joint appointment will connect our state’s flagship university with our state’s national laboratory – a win-win for South Carolina,” zur Loye says.
Zur Loye is the director of UofSC's Center for Hierarchical Waste Form Materials. That center was created in 2016 when the Department of Energy awarded UofSC an Energy Frontier Research Center grant with the goal of creating crystal structures that can contain nuclear waste, keeping the radiation locked away until it has fully decayed. (That grant was recently renewed.) The crystal structures have the potential to help process nuclear waste more efficiently, requiring less time and space to process and store radioactive material.
That research was what convinced Pace to attend UofSC for her doctoral program.
"I would be able to work on something that is a real problem and is also very collaborative," she says. “I would be able to establish research collaborations with people from all across the field.”
My joint appointment will connect our state’s flagship university with our state’s national laboratory – a win-win for South Carolina.
— Hans-Conrad zur Loye
The Center for Hierarchical Waste Form Materials includes undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty and other researchers at eight universities and organizations, including SRNL. Zur Loye says the collaboration with SRNL will grow stronger with the joint appointment.
“I have greatly enjoyed and benefitted from working with the excellent scientists at SRNL during the past several years, and I am looking forward to the joint exploration of new waste form materials, including the crystal growth of new transuranic element-containing hierarchical materials,” zur Loye says.
Zur Loye’s expertise in radiochemistry and inorganic materials science will enhance the waste forms research and other work at SRNL.
“We are thrilled to have Dr. zur Loye join the lab,” says Dr. Vahid Majidi, laboratory director. “We (SRNL) are at a transformational time and Dr. zur Loye’s arrival is aligned with our long-term strategic plan to lead in scientific innovations and enhance our partnership with local universities and colleges for the future workforce.”
The joint appointment provides a unique talent pipeline for both the university and the laboratory.
“This partnership will open more opportunities for our students to have hands-on experience beyond the classroom,” says Lacy K. Ford, dean of the UofSC College of Arts and Sciences. “Students will be able to work in a national laboratory setting as interns, research assistants or postdocs, and we hope graduates may ultimately work there as employed scientists. Their work on scientific research of national importance will set the stage for a strong career."
For Pace, this means good news for her and for students who will follow after her.
“Going there as a student is really eye-opening because you get exposed to more career opportunities,” she says. “It gives the students the opportunity to see what working in the real world is like.”
Anything that you want to do is possible in terms of the science.
— Kristen Pace