I am a Nuclear Chemist. Nuclear Chemistry sounds scary to a lot of people, but it really shouldn’t be. It is well known that certain chemicals, like uranium, can be dangerous if not properly used.
However, nuclear chemists don’t use any uranium that could be used in bombs, and have a lot of safety rules to make sure no one gets exposed to too much radiation.
Radiation is everywhere, the sun gives off radiation and we get a small amount every day. If you get an X-ray, you are getting more radiation than I get working with small amounts of uranium. Getting an X-ray is perfectly safe, but so is working with uranium if you follow safety rules.
What Nuclear Chemists Do
There are many types of nuclear chemists. I am a nuclear coordination chemist, which means I study how uranium binds with things like water or other “coordinating” chemicals.
Some nuclear chemists study how to separate nuclear waste from nuclear power plants. This research helps keep our environment clean. Another group of nuclear chemists study nuclear medicine. They work on new medicines that use unstable elements (we call them radioactive isotopes) to help diagnose people with diseases or treat people.
Iodine is one element that has a radioactive isotope that we use in medicine, and a chemist figured out how to do that. There are a lot of chemists working on better medicine and better techniques to help all of us stay healthy.
Designing Sensors For Uranium
What I am working on for my PhD is designing and making new sensors for uranium in the environment.
Uranium is an element that we use in nuclear power and sometimes mistakes can happen and the uranium can leak into the groundwater. If uranium leaks into the groundwater, the fish can eat it and then humans and other animals eat the fish. Just like a smoke detector can detect smoke, we want an easy way to detect uranium, so that we know where to go to clean it up.
My lab is using polymers to try to make a dip stick test for uranium – and I am designing a sensor that changes color. The sensor I use is usually yellow, but when it interacts with uranium it turns orange. There are other metals in the environment too, like copper or nickel, and those metals all make my sensor turn pink. We are working on trying to put it on polymer so that testing for uranium in groundwater will be just like using a strip to testing for chlorine in your pool.
How is uranium used to generate nuclear power? Lets find out in this video.