News & Media
When a pinch is problematic: Detecting pertechnetate in groundwater
PNNL develops an effective tool for measuring a tricky contaminant
Imagine trying to detect and measure a pinch of salt in an Olympic-size swimming pool. Now pretend the tools you are using don’t work well. Some can detect the salt but can’t tell you how much is in there, and others confuse salt with chlorine.
Now swap the swimming pool for a source of groundwater and the salt for a radioactive contaminant called pertechnetate.
Pertechnetate is a byproduct of nuclear waste. If it ends up where it is not supposed to be—like, in groundwater—it could impact human health, which is why researchers and regulators keep a close lookout for it. The environmental safety limits for pertechnetate are roughly equivalent to a pinch of salt in an Olympic pool. And there are only a few technologies to measure it, each with limitations.
PNNL research tackles this challenge with new technology to detect and accurately measure pertechnetate at super low levels in groundwater. This research, “Redox-Based Electrochemical Affinity Sensor for Detection of Aqueous Pertechnetate Anion,” was the cover article for the March 2020 edition of ACS Sensors (DOI: 10.1021/acssensors.9b01531).
Why it matters: The Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard for pertechnetate is 0.000000052 grams per liter (that’s roughly 1/6000th the weight of a single poppy seed). While techniques exist for detection of pertechnetate in the environment, many have their drawbacks. PNNL’s technology can accurately measure low levels of pertechnetate in groundwater. Additionally, this proof of concept has the potential to be applied to other target contaminants simultaneously, increasing efficiency for environmental sensing.
Summary: The new technology acts like a coin counter, but at a microscopic level. It sorts one type of chemical from another, providing the total amount of a target chemical at the end. The tool uses custom probes with a gold electrode that only allows the target groundwater contaminants to stick while the other chemicals bounce off.
Sulfur likes to bind to gold and it also tends to react with pertechnetate, making sulfur-containing compounds an ideal intermediate in tool development. The sulfur sticks to the gold probe, then reacts with the pertechnetate, which forms a precipitate. The precipitate inhibits an electric current pulsing through the probe, providing an inverse measurement of pertechnetate concentration.
What’s Next: While this work was specifically focused on pertechnetate, there is potential to expand the technology to simultaneous multiple targets with the goal of increasing the efficiency of environmental measurements.
Sponsors: This research was funded by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program at PNNL and by the Deep Vadose Zone program under the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Environmental Management. Part of this research was performed at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a national user facility at PNNL managed by the DOE Office of Biological and Environmental Research.
PNNL Research Team: Sayandev Chatterjee, Meghan S. Fujimoto, Yingge Du, Gabriel B. Hall, Nabajit Lahiri, Eric D. Walter, Libor Kovarik. ACS Sensors cover illustration by Rose Perry, PNNL.
Oxide interfaces in disarray
Exploration of disorder at material interfaces could lead to better device performance
The structure of an interface at which two materials meet helps determine the performance of the computers and other devices we use every day. However, understanding and controlling interface disorder at the atomic level is a difficult materials science challenge.
A research team at PNNL and Texas A&M University combined cutting edge imaging and numerical simulations to examine disordering processes in widely used oxide materials. They found that certain oxide interface configurations remain stable in extreme environments, suggesting ways to build better performing, more reliable devices for fuel cells, space-based electronics, and nuclear energy.
Visualizing the disordering process
As reported in Advanced Materials Interfaces (“Asymmetric Lattice Disorder Induced at Oxide Interfaces,” DOI: 10.1002/admi.201901944) the team set out to examine interfaces between pyrochlore-like and perovskite oxides, two common classes of functional materials used in energy and computing technologies. While most past work has focused on individual bulk materials, less attention has been paid to interfaces connecting them, as would be the case in a device. In particular, it is not clear how interface features, such as composition, bonding, and possible defects, govern disordering processes.
Funded by PNNL’s Nuclear Process Science Initiative (NPSI), the team employed experimental and theoretical methods to study the interface at different stages of disorder introduced through ion irradiation. They imaged the local structure of the material using high-resolution scanning transmission electron microscopy and convergent beam electron diffraction, which showed that the bulk of the two materials disordered (amorphized) before the interface. After further irradiating the material, they found that a band region near the interface had remained crystalline, while the rest of the structure had become amorphous.
To understand this behavior, the team turned to a technique called electron energy loss spectroscopy, which allowed them to examine the atomic-scale chemistry and defects formed at the interface. Their measurements revealed the presence of substantial amounts of defects called oxygen vacancies, which can greatly affect properties such as magnetism and conductivity. Based on these observations, the team constructed a theoretical model of the interface and explored the effect of different interface configurations on the tendency to form vacancies.
“In our model we are able to systematically vary interface features, such as crystal structure, intermixing, and strain, to see their effect on defect formation. We found that the structure of the materials on both sides of the interface can influence where defects are likely to form first,” explained Steven R. Spurgeon, a PNNL materials scientist. “Our model suggests that by selecting appropriate crystal structures and controlling how they connect, it may be possible to dictate the sequence of defect formation, which would allow us to enhance the properties of these materials.”
The team is exploring other interface structures and chemistries, with an eye toward improving the performance of oxides used in extreme environments.
The study was conducted as part of the NPSI project, “Damage Mechanisms and Defect Formation in Irradiated Model Systems,” led by Spurgeon.
Solving an ergonomic problem to enable safeguards research
PNNL-WSU collaboration develops the future workforce
Performing nuclear safeguards work safely and developing the next generation workforce are complementary goals of a longstanding program sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of International Nuclear Safeguards. This program pairs PNNL research staff with Washington State University engineering students to provide solutions to enable nuclear safeguards research at PNNL.
In December, a team of WSU students delivered their solution to some ergonomic issues faced by PNNL physicist Mike Cantaloub and his team in a laboratory containing sensitive high-purity germanium detectors. These detectors are arranged in a tall fixture containing lead shielding to reduce the effects of naturally occurring atmospheric radiation and enable the accurate identification of radioactive isotopes in samples. Staff members using this instrument have to remove a 25-lb. plug detector, reach down to place samples, and then replace the plug detector. These activities have the potential for ergonomic injury to staff members and damage to the detectors.
WSU students Darin Malihi, Jared Oshiro, Martin Gastelum, Jacob Lazaro, Nicholas Takehara, and Saul Ramos designed and fabricated equipment that works similar to the weight training machines found in a gym—a lifting arm with a counter weight. The team also developed a solution to place the sample, a holder that is affixed to the bottom of the plug detector. Their solutions allow researchers to remove the detector quickly and efficiently and avoid reaching down to place the sample for detection.
“The solution devised by the team makes day-to-day operations in this laboratory safer and more efficient for the nuclear safeguards research team," said PNNL mechanical engineer and advisor to the WSU team, Patrick Valdez.