In 2017, radiochemistry graduate student Mark Straub left the comfortable academic environs of UC Berkeley and moved to the middle of New Mexico, where he spent his summer working full time at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the birthplace of the Manhattan Project. There, Mark teamed up with LANL scientists Jaqueline Kiplinger and Julianna Fessenden to study the impact and evolution of nuclear forensics, a process in which nuclear material can be examined to determine its source and history.
Mark’s interest in the project continued following the completion of his summer internship, spurring a multi-year collaborative effort. Along with his advisor, UC Berkeley Professor of Chemistry John Arnold, and his LANL mentors, Mark prepared an article reviewing “Recent Advances in Nuclear Forensic Chemistry” which was published as the cover story this month in Analytical Chemistry. Mark is also co-advised on his Ph.D. research by Dr. Stefan Minasian at Lawrence Berkeley Lab (LBNL).
Prof. Arnold commented, "Mark has done a wonderful job of mastering a range of techniques and skills associated with nuclear chemistry, all the way from new and unusual molecules to novel solid-state nanomaterials. His time at LANL, and our collaboration with Dr Stefan Minasian at LBNL and the Heavy Element Chemistry Program, has been benefited greatly by the support we’ve received from the NSSC program at UC Berkeley.”
Mark Straub at work in the Chemistry Lab. Photo courtesy of Mark Straub.
Nuclear forensics research is critical to national security, as rapid chemical analysis of seized radioactive material is imperative to prevent the construction and detonation of an illicit nuclear weapon. Within the past decade, advancements in chemistry and nanoscience have revolutionized the capabilities accessible to nuclear forensic chemists, enabling complex analysis of samples that would previously be considered undetectable. New case studies using fallout from the Trinity Test Site and the Hiroshima detonation site have redefined the paradigm for real-world nuclear forensic analysis, and specialized materials have been synthesized as fallout surrogates and radionuclide traps. This review of nuclear forensics highlights new compounds and materials, recent case studies, and state-of-the-art capabilities for pre- and post-detonation nuclear forensics and environmental monitoring within the last ten years.
Mark spent his first summer at the NSSC-LANL Robert Keepin Nonproliferation Science Summer Program interviewing experts in nuclear forensics and touring the laboratory facilities where the research takes place. The summer program is a component of the prestigious Nuclear Science and Security Consortium (NSSC) fellowship, an opportunity made available by the National Nuclear Security Administration through a $25M award to UC Berkeley.
The NSSC, led by Professor of Nuclear Engineering Jasmina Vujic, is training the next generation of nuclear scientists and engineers while engaging in research and development that supports the nation’s nuclear security and nonproliferation mission. All NSSC fellows are connected with a mentor at the US DOE National Laboratory that the students work with throughout their academic careers. The NSSC also organizes summer programs and projects that allow students to work on-site at the National Laboratories.
About the article's research team
The scientsits from UC Berkeley and LANL who are working on this project are focused on contributing to advances in nuclear forensics and actinide chemistry. Mark’s doctoral research is looking at developing new molecules and nanomaterials for nuclear forensics and energy applications. Prof. John Arnold leads the NSSC program in radiochemistry and regularly publishes actinide chemistry research. Jaqueline Kiplinger studies molecular transformations of the actinide elements, investigating new processes for catalysis and nuclear forensics. Julianna Fessenden is the United States leader for device assessment post-detonation forensics.
About the program
The Robert Keepin Nonproliferation Science Summer program is a component of the prestigious Nuclear Science and Security Consortium (NSSC) fellowship, an opportunity made available by the National Nuclear Security Administration through a $25M award to UC Berkeley. The NSSC, led by Professor Jasmina Vujic in Berkeley’s Department of Nuclear Engineering, trains the next generation of nuclear scientists and engineers while engaging in research and development that supports the nation’s nuclear security and nonproliferation mission. All NSSC fellows are connected with a mentor at a DOE national laboratory that the students work with throughout their academic careers. The NSSC also organizes summer programs and projects that allow students to work on-site at the national laboratories. With continued support from the NSSC, the authors included perspectives on nuclear forensics from academic researchers, government scientists, and nuclear policy specialists.
More information is available at the Los Alamos National Laboratory