posted September 26, 2011

Department of Energy Supports Development of Isotope Retrieval System

A major research grant to Dr. Graham Peaslee of the Hope College chemistry faculty from the U.S. Department of Energy is supporting a project that seeks to do some recycling at the atomic level. 

Peaslee is leading an effort to develop a system for collecting leftover radioisotopes generated through the use of large particle accelerators.  He noted that the material, which currently goes to waste, could then be put to a variety of uses depending on the type collected, from cancer treatments to detecting illicit nuclear activity abroad. 

The U.S. Department of Energy has supported the project with an $840,000, two-year research award for nuclear chemistry that will take effect beginning in December. 

Peaslee is collaborating on the project with researchers from both the School of Medicine at Washington University and Michigan State University.  Home of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL), MSU will also host the $550 million federally funded "Facility for Rare Isotope Beams" (FRIB) currently in the design phase for completion projected in 2018. 

When an instrument such as FRIB is used to generate a specific radioactive isotope for an experiment, Peaslee said, it also generates numerous others which are discarded.  The research team will be developing a water-collection-based system to retrieve those isotopes and then a methodology for recovering specific types. 

The team will be working with four isotopes to begin with, but Peaslee noted that the idea is that the model that could be extended to others if the methodology works out.  He said that the timing of the project is significant - FRIB's design could even be adjusted to accommodate the process if it's successful. 

"If we can harvest the isotopes efficiently, then we'll say 'This is what needs to be done long-term'," said Peaslee, who is the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and chairperson of the department, as well as a professor of geology/environmental science at Hope. 

Although beginning life as leftovers in other experiments, the isotopes are themselves highly desirable, Peaslee said.  For example, one of the first radioisotopes that the team will work to collect is "Copper 67," written "67Cu," which he noted shows promise for cancer treatments but is difficult to produce and is currently in limited supply.  He estimates that FRIB might incidentally generate several thousand doses of 67Cu daily while generating other isotopes for researchers. 

"Making thousands of doses a day that could be used in a radio-therapeutic drug, it would be a shame to throw it all away," he said. 

The Hope team will be designing the collection system and the software to run it, with MSU fabricating the prototype.  Hope will test the prototype with a next step being to create a production unit for use with the current NSCL accelerator at MSU.  Researchers at Hope, MSU and WashingtonUniversity will all work with the samples retrieved to measure the efficiency of the system and to design a similar system for the new FRIB accelerator in 2018. 

In addition to Peaslee, the Hope team will include three or four Hope students from the Hope College Nuclear Group, co-led by Paul DeYoung, who is the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Physics, as well as a post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Aranh Pen, a 2002 Hope College chemistry graduate.