IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Two recently completed studies, including one by a Washington State University researcher, offer alternatives and enhancements for studying soils and sediments. Overall, the studies highlight new ways to improve the measures that test contamination. The specific work focused on the area around the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). 

The Inland Northwest Research Alliance (INRA), a coalition of eight western research universities including WSU, funded the studies. In addition to INEEL, national laboratories and their host communities throughout the United States may benefit from their findings.

“Developing Analytical Methods to Determine the Chemistry of Pu Association with INEEL Subsurface Materials” is the title of a study undertaken by Sue Clark, a professor at WSU’s chemistry department and Nuclear Radiation Center. Clark studied the chemistry that controls uranium (U) and plutonium (Pu) and their separating into environmental particles. Using fission track analysis (FTA), the study developed a locator system so that particles containing U and Pu can be located for further testing. The locator system is based on scanning electron microscopy (SEM) technology and uses a SEM grid to provide absolute locations of uranium or plutonium bearing particles.

In the study, principal investigator Clark was aided by Dean Peterman of INEEL, and WSU students and postdoctorates Myong Ho Lee, S. P. LaMont, Rosara Payne and H. Kurosaki.

Recep Avci, a professor in the physics department at Montana State University, undertook another study, “Laser-Assisted Secondary Ion Emission for Molecular Characterization of Mineral Surfaces at Microscopic Scale.” Avci developed and improved upon SIMS, which is an effective approach to detecting contaminants on surfaces using static Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry. SIMS requires little or no sample preparation and can achieve sub-part-per-minute detection of both elemental and molecular targets. Because depth organization near the surface can contribute to the release of contaminants, Avci developed a technique called laser-assisted SIMS (LASIMS), which uses a short ultraviolet laser to irradiate a micro-area on a sample in a SIMS instrument. This in turn allows for a laser desorption spectrum (LDS) and/or cleaning and modification of the micro-area, which can then be investigated using the SIMS feature to generate additional complementary data from the area.

INRA is a non-profit scientific and educational organization. In addition to WSU, Boise State University, Idaho State University, Montana State University, Utah State University, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Idaho and the University of Montana are included in the research coalition. The total research and development budget for these universities in FY 2001 was approximately $530 million, which would rank the INRA members collectively as the seventh largest institution of higher education in the country in terms of research funding. 

INRA is a partner with Bechtel and BWXT, Inc., in the management and operations contract for INEEL, operated for the U.S. Department of Energy. The concern of the possible effects of groundwater contamination has led to the rise of subsurface science as a focal point of INEEL’s studies. Groundwater is of particular concern because the INEEL is located above the Snake River Plan Aquifer, a water source vital to the people of Idaho and its economy.