Berkeley Lab study images nanogram amounts of berkelium, californium

Infographic explaining actinide element research
Christina Owen/Staff

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After 70 years of facing challenges to studying actinide elements due to their scarcity and radioactivity, researchers can now analyze and image these elements in nanogram amounts using regular equipment.

Actinides are the family of large, heavy elements with high atomic numbers, according to study co-author and campus materials science and engineering professor Andrew Minor. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, researchers used the elements berkelium and californium, as well as Berkeley Lab’s TEAM 0.5 microscope to show that really small amounts of actinides can be analyzed without special equipment or fear of contamination.

“The goal of our work is to understand the chemical and physical properties of actinide compounds,” said co-author and campus nuclear engineering assistant professor Rebecca Abergel. “This is part of a much larger effort to build the fundamental knowledge of how these elements behave under different conditions.”

Scientists currently know very little about actinides, primarily because they are extremely radioactive and hard to produce, Minor added.

According to Minor, finding the actinide within a sample is not an easy task. He noted that while most materials scientists look at are fairly pure, actinides are contaminated with “a total mess” of other elements. He added they had to employ different techniques, such as reducing or transforming the material.

“It was fun for the team — it was a discovering moment like ‘Eureka! We found it,’ ” Minor said. “It was really novel.”

Because so little is known about actinides and the compounds they make, there are many possible applications for them, according to Minor.

Cancer therapies, nuclear power production and oil and gas industries are some of the currently identified uses, Abergel added.

“Some of those elements are found in nuclear waste, so understanding how to manipulate them would help us handle nuclear waste in a better way,” Abergel said. “Other actinides in the series that have applications in medicine — some isotopes of the elements can be used to treat diseases like cancer.”

UC Berkeley has a legacy of making scientific advances in the field of actinides, with both berkelium and californium being discovered there, Abergel said.

The study’s findings also open up possibilities to use similar spectrography techniques when working with other materials, Abergel noted. Minor added the study will inspire the creation of better instruments in the future. The instruments will be part of a “cycle” of getting better data using fewer materials, Minor said.

Abergel and Minor both emphasized the collaborative nature of this study, with people from different departments and fields working together to succeed.

“This is not a subject that I have ever investigated before, it was something that came out of a spontaneous collaboration with Rebecca (Abergel),” Minor said. “That’s the way science should be — different people in different specialties coming together.”

Vani Suresh is a general assignment reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @vanisuresh_