Researchers designing an instrument to identify uranium, a few atoms at a time

Colorado State University

November, 2017
Researchers designing an instrument to identify uranium, a few atoms at a time

Researchers at Colorado State University are focusing on creating a new instrument capable of detecting trace amounts of uranium and other materials. This research is being done as a partnership led at CSU by University Distinguished Professor Carmen Menoni of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and is supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office through its Nuclear Forensics Research Award (NFRA) program.

With researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, engineers at CSU will oversee the design and implementation of a highly sensitive mass spectrometer capable of detecting just a few uranium atoms at a time. This spectrometer allows nanoscale imaging of the isotopic content of solid samples in three dimensions.

“The new instrument we are going to build is going to be far more sensitive than our previous-generation, extreme ultraviolet time-of-flight mass spectrometry instrument,” Menoni said. “It will employ a magnetic sector to identify uranium, thorium and their isotopes at a concentration of a few parts per million.”

The imaging technology uses an extreme ultraviolet laser for ablation and ionization, which is an innovation from the lab of University Distinguished Professor Jorge Rocca. The laser ablation process creates a plume of ionized atoms and molecules, which the detector reads inside a vacuum chamber. A set of special plates allows the scientists to extract and detect ions from the sample, identifying uranium (or other elements) by determining its unique ion signature, like a fingerprint. This ultimately can help in identification of very small amounts of molecules.

To learn more about this project, click here.

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