- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) - While international inspectors already have methods for detecting enriched uranium at nuclear facilities, an Arkansas State University professor’s research is hoped to speed up that process.

“If everything went perfectly, we would develop a method that would allow an inspector to walk into a nuclear site and put an object in front of the instrument and know in under a second what the isotope ratio is in that object, assuming that object is made of uranium,” Dr. Jonathan Merten told the Jonesboro Sun (https://bit.ly/1TuJocp ).

“So if you find a piece of uranium, you can put that in front of the instrument and immediately know whether it is natural uranium, depleted uranium or enriched uranium,” he added.

But, Merten, an assistant professor of chemistry, said that is a long-term goal. His research received funding in January through a $264,030 research contract with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the Office of Naval Research.

The grant pays for three years of research with the possibility of a two-year extension if sufficient progress is made.

Merten was helping conduct a “Select a Major” event for Arkansas State students one Saturday when he and physics professor Dr. Bruce Johnson came up with the idea of a laser-based method to measure uranium enrichment levels in microscopic samples in less than a second.

“In order to make weapons-grade uranium suitable for a simple atomic bomb, it is necessary to remove most of the uranium-238 atoms, leaving behind mostly uranium-235 atoms (enriched uranium),” he said. “Bomb makers need this high density of uranium-235 to be able to create a critical mass. Lower levels of uranium-235, sometimes called ‘low-enriched uranium’ are used in nuclear power plants.

“Separating the uranium-235 from the uranium-238 is an expensive and technologically difficult process. In order to properly inspect a nuclear site, officials take many samples of material from the site for testing at official labs. Results are not available for days or weeks after taking the sample, making nuclear site inspection challenging,” he added.

However, Merten hopes to work as little as possible with uranium.

“There are other elements that have properties similar to uranium, at least in the respects that actually I am interested in,” he said. “There are chemicals that are vastly different than uranium in that most of them are not radioactive. They have completely different chemical properties, but their spectroscopy is similar in some ways to uranium, so I can use them as stand-ins for uranium. So, for instance, potentially lithium, which is quite common.”

His research began six months after Merten, a Jacksonville, Fla., native, became an Arkansas State professor in 2012. His wife Dr. Virginie Rolland is an Arkansas State assistant professor of quantitative wildlife ecology.

He has worked on the project without funding for the past two summers with Johnson’s assistance.

“I did a crude proof of concept with Bruce’s help and got an A-State Faculty Research Awards Committee grant, took better data and presented it as a poster at a national conference, then won a Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award for the idea, took yet more data with improved experiments, then applied for the big grant.” he said.

He also received help from chemistry professor Dr. Scott Reeve, who loaned him special lab equipment, and his student research assistants, Christopher Jones of Little Rock and Alex Goff of Brentwood, Tenn.

Merten credits his fifth-grade teacher and high school chemistry teacher for stirring his interest in the field. He said that interest grew during the time he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

As a volunteer, he lived in an area with gold mining that released mercury into the air, which always had him curious about the levels of mercury in that area’s water, he said.

“For me anyway, science is a very messy process,” Merten said. “It never goes like you think it will. … Everything is always changing.”

It means plans for his research have adapted or been modified with each obstacle he runs into. He said that is part of the job because a scientist can study a subject beforehand, but the results are unknown until he or she gets into the lab to experiment.

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Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, https://www.jonesborosun.com

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