Year-Round Fun, EESS style- August 2012
I spend a lot of time every year up at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, or “SSRL” for short. It’s part of the Stanford National Accelerator Lab, which is managed by Stanford for the US Department of Energy. A synchrotron is a particle accelerator in which a beam of electrons goes around in circles at very near the speed of light. Using magnets, the electrons are turned or wiggled – turning or wiggling the electrons produces very bright light which can be used to examine many different kinds of materials from the environment. At SSRL, we use x-rays (which are about the same size as atoms, so can be used to “see” atoms) to look at interactions between soils and metal contaminants such as uranium and arsenic. Specifically, I’ve been working on molecular-scale interactions of uranium with iron oxides and silicates in soils and sediments. I’m interested in how the uranium is retained by the host minerals, and SSRL allows me to “see” things from a molecular perspective. It is a special privilege to get to work there; sometimes I feel like an astronomer who was awarded precious telescope time. The hours can be crazy and long, but it’s definitely worth it.
It’s not just about tiny atoms, though. We also study how heavy metals are distributed in the environment, at scales of less than a millimeter all the way up to watersheds and river basins. I spent quite a bit of time working with collaborators on uranium in groundwater at a field site in Colorado. The site used to have a uranium and vanadium mill, but now it’s an empty field – and it’s a great place to study contaminants like uranium, arsenic, and vanadium. The field site is in a beautiful setting, right on the banks of the Colorado River, and the people who work at the site are a lot of fun.
It’s a lot of fun to get to work in some pretty special places, and do science that spans distances of a few atoms all the way up to whole fields and watersheds. Generally I stick close to home (no cruises or island adventures for me, unlike some of my EESS colleagues!), but it’s still an adventure!