what can radioactive elements do?

Dr. Mariah Parker

Second Place Award Recipient

All of us have done a jigsaw puzzle before, probably even in this time of shelter in place! So we all that each piece fits together to make one big picture. And that’s exactly how science works. Each branch of science fits together and influences one another to show us exactly how our universe works. Whether that be physics or biology or the best in my totally unbiased opinion, chemistry these big puzzle pieces are made up of smaller puzzles pieces like organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry. And those pieces are made up of more pieces and so on and so on. As the pieces get smaller and smaller, the research question become more focused. One of the middle sized pieces is nuclear chemistry.

When I say that, a lot of negative connotations tend to pop up; harm, danger, bombs, radioactivity BUT these elements that make up this branch of chemistry are quite misunderstood because that is not only one thing it can do! These 14 elements, known as actinides, sit at the very bottom of the forgotten piece of the periodic table, are all radioactive but unfortunately, are relatively unknown. Uranium and plutonium are the two with the biggest reputations however all 14 are equally important and can do exciting chemistry. For example, can we use actinides to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere or as a safe and effective anti-cancer chemotherapeutic?

These are sensational science questions. The first step in answering them is understanding the basics. That is why I examine fundamental reactions of actinide complexes in a perfectly isolated system. That’s a fancy way of saying I study the smallest puzzle pieces. I take one actinide complex, collide with another reactant, and observe any potential products. By doing this over and over again, and changing little things about the reaction like what actinide is being used or what it is colliding with, the image on the puzzle pieces starts to become clearer. We use gas phase reactions because it removes all of the junk that can hinder the reaction or cloud the data so I figure out exactly what is happening, and, more importantly, why. This makes the shape of our puzzle pieces clearer. Now, we can click that small puzzle piece back into place and it sharpens the image of all of the bigger puzzle pieces it fits back into. So now those big, sensational questions can start to be more easily answered! Early data tells us that some actinide complexes are really great at taking apart carbon dioxide! By looking at simple reactions and asking/answering small questions, we can solve important radioactive puzzles.