Separation Anxiety No More: A Faster Technique to Purify Elements

Separation Anxiety No More: A Faster Technique to Purify Elements

June 4, 2019

Workforce Development & Education Intern and Mentor Spring 2017 3/20/2017. - Abel Ricano, intern - Rebecca Abergel and Gauthier Deblonde, mentors - Chemical Sciences. Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI). Supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS).

The actinides – those chemical elements on the bottom row of the periodic table – are used in applications ranging from medical treatments to space exploration to nuclear energy production. But purifying the target element so it can be used, by separating out contaminants and other elements, can be difficult and time-consuming.

Now researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a new separation method that is vastly more efficient than conventional processes, opening the door to faster discovery of new elements, easier nuclear fuel reprocessing, and, most tantalizing, a better way to attain actinium-225, a promising therapeutic isotope for cancer treatment.

The research, “Ultra-Selective Ligand-Driven Separation of Strategic Actinides,” has been published in the journal Nature Communications. The authors are Gauthier Deblonde, Abel Ricano, and Rebecca Abergel of Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Sciences Division. “The proposed approach offers a paradigm change for the production of strategic elements,” the authors wrote.

“Our proposed process appears to be much more efficient than existing processes, involves fewer steps, and can be done in aqueous environments, and therefore does not require harsh chemicals,” said Abergel, who is lead of Berkeley Lab’s Heavy Element Chemistry group and also an assistant professor in UC Berkeley’s nuclear engineering department. “I think this is really important and will be useful for many applications.”

Berkeley Lab is one of a handful of institutions around the world studying the nuclear and chemical properties of the heaviest elements. Most of them were, in fact, discovered at Berkeley Lab in the last century. Abergel’s group has previously published discoveries on berkelium and plutonium and treatments for radioactive contamination.

Abergel noted that the new separation method achieves separation factors that are many orders of magnitude higher than current state-of-the-art methods. The separation factor is a measure of how well an element can be separated from a mixture. “The higher the separation factor, the fewer contaminants there are,” she said. “Usually when you purify an element you’ll go through the cycle many times to reduce contaminants.”

With a higher separation factor, fewer steps and less solvents are needed, making the process faster and more cost-effective. For example, the scientists demonstrated for one of the three systems they purified that they could reduce the process from 25 steps to just two steps.

The Berkeley Lab researchers demonstrated their method first on actinium-225, an isotope of actinium that has shown very promising radio-therapeutic applications. It works by killing cancer cells but not healthy cells, through targeted delivery.

DOE’s Isotope Program is actively working on ramping up production of actinium-225 throughout the complex of national laboratory-based accelerators. This new separation method could be an alternative to chemical processes currently under development. “With any production process, you need to purify the final isotope,” Abergel said. “Our method could be used right after production, before distribution.”

The two other actinides purified in this study were plutonium and berkelium. An isotope of plutonium, plutonium-238, is used for power generation in robots being sent to explore Mars. Plutonium isotopes are also present in waste generated at nuclear power plants, where they must be separated out from the uranium in order to recycle the uranium.

Lastly, berkelium is important for fundamental science research. One of its uses is as a target for discovery of new elements.

The process relies on the unprecedented ability of synthetic ligands – small molecules that bind metal atoms – to be highly selective in binding to metallic cations (positive ions) based on the size and charge of the metal.

The next step, said Abergel, is to explore using the process on other medical isotopes. “Based on what we’ve seen, this new method can really be generalized, as long as we have different charges on the metals we want to separate,” she said. “Having a good purification process available could make everything easier in terms of post-production processing and availability.”

The study was funded by the DOE Office of Science. Ricano was previously a participant in DOE’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program at Berkeley Lab.

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Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit


Berkeley Students Win Awards at 2019 ANS Conference

Berkeley Students Win Awards at 2019 ANS Conference

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019


Undergraduate students Andrew Dong and Emily Vu won awards for their presentations at the American Nuclear Society Conference this past week, April 4-6, held in Richmond, Virginia.
Andrew Dong was awarded Best Presentation in Materials Science and Technology. While Emily Vu took home Best Presentation in Mathematics and Computation.

See here for the full list of award winners.

Great job Andrew and Emily, you make us proud!

Visiting Student Markus Alfreider wins 3rd place in Poster Contest

Visiting Student Markus Alfreider Wins 3rd Place in Poster Contest

April 2, 2019

TMS2019 Poster Certificate Third Place - Mechanical Behavior

Markus Alfreider is a visiting student from Austria, funded through the Marshall Plan fellowship. He won 3rd place in the TMS 2019 poster award in "Mechanical Behavior Related to Interface Physics III". The contest took place in San Antonio, Texas. This work was a collaboration between Leoben and Berkeley.

Congratulations, Markus!

CSS 2019 Graduate Student Fellowship Announcement

CCS 2019 Graduate Student Fellowship Announcement

March 12, 2019

The Center for Chinese Studies offers annual competitive fellowships for continuing graduate students in Chinese studies. Applications must be received by email by April 1, 2019. Late applications will not be considered. 
Applications and more information here: 

  • CCS Language Study Grants
  • Dissertation Writing fellowships 
  • MA Student Fellowships
  • Republic of China East Asian Fellowships
  • CCS Summer Research Grants
  • Chu Fellowships
  • Liu Graduate Research Fellowships
  • Joseph R. Levenson Chinese Studies Awards
  • Elvera Kwang Siam Lim Fellowship in Chinese Studies
  • Pamela and Kenneth Fong Graduate Student Fellowships

Students may apply for more than one CCS award but may apply to only one of the five Center/Institute competitions, so should carefully consider which one best suits their needs.

Graduate students applying for these awards should be registered at Berkeley or on approved travel status during the award period.

Please contact with questions.

Out for Undergrad Application Round One is Open

Out for Undergrad Application Round One is Open

March 11th, 2019

If you're not familiar with Out for Undergrad (O4U) or the O4U Engineering Conference, you can learn more about it on the website here: To keep it short and sweet, it is a weekend-long professional development conference for high achieving, high potential LGBTQ+ undergraduate students who are studying engineering or interested in going into engineering.

This year’s O4U Engineering Conference will be held at Boston Scientific in Minneapolis, Minnesota from September 27th to September 29th. The application deadline for round one admissions is March 23rd, 2019 at 11:59 PM (EST).

Students are admitted to attend the conference on a rolling basis. Flights and hotels are covered entirely by O4U, so if students are admitted from your college/university, they will only have to pay the $90 registration fee. We also offer fee waivers, discounts, and payment plans to students who are not able to afford the registration fee.

If there are any additional questions/concerns, please feel free to reach out to the O4U Engineering Admissions Team at

NE Faculty Rebecca Abergel and BioActinide group highlighted in C&EN

NE Faculty Rebecca Abergel and BioActinide group highlighted in C&EN

March 4th, 2019


NE faculty Rebecca Abergel and her BioActinide group were recently highlighted in an article on Chemical and Engineering News. To read the article, please click here:


To learn more about the BioActinide group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, click here:

Nuclear Energy Institute (Policy) Internship Opportunities

Nuclear Energy Institute (Policy) Internship Opportunities

February 26th, 2019


Areas of interest:
- Nuclear Generation
- Policy Development
- Government Affairs
- Communications
Internships are 10-weeks long during summer.  Unofficial transcripts are acceptable and the revised deadline is ASAP but anytime before March 15th.
Feel free to reach out to Harsh S. Desai at for any questions.

Application for CASL Summer Institute 2019

Application for CASL Summer Institute 2019

February 4th, 2019


"The deadline for application for CASL Institute is March 15. Please encourage your students to apply.

CASL: The Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors Education Program is excited to announce the registration for fourth annual CASL Summer Intensive. Please plan to join us at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC on August 5-16, 2019.

The Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL) Institute will introduce participants to CASL and the Virtual Environment for Reactor Applications (VERA) framework and component codes. Through the CASL Institute, participants will receive instruction on radiation transport, thermal hydraulics, fuel performance, multi-physics coupling and sensitivity and uncertainty analysis. Over the course of the Institute, through both lecture and practical work sessions, participants will learn how to use individual component codes through the VERA framework (MPACT, COBRA-TF, and BISON ) will be able to run a variety of test problems. In addition, the Institute will include instruction on and practice in utilizing high performance computing resources. After successful completion of the Institute and meeting certification requirements by completing a team project, participants will earn the CASL-VERA Certificate. An overview of the current draft agenda is attached.

In order to participate for this innovative gathering please use the following link to apply for admission for the CASL Institute:

This is an application and does not guarantee admission.

Application deadline is March 15. Students who are accepted to participate in CASL Institute 2019 will be informed by April 12.

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact Sherry Bailey at or (919) 515-1897."

For more information:

Dr. Raluca Scarlat joins the UCB Nuclear Engineering Faculty

Dr. Raluca Scarlat joins the UCB Nuclear Engineering Faculty

January 31, 2019

Raluca Scarlat_website photo

Raluca O. Scarlat, a UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Ph.D. Alumna (2012), is returning as our newest faculty member. With a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University (2006) also under her belt, she will be leading studies in Chemical and termophysical characterization of high-temperature molten salts and other inorganic fluids, and heat and mass transport pertaining to energy systems; Electrochemistry, corrosion, thermodynamics; Nuclear reactor safety analysis, licensing and design; and engineering ethics.

Welcome to the family, Raluca!

Raluca O. Scarlat
Assistant Professor []