Catholic University’s Vitreous State Laboratory (VSL) has been named the recipient of an impressive 11 sponsored research contracts since October, totaling $5.07 million. The contracts will support the Department of Energy’s Office of River Protection program to treat and safely store nuclear waste currently in danger of leaking into Washington State’s ground water.
Established in 1968 and housed in Hannan Hall, VSL is a research and development facility focused on the study of glass and its many uses. Much of VSL’s work has centered on nuclear waste management through a process called vitrification, in which radioactive waste is transformed into glass using a 2,000-degree Fahrenheit melter. Though the resulting glass remains radioactive, it is unable to leach into the surrounding environment.
According to VSL director and physics professor Ian Pegg, who is also the Principal investigator for all of the new awards, the research projects will support a $16.8 billion nuclear waste vitrification plant currently under construction in Hanford, Wash. A former Manhattan Project site, Hanford is now home to 177 underground tanks of nuclear waste holding 56 million gallons of radioactive liquid and sludge.
As the tanks age, it is becoming more likely that contaminants will leak into the nearby Columbia River or the local water table. To prevent this, VSL is working to develop and optimize technology required to turn that waste into stable, solid glass that can be safely stored in engineered repositories. The new contracts will support Pegg’s research to optimize the vitrification formulas, improve process efficiency, and better understand the behaviors of certain radioactive elements.
“These new awards affirm the leading role VSL has played in the Department of Energy’s vitrification program over many years and our world-class capabilities in this field,” said Pegg.
Though it is rare to get so many contracts so early in the government’s fiscal year (which begins in October), Pegg said VSL routinely earns nearly 8 million dollars in research funding annually.
“It’s not easy to get this funding year after year, but it says something about our work that these sponsors keep coming back to us,” he said. “If you don’t have the ability to deliver what they need when they need it, they won’t come back.”
In addition to the nuclear waste management projects for the Department of Energy, VSL also performs research and development on new materials and applications with an emphasis on environmental problems and green technologies. This includes nano-materials and devices, thermoelectrics, spintronics, geopolymers, and even single-molecule DNA biophysics. Recent and ongoing projects include work with commercial companies to develop environmentally friendly concrete and efficient waste-heat recovery processes. The lab, which employs about 70 people, also has ongoing projects with nuclear programs in Japan and the United Kingdom.
“We enjoy being able to contribute to solving environmental issues that are so important to all of us and to good stewardship of the planet,” said Pegg. “These problems were created in times of crisis going back to the Second World War. It’s way past time to deal with them and set things right again.”