New Haven Register , Friday, November 21, 2008

HCC student gets hands on experience in science

By Brandon T. Bisceglia
Special to All About Milford

In photo: Housatonic Community College student Will Kwok of Stratford, left, spent the summer at Brookhaven National Laboratories working on a real-world experiment to make nuclear power a more viable alternative to fossil fuels. His chemistry professor, Elizabeth Steeves of Monroe, at right, encouraged his blossoming interest in science. Photo courtesy of HCC.

Stratford resident and Housatonic Community College student Will Kwok this summer found himself on the cutting edge of a real-world experiment to make nuclear power a more viable alternative to fossil fuels.

One problem that has dogged the nuclear industry is the disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste – both spent uranium fuel from reactors and the radioactive byproduct of extracting pure uranium from uranium ore. Kwok spent 10 weeks as an intern at Brookhaven National Laboratories on Long Island helping a team of scientists in a series of experiments on a more efficient extraction process that will generate far less radioactive waste.

“Kwok was an asset to the program,” said BNL scientist Cleveland Dodge, who acted as Kwok’s primary mentor. “He was a really aggressive student.”

Kwok’s project involved use of citric acid in the extraction process, which would generate far less waste than the original method, which used mineral acids like nitric acid and sulfuric acid. Dodge and fellow scientist A.J. Francis were old hands at using citric acid in this fashion. They had attracted media attention for their work with citric acid in 2005, when they developed a way to use it to clean uranium from contaminated steel surfaces.

Less than a year ago, this type of work was the farthest thing from his mind. He enlisted in the Army out of high school, but was discharged after six weeks because of his asthma.

When he came to HCC, he wasn’t expecting anything like this opportunity.

“I pretty much saw HCC as a stepping stone,” he says.

As early as the beginning of 2008, he was contemplating a tour with the Marines.

His chemistry professor, Elizabeth Steeves, had sensed his potential and enthusiasm. He began tutoring students in science, and was, according to Steeves, a “proactive” teacher. He also enrolled in the honors program.

“He chose a project in Chemistry,” Steeves recalls. “He took the FTIR spectrophotometer (a device that uses infrared light to analyze molecules) and figured it out for himself.”

She suggested he take a chance on the internship.

What finally convinced Kwok to do this, though, was the lack of fervor on the part of the Marines to recruit him.

“They just weren’t trying hard enough to get me back in,” he said. “So basically I blew them off after they blew me off.”

Steeves provided Kwok with information on a one-week mini-session at Brookhaven, which he attended.

“After that, both she and BNL told me there would be a longer session in the summer,” he said.

Kwok applied for the internship and was accepted. He was so excited that he arrived at the labs a day early.

The extraction process using citric acid is a three-step procedure, Kwok explained.

“When I first got the uranium ore, it was basically a chunk that big,” Kwok recalls, holding an imaginary stone about the circumference of a grapefruit between his hands. “I couldn’t use that, so what I had to do was take a rock hammer and break it apart with a chisel.”

Next, the citric acid separates the uranium from the other components of the ore, eating away at other heavy metals in the ore “until only the uranium and acid is left over.”

Finally, the mixture of uranium and acid is put under ultraviolet lamps to undergo a process called photodegradation. “Photodegradation breaks up the uranium complex that we put together,” says Kwok, “to dissolve everything but the pure uranium,” Kwok said.

The team’s work is close to being out of the trial phase. “It’s very close to application, actually,” says Kwok. “They’ve already taken contaminated soil samples and treated them with this extraction method, and they were successful in removing uranium from them. (Scientists) love to do repeated trials, just so that when it does become of use, it doesn’t go wrong.”

Kwok’s internship ended before the final stage of the experiment. Nevertheless, he was able to collect enough relevant data to give an oral presentation of his findings to an audience of other scientists at BNL. He was one of a handful of interns among all the departments to be selected for the talk. A four-member committee reviewed every intern’s abstract. Kwok’s was the only one approved by all four members.

While the scientists back in Upton finish their task, Kwok plans to move forward with a new project for his honors duties this semester: learning to operate HCC’s High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) unit, which he will use to analyze liquid compounds.

He’s glad now that he’s chosen to stick with school.

“Housatonic is a really good experience for me,” he says. “I always wanted to be a scientist, and this (the internship) has just persuaded me more.

Brandon T. Bisceglia is a journalism student/intern at Housatonic Community College.

posted by Helen Bennett Harvey at 12:28 PM