Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Juniata College to test laser-based instruments

Normally, college science researchers work on projects designed to advance our knowledge of chemistry, physics, or biology. But a Juniata College chemist and some student researchers are using a prototype laser instrument to examine materials that could potentially yield breakthroughs in forensic investigations, coal emissions, and even global politics.

The global politics part comes into play as a student researcher, Katrina Shughrue, a senior from New Freedom, Pa., studying chemistry, uses the laser-based instrument to analyze "conflict minerals."

Conflict minerals are rare and precious ores sold by groups in certain nations who use the proceeds to fund civil wars, genocide, or forced labor. Examples are "blood diamonds" from various African nations and materials from mineral-rich Congo, where rebel movements have used these resources to fund conflicts that have fomented genocide, sexual violence, and terror.

Richard Hark, professor of chemistry at Juniata, is collaborating with Applied Spectra, Inc. (ASI), a California-based company, to test a new commercial version of a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS). The instrument, called an RT-100, is a completely contained laser system, roughly about the size of a backyard gas barbecue grill, that can be moved easily in areas such as a building or laboratory, but is not designed to be portable in the field. An LIBS instrument uses a laser to atomize a sample of material. The bright spark formed is then analyzed according to its unique light signatures.

"This year and through 2012 our students will put this equipment through its paces," Hark explained. "As we see changes that need to be made we will contact ASI software engineers with suggestions."

Hark is working on three projects that use Applied Spectra's LIBS technology to accurately identify the chemical makeup of various materials. The project with the most far-reaching import may be the conflict minerals project funded by the II-VI Foundation and done in collaboration with scientists at the Smithsonian Institution and ASI. Shughrue and Hark are using LIBS to see if it is possible to identify the location from which conflict minerals originated.

They are examining two specific minerals, tantalite and columbite, both of which are used in the manufacture of capacitors in cell phones, computers, and other consumer electronics. Hark is using LIBS to characterize samples from individual mining sites in the US and around the world. If the LIBS shows that individual samples from different sites have unique "signatures," then it can be used to detect where and when minerals from conflict mines are being sold.

They also are analyzing various types of paper for unique signatures, which can be useful in forensic analysis. Results will be compared to testing using an RT100 at Florida International University. "This type of research is important in forensic science because it demonstrates the validity of the analysis," Hark explained. He said that his work will establish baseline information to determine if the LIBS instrument can be use in the investigative process or if it can be used in the evidentiary process, in a court of law.

A third LIBS project to analyze the ash content of coal is funded by the II-VI Foundation. Ash in coal is a clay-like aggregate within the coal that can cause maintenance problems and production inefficiencies during the burning process. "Using the LIBS instrument to examine coal samples will give us a baseline of information whether we can determine the exact amount of ash content so that in a production operation, 'dirty' coal can be removed," Hark said. "LIBS is very good at real-time analysis, so this work could be important in power plants and other operations."

-- John Wall is director of media relations for Juniata College, a Church of the Brethren-related school in Huntingdon, Pa.

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