Hrafn Traustason (Burns Group)

Designing New Methodologies in Calorimetry to Define the Energy Landscape of Uranyl Peroxide Nanoclusters

January 15, 2020

Hrafn Traustason

Hrafn Traustason is a fourth-year graduate student advised by Prof. Peter Burns in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He presented "Designing New Methodologies in Calorimetry to Define the Energy Landscape of Uranyl Peroxide Nanoclusters” at the ND Energy PD&GS Luncheon in January 2020.

One area of research in the Burns lab focuses on special uranium molecules called clusters. These clusters have promising applications in the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly in reprocessing spent nuclear waste.

“Nuclear fuel that has already gone through the power plant still retains at least 90-percent of its energy in the waste,” Traustason said. “Due to the large size of the clusters, the uranium could potentially be filtered out of the waste and returned to the start of the fuel cycle.”

The Burns lab has published over 60 different types of clusters, which vary in size.  In order to determine how to filter the uranium in a safe manner, computational models need to be created to predict which of these clusters might be formed in the waste. Traustason’s specific role is providing the experimental data that can validate and optimize these models.

“I’m trying to break down the thermodynamic landscape of each of the clusters,” Traustason said. He is able to measure these thermodynamic values by using the calorimetry capabilities of the Burns lab and ND Energy’s Materials Characterization Facility (MCF).

Traustason’s daily routine includes running the calorimeters all morning and afternoon.  In between, he synthesizes, or makes, clusters to study through a series of measurements.

“When you’re measuring something, you have to be sure that all of your material is what you think it is,” Traustason said. “We put a lot of emphasis into making sure our material is pure, so I do all sorts of purity measurements too.”

Originally from Iceland, Traustason was recruited on a swimming scholarship to Oakland University in Michigan, where he earned his bachelor’s in chemistry. To be more competitive in the job market, he decided to pursue an advanced degree.

Upon arriving at Notre Dame, Traustason rotated between three different faculty advisors for one month each to decide his placement. The availability of world-class instrumentation was a major factor in Traustason choosing the Burns lab.

“I saw this as an opportunity to learn how to use many different types of instruments and obtain skills that will help me get a job in the future,” Traustason said.

With no undergraduate research experience, Traustason has drawn on lessons from his swimming career to help adapt to the challenges of becoming a full-time chemist. He has found parallels between his time in the lab and the training that goes into preparing for a swim meet.

“In research there’s a lot of time when nothing happens, and then all of the sudden, there’s a breakthrough,” Traustason said. “Having that mentality where you don’t expect things to happen every day, but you keep grinding really helps.”