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Professor Awarded $1.4 Million for Nuclear Fuel Research

Published: August 16, 2010

Stephen Mezyk in Chemistry and Biochemistry has received a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant to examine the effects of radiation on nuclear reprocessing systems in the Fuel Cycle Research and Development area. The four-year, $1.4 million award enlists Mezyk as the principal investigator who will lead the study to increase understanding of the chemistry of molecules called ligands that are used to selectively remove metals from nuclear waste.

Examining the role and chemistry of these ligands could improve the safety of stored nuclear waste by reducing the levels of radioactivity and toxicity.

CSULB was the only non-Ph.D.-granting institution among 23 leading universities receiving Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP) 2010 funding for nuclear education and technologies. Mezyk, a professor of physical and environmental chemistry, said the study is of significant importance because current reprocessing systems were largely developed in the 1960s—when the first nuclear power plants began operating. However, most of these schemes emphasized the engineering requirements of reprocessing rather than their chemistry.

“To optimize this part of the process, we started looking at the chemistry of these ligands, and especially the radiation chemistry that occurs. We’ve begun examining how radiation, especially alpha radiation, damages the ligands both directly and indirectly; and how we can better design them to become more resistant,” Mezyk said.

“This project will ultimately reduce the radioactivity and toxicity of stored nuclear waste.”

Mezyk’s exemplary research in the chemistry of free radicals has earned him international recognition in both nuclear and environmental science. His student research group, RadKEM, is recognized for its applications of free radical chemistry in the removal of chemical contaminants from waters and in its understanding of the radical chemistry involved in cancer.

RadKEM has worked with the National Energy Laboratory at Notre Dame and the Orange County Water District using radiation to study the breakdown of such contaminants as antibiotics and hormones during the remediation of water. The Department of Energy grant will take RadKEM in a new direction, in collaboration with Bruce Mincher of the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory and Mikael Nilsson, assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Mezyk, Stephen
Photo by Robert Freligh
Stephen Mezyk

The multi-year research project will be completed at the national Radiation Laboratory at Notre Dame, Ind.; at UC Irvine; in Chalmers, Sweden; and potentially in Marcoule, France. It will also engage several European researchers, Mezyk said.

“Investigations in the U.S. are complementing the European and Japanese approaches. It is hoped that we will eventually be able to derive the best system as designed by its engineering and its chemistry to maximize efficiencies and minimize costs,” he said.

Mezyk joined CSULB in 2001. He earned his bachelor of science degree in chemistry and his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

He is an associate editor of the Journal of Advanced Oxidation Technologies and has received multiple research grants and contracts, particularly for his water chemistry studies. He was awarded the CSULB Provost’s 2010 Award for Impact Accomplishment of the Year in Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity; and the Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award in 2008. A respected mentor and professor, Mezyk also received the University Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award in 2007. He most recently provided expert opinion on water and nuclear chemistry for the Emmy-winning video series, “Understanding Chemistry in Your World,” by Coast Learning Systems.

For more than nine years, Mezyk has advised the student-based RadKEM research group in its pursuits of careers in medicine, veterinary, and doctoral research programs. His students have shared successes and valued experiences in state-of-the-art Department of Energy national laboratories, and in writing scientific papers published in journals including Environmental Science and Technology, Radiation Research, Journal of Physical Chemistry, Water Research, and Environmental Chemistry. Student researchers have been featured in talks at national and international conferences, and many have secured their own research funding the Arnold Beckman Foundation, CSULB’s Women and Philanthropy, Phi Beta Kappa, and the Orange County Water District, among others.

For more information about Mezyk’s research, visit http://chemistry.csulb.edu/faculty.html.

–Anne Ambrose