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Conflict Minerals Research: Chemistry Students Tackle Laser Analysis

(Posted February 14, 2011)

Katrina Shughrue, a senior from New Freedom, Pa., is one of several students using a LIBS instrument to analyze materials for real-world applications.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- 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 within certain nations who use the proceeds of such sales to fund civil wars, genocide or forced labor. Examples would include "blood diamonds" from various African nations and materials from mineral-rich Congo, where rebel movements used these resources to fund wars conflicts that have fomented genocide, sexual violence and terror.

Richard Hark, professor of chemistry, is collaborating with Applied Spectra, Inc. (ASI), a Fremont, Calif.-based company, to test a new commercial version of a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectrometer, commonly called a LIBS, in chemistry circles. 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.

A 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. As we see changes that need to be made we will contact ASI software engineers with suggestions."
Richard Hark, professor of chemistry

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

Hark is currently 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 might 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.

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

"LIBS seems ideally suited for this," Hark says. "You can do multiple pieces very quickly and it can be used in harsh conditions like a mining operation."

--The RT100 also is analyzing various types of paper for unique LIBS signatures, which can be useful in forensic analysis. Results from the research 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 explains. Hark says 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.

"If a scientific instrument or its analysis is to be used in court as evidence, it has to go through the 'Daubert Process,' which establishes the scientific merit of a technique so it can be introduced into a court of law," Hark says. "Part of that process is publishing in journals and establishing a standard baseline of analysis of substances and compounds that could be used in forensic cases."

--A 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 explains. "LIBS is very good at real-time analysis, so this work could be important in power plants and other operations."

"We look forward to gaining valuable feedback on the performance of these instruments for these important applications," says Rick Russo, president of Applied Spectra, Inc.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.