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Womble studies uranium in groundwater, soil systems

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Community of Scholars research looks at issues at Oak Ridge 

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Tyler Womble was looking to do some summer research with Wofford professors. Dr. Kaye Savage, associate professor and director of the environmental studies program, had a project in mind and liked what Womble brought to the table. Through Dr. Caleb Arrington, associate professor of chemistry and one of Womble’s professors, a project was born. Womble, a junior from Fernandina Beach, Fla., was one of 19 student research fellows involved in the interdisciplinary Community of Scholars program this summer.

His was a complicated subject – studying the mobility and chemical properties of uranium in groundwater and soil systems.

Savage, a leader in Wofford’s Gold, Black and Green sustainability movement, knew of a research project involving those issues in Oak Ridge, Tenn., but needed someone with a chemistry background to assist.

“I was really excited when Tyler came into the lab because he was already a chemistry major,” Savage says. “He was able to dig right into the work. It was very exciting for me to have a student who was ready to participate in this research. And then once we were doing the research, he took the part that he was working on and generated the information that we needed out of it with a good, systematic approach that brought out the highlights we were looking for.”

In the early years of nuclear science, the government’s safe disposal of radioactive by products from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons production facilities was less than ideal. Back then, the primary method of disposal of radioactive waste was to dump millions of liters of contaminated waste into sites scattered around the United States.

One such site was a pond near Oak Ridge, Tenn., where about 320 million liters of uranium-contaminated water was dumped over a span of 30 years. Today that storage pond is now covered by a parking lot yet there is still concern about the leakage of uranium from the site. Large amounts of uranium are being detected in soil and the groundwater flow path that extends for about four kilometers from the site of the original pond.

“The purpose of our research was to provide information on the mobility and chemical properties of uranium in groundwater and soil systems, and to verify models that are used to predict the mobility of uranium in complex subsurface environments,” Womble says.

He traveled to Oak Ridge and took soil samples. He and Savage sent them to Stanford University which has several instruments that allowed them to determine whether the uranium was bonding with iron, manganese, or phosphate. Depending on what it reacts with, uranium can move at different rates through the soil. With this information, once can predict how rapidly uranium is migrating through the soil and how soon it may enter the groundwater and thus pose a health threat.

“Being my first time doing scientific research, it has opened up my eyes to a plethora of subjects in how research is conducted,” Womble says. “For instance, the red tape we have to go through dealing with radioactive samples. It’s incredible. Even if it wasn’t radioactive, Dr. Savage has told me about the bureaucracy and formalities you have to go through in doing field research.”

Womble’s summer project could change the direction of his future.

“I’m looking at going to grad school,” he says. “I’m still in the thinking stages. I could maybe go to nuclear chemistry, geochemistry. I could go anywhere with it. This has definitely opened some doors.”