Researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina received two new grants that together total more than $1 million for researching related to nuclear energy, in which they will focus on perovskite materials.

One of the researchers will be working on ways to dispose of tritium, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors that makes its way through the ecosystem into the water and food supply, posing a radioactive health hazard if ingested. The goal is to develop a membrane similar to an air or oil filter that would separate tritium from the water that is used in creating nuclear energy. Another scientists' grant pays for a specialty microscope that will be the only one of its kind in South Carolina. Collaborators are involved in both projects. The researchers will experiment with different materials in the form of powders, primarily focusing on the naturally occurring mineral perovskite.

“We’re going to design not only the material, but the processing and the microstructure to get the right filter properties,” the researchers say. “No one has ever used ceramics to do this. No one has ever used naturally occurring materials, such as perovskite. No one has taken these classes of materials, which have the ability to incorporate the hydrogen isotope tritium, and use them in this sort of capture process. We will be the first.”

The membrane would be used in reprocessing facilities, where spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors is recycled into new fuel. While the United States does not reprocess spent nuclear fuel, it is done in China, France, Japan, India, Russia and the United Kingdom.

The other work that the grant will be funding is a microscope that will allow researchers to examine ceramic materials with the technique of Raman spectroscopy. That alone is not very rare, but it’s much less common to use the technique with a combination of high temperatures and controlled atmosphere. The new microscope will have that capability. It can heat materials as high as 1600 degrees Celsius, which is 2732 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Atoms in a solid are shaking because of thermal energy, you illuminate them with a laser beam and then you detect the light that is scattered,” said the scientists in charge if the project. “It essentially measures how much energy is acquired or lost, known as Raman shift.”

Nuclear energy is vital to South Carolina, where about half of electricity comes from seven nuclear power plants operating in the state. Another six are close to its borders, and the Savannah River National Laboratory near Aiken is a leader in nuclear energy research.