Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Committee Chair/Advisor

Scott M. Husson

Committee Member

Timothy A. DeVol

Committee Member

David A. Bruce

Committee Member

Christopher L. Kitchens


Traditional radiochemistry approaches for the detection of trace-level alpha-emitting radioisotopes in water require lengthy offsite sample preparations and do not lend themselves to rapid quantification. Therefore, a novel platform is needed that combines onsite purification, concentration, and isotopic screening with a fieldable detection system. My dissertation research objective was to develop novel reactive thin polymer films and thin film composite membranes for the selective separation of uranium from environmental water followed by direct isotopic analysis by alpha spectroscopy. Chapter 1 reviews progress made on uranium separation from aqueous matrices and discusses methods used for the determination of isotopic composition.

Chapter 2 describes the development of reactive polymer films for the concentration of uranium from circumneutral pH solutions for spectroscopic analyses. These films were prepared by grafting uranium-selective polymers from polyethersulfone (PES) films via UV-initiated polymerization, and by introducing uranium-selective functional groups to polyacrylonitrile (PAN) films by chemical reaction. Ellipsometry was used to study poly(phosphoric acid 2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate ester) film growth kinetics on PES films. X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy of modified PAN films revealed the conversion of nitrile groups to amidoxime groups to be as high as 40% and showed that the extent and depth of reaction could be varied precisely. Static uptake experiments with solutions of depleted uranium spiked with 233U were conducted to determine uranium binding capacities and kinetics of the modified polymer films at different pH values from 4 to 8. Sorption isotherm data were fitted to the Langmuir model, and the highest sorption capacities of 1.09×10-2 ± 1.03×10-3 mmol/m2 and 1.02×10-2 ± 3.00×10-3 mmol/m2 were obtained at pH 6 for modified PAN (M-PAN) and PES (M-PES) films. Capacities at pH 4 and 8 were lower and could be explained by differences in sorption mechanisms. Uranium batch uptake kinetics followed a pseudo-second order rate model. Equilibrium uptake was attained within 3 h for M-PAN film and 1 h for M-PES films. Alpha spectroscopy pulse height spectra were analyzed to study the role of selective layer film thickness on peak energy resolution. Full width at half maximum values from 20 to 41 keV were recorded for M-PAN film and from 26 to 45 keV for M-PES film. Whereas uranium uptake increased with selective layer film thickness and varied with polymer chemistry/extent of modification, the peak energy resolution was independent of layer thickness and polymer chemistry within the experimental measurement uncertainties. Results discussed in this chapter were used to guide the development of thin-film composite membrane-based detection methods for the rapid, fieldable analysis of radionuclides in water for nuclear forensics investigations and environmental studies.

Chapter 3 describes the synthesis and characterization of polyamidoxime membranes for isolation and concentration of uranium from aqueous matrices, including high-salinity seawater. The aim was to develop a field portable screening method for the rapid quantification of isotopic distribution by alpha spectroscopy. Membranes with varying degree of modification were prepared by chemical conversion of nitrile groups to amidoxime groups on the surface of polyacrylonitrile ultrafiltration (UFPAN) membranes. Attenuated total reflectance Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy was used to analyze changes in surface chemistry. Flow through filtration experiments conducted using deionized (DI) water and simulated seawater solutions indicated that the modified membrane was effective in capturing more than 95% of the uranium in the solution prior to breakthrough even in the presence of salt ions. Batch uptake experiments were conducted and compared with the flow through experimental data to elucidate on likely binding mechanisms. Alpha spectra of uranium loaded membranes were analyzed, and the effects of solution matrix and degree of modification on peak energy resolution were studied. Peak energy resolution of 24 ± 2 keV and 32 ± 6 keV full width at half maximum (FWHM) were obtained by loading uranium from DI and seawater solutions onto modified membranes. Full width at 10% maximum of the same spectra were calculated to be 63 ± 9 keV and 160 ± 34 keV to quantify differences seen in peak tailing. Calculations performed based on the results show that it would take less than 3 h of analysis time to screen a sample provided enough volume of solution are available. This chapter offers a facile method to prepare polyamidoxime-based membranes for uranium separation and concentration at circumneutral pH values, enabling the rapid, onsite screening of unknown samples.

Chapter 4 presents the application of reactive membranes for the isolation and concentration of uranium from circumneutral pH solutions by ultrafiltration. The reactive membranes were prepared by grafting a uranium-selective polymer layer via ultraviolet-initiated radical polymerization from the surfaces of polyethersulfone ultrafiltration membrane supports. Dynamic uranium binding capacity measurements were conducted using the reactive membranes housed in an inline filter column, and column breakthrough data were fitted to theoretical models. The experimental data were best described by the Thomas model, indicating that uranium sorption was a reaction rate-limited process. Fitted model parameter values were compared with the results from batch experiments, where similar reaction rate constants were obtained for loading from solutions at pH 4 and 6. Maximum uranium binding capacity of the reactive membrane decreased in the presence of multiple competing ions, from 7.8 ± 0.3 mg/g in deionized water to 3.6 ± 0.2 mg/g in simulated seawater at pH 6. Alpha spectroscopy pulse height spectra of uranium-loaded reactive membranes were analyzed. Peak energy resolutions measured as full width at half maximum of 70 ± 8 keV and 65 ± 5 keV were obtained from samples loaded with uranium from DI and seawater solutions. The results of this study provide an approach for a rapid, on field screening of liquid samples to complement existing techniques and accelerate sample analyses.

This work offers a thin-film platform for selective separation of uranium from seawater and rapid analysis of radionuclides by alpha spectroscopy. The proposed materials were characterized and contacted with uranium-contaminated solutions using batch and flowthrough filtration methods to demonstrate feasibility for field portable applications.



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