Twenty-four hours. Two trikes. One high powered X-ray.

September 11, 2006

Middlebury College students tackle unusual research at Argonne National Laboratory

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. ? Take two environmental chemistry majors, an enthusiastic professor, and the fast-moving high-powered X-ray beams of the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., and you have the makings for some pretty dynamic research. Add the fact that they have only 24 hours to collect the data, and suddenly it's more like extreme sports than science.

Katie Harrold on her trike

Ross Lieb-Lappen and Katie Harrold, both seniors, are environmental studies majors with a focus in chemistry. Their mentor and guide in this Argonne adventure was Assistant Professor of Environmental Chemistry Molly Costanza-Robinson. The goal? To use Argonne's X-ray beam in an innovative 3-D imaging technique that analyzes air and water flow through soil to better understand the environmental impact of certain contaminants.

Argonne National Laboratory occupies 1,500 wooded acres about 25 miles outside Chicago and is operated by the University of Chicago for the United States Department of Energy's Office of Science. Researchers from around the world use Argonne's APS facilities to expose their experiments to the most brilliant X-ray beams in the Western Hemisphere. The APS has a single beam line for the analysis of environmental soil samples, and for a few months each year, the lab offers 24-hour sessions for 3-D imaging research. Costanza-Robinson wrote a proposal for her students' research, and they were offered a 24-hour session beginning at 8 a.m. July 26.

"The key is to stay up the entire time you are 'on line,'" said Costanza-Robinson. For Ross and Katie, that meant lots of coffee and conversation. With a circumference of 1,104-meters, the APS is large enough to hold a baseball park in its center, and so to fetch the coffee and snacks, they'd take turns riding the lab's specialized trikes to and from the indoor restaurant and vending machines.

"The trikes are a great way to get around," said Katie. "But they take a little while to get used to." Not having ridden one for about 20 years, Katie quickly remembered that you use your front tire - not your weight - to steer.

The temperature in the APS facility is maintained at a constant 72°F year round and cell phone usage inside is minimal. "It's bunker-like in there," said Costanza-Robinson. "But the place is hopping. Even in the middle of the night, there are scientists on every beam line and everyone is incredibly focused on this intense opportunity to gather data."