£1.4m funding for chemist’s research into hazardous materials handling

Dr Nicola Bell’s group will explore a range of issues relevant to handling hazardous and chemically reactive materials in an automated environment.

A University of Glasgow chemist is establishing a new research group with £1.4m in new funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation.

Dr Nicola Bell has received an Open Fellowship award from the ESPRC to support groundbreaking new research into methods of safely handling hazardous materials in airless, moisture-free environments.

The research project, called DIGINERT, will build on work she began as a Research Fellow in the School of Chemistry and her background in actinide chemistry.

Over the course of the five-year fellowship, Dr Bell and her collaborators will work to develop new automated remote handling tools capable of manipulating highly reactive chemical species under inert conditions.

The outcomes of their research could be used to develop improved methods to handle potentially hazardous waste produced at nuclear power plants. The nuclear industry works with a range of materials which are highly reactive in air and there is a need to process these materials to ensure their safe management, storage and disposal. Automation of this processing can therefore improve nuclear safety and reduce costs.   

Over the course of the five-year fellowship, Dr Bell and her team will collaborate with partners at Sellafield Ltd to build a new system which will enable safer handling of highly reactive chemicals in inert atmospheres, where they will not be exposed to the elements.

She will also work closely with Dr Bjoern Seitz and Dr Rick Gray of the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy, and bring two newly-appointed postdoctoral researchers to join her in the project.

The DIGINERT team will develop an automated inert atmosphere chemistry system, building new reactors and glassware capable of excluding air and water, maintaining atmospheric safety for long periods of time, and storing and transporting highly reactive chemicals.

In order to ensure that the system can work autonomously and securely, they will also develop new sensors and software designed to provide advance warning of potential issues and mitigate the risks of handling hazardous chemicals in automation. 

The technology will be validated through work in the laboratory using uranium compounds similar to those found in nuclear waste materials, and on-site at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria.

Dr Bell said: “I’m very grateful to the EPSRC for funding my Open Fellowship, and for the support and encouragement I’ve received from my colleagues in the School of Chemistry since I joined the University of Glasgow.

“The autonomy provided by the Open Fellowship will allow me to combine the various strands of my prior expertise to push the boundaries of the emerging field of digital chemistry and enable me to focus on new applications for inert-atmosphere nuclear science and reactive chemistry more widely.

“Ultimately, I hope that the system we develop will open new avenues for research in anaerobic and bespoke atmosphere laboratory chemistry, and new opportunities for knowledge exchange between academia and industry.”