Sunday, 24 June 2018

Week 87: (28th May to 3rd June 2018) or 'North to East Kilbride'

It had been hot. 

I am, as you know, quite generous at times with my literary condiments; never afraid to garnish a sentence with the odd ancillary adjective to excite the tongue in recital. This as it may, I cannot comply in this instance. It had been hot. That's it. It's difficult to dress this sentence with anything more than the absolute essentials, and so it was that very week: a week of de-clothing. From the skies, the university campus must have looked like a dress of sequins, as intense and unremitting beams of sunlight bounced off car bonnets, rooftops, and the screens of a thousand phones. Pigmenting the courtyards and avenues was every bright, summery dye imaginable, sown yet vibrantly alive in the dresses, shirts, hats and skirts of sun-soaked scholars. Slowly, the ceilings and walls of classrooms and libraries began to melt as the learning was chaperoned outside. The recently trimmed grass became, first, the students' desks and then, as hours of sultry skies passed to more hours of sultry skies, their mattresses. Spells of revision became more and more sporadic, with daisy chains and ice-cream cones becoming more compelling distractions as the day rolled on.

But in my furnace of a room, into which heat with such an unwelcoming intensity was being pumped, I suffered for many days. It was as if the stifling air had been ladled with glue and sent to paste my shirt to the chest, the cuffs to the wrists, my legs to the chair. Under these unusual circumstances, for Lancashire is usually a whisper away from the breath of the cool Irish Sea, I began to pursue cooler ways to work. But my attempts achieved little success. All I could do was clasp on to the fact that I was scheduled to escape the torridity in a matter of days. Indeed, my second working visit to the Cosmogenic Isotope Analysis Facility (CIAF) laboratories would soon claw me from this sweltering English bubble into the refreshing spray of Scottish air. 

You may recall my accounts of my first trip to East Kilbride earlier this year (accessed here). My involvement with this NERC-funded facility centres around the fact that this is the only laboratory in the UK that allows one to measure the rates of soil formation using cosmogenic radionuclides. (These also I shall not explain here, as I have partly described the process elsewhere). On the day I departed the facility on my previous visit, my 12 samples had undergone the preliminary stages of 'cleaning' which here refers to a series of technical steps to isolate pure quartz from an assortment of other minerals found within my samples. Inside the quartz, and further cloaked by layer upon layer of additional 'unwantables' are many million Beryllium atoms. Just how many million - the concentration of 10Be - is the question here, but once this has been derived, the concentrations will be used in an equation to calculate soil formation rates. 

The laboratory work of my second visit would be just as intensive, and for those who are not regular visitors to the house of Chemistry, more technical than the first. This was not altogether unexpected and yet despite the unparagoned expertise and matchless work that is churned out of this facility on a monthly basis, there is such a sense of ordinariness on the commute to it. I should mention here that the daily commute is thankfully not a province into which I often find myself in. Occasionally though, on these 'working' visits, I am obligated into stepping out of character and so it was on this week, in East Kilbride, that I commenced the day pacing the pavements on the way to the facility. And indeed, the ordinariness of life that prefixed the day: the lollypop man ushering little excitable bodies across the road, school buses pouring the country's future onto the pavements, the barista boys steaming milk for morning cappuccinos, crawling car after crawling car on their way to unknown workplaces. I encountered so much ordinariness on the commute, but not only this, but the same ordinariness each and every day: the same school bus, the same barista boy, the same train conductor, (most probably) the same cars. I began to see myself not as a single commuter, but as one of the links in a great cog of morning commuting. The day that the lollypop man wore a different coloured coat was by far the most arresting and distinguishable facet of the whole experience. Peculiarly, I am still unsure as to whether this act of commuting was one I particularly enjoyed. It began to tire me, and the ordinariness was not a helpful remedy.

But the doors to the CIAF Facility are the gates into an extra-ordinary world; one where world-renowned operations are performed on a daily basis. Any feeling of monotony on my way to the building was soon diluted and I found myself adopting an altogether more bracing step once I entered.

Following on from the six steps that I very basically outlined in my previous article  I shall now attempt to explain the second half of this six month procedure.

1) My week began by acquainting myself with 12 'cakes'. This is the facility's official term for the fluoride salts containing Iron, Titanium, Aluminium and Beryllium. I re-dissolved these with hydrochloric acid, which produced a lime-green liquid, and then transferred it to a centrifuge tube.

2) The aim by the end of the week was to separate Beryllium (Be) from all of the other elements: Iron, Titanium, Aluminium, etc. I used what is called an Ion Exchange column to separate the Iron from the sample. The sample is passed through a resin. The iron is 'caught' at the top of the resin, whilst the rest of the sample drains through.

3) Now that the iron has been removed, it is time to remove aluminium. When you add Sulphuric Acid and Hydrogen Peroxide to the sample now, it turns an orange-yellow (see the video below). This illustrates the presence of Titanium. Like the previous step, the sample was prepared and passed through an ion exchange column; this time, one that can catch the aluminium and allow the rest of the sample (Beryllium and Titanium) to pass through.

4) Now it is time to separate the Titanium from the Beryllium . To do this, Ammonium Hydroxide is added to the sample and it is vortexed. (This is simply a machine which vibrates a tube, and its contents- the first clip in the video below). The pH of the sample must be between 8-9, so acid/alkali are added, and the pH is tested using a strip of pH paper. Once the pH is correct, then the whole sample is centrifuged for 7 minutes. At the end, the Beryllium fraction remains in solution (in the liquid) whilst the Titanium is precipitated at the bottom of the tube. The Beryllium fraction is then poured into a crucible; it's dried and placed in a furnace overnight, turning it into Beryllium Oxide (a white powder).

5) After a night in the furnace, it is time for the final step: the filling and pressing of the Beryllium Oxide into a small metal cathode that will be used for the next stage of the process. To do this, the sample is mixed with some Niobium powder and grounded with a small plastic pestle. It is then transferred through a miniature funnel into the metal cathode and then compressed. The compression is aided by way of a very fine needle which is manually levered into one end of the cathode. The cathodes are then sent on.

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