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Professor Antonio Simonetti’s nuclear forensic research to be featured on "What Would You Fight For?" series

Allison Preston • DATE: November 15, 2017

Categories:  College NewsEnergy ResearchFacultyHonors and AwardsPersonal and National Security ResearchPress ReleaseStudent and Undergraduate

Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences (CEEES) Professor Antonio Simonetti will be featured on the University of Notre Dame’s “What Would You Fight For?” series, highlighting his nuclear forensic research for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Simonetti aims to develop time-sensitive and unique methods to determine the chemical and isotopic makeup of uranium-rich nuclear materials, primarily uraninite. The uranium-rich natural mineral is the primary ingredient used to make uranium oxide concentrate (UOC), or "yellow cake." It then becomes one of the primary materials used to make "dirty bombs," or a bomb that combines explosives with radioactive materials. 

Simonetti was awarded a $1.75 million grant by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in an effort to develop counter-terrorism methods through the detection of illicit materials. He, along with CEEES colleagues Peter Burns and Amy Hixon, have developed a database of chemical and isotopic signatures for uraninites and UOCs from worldwide sources through the grant. 

"We can act as a deterrent to let criminals know if you get a hold of some uranium oxide powder, we can analyze it and see where it is coming from based on its chemical and isotopic signatures," says Simonetti. 

In other words, if a dirty bomb were detonated of confiscated, Simonetti and other nuclear forensic scientists can determine what country or region the nuclear material was extracted from. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will then have a better idea of where these bombs are being developed. 

“That is the scientific goal of the project,” says Simonetti. “The other goal is to train the next generation of nuclear forensic scientists.”

Notre Dame Naval ROTC member and senior Maloney Foster is one of the emerging nuclear forensic leaders who will also be featured in this week’s “What Would You Fight For?” video. After graduation, Foster will continue working in the nuclear field in the Navy.

A sneak peek of this week’s “What Would You Fight For?” feature and a Q&A with Simonetti will take place at 3:00 p.m. at the Eck Visitor’s Center Auditorium on Friday, November 17. The full video will then be debuted on the jumbotron during the Notre Dame vs. Navy football game at half-time in the stadium.