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Michelle Buchanan leads efforts to solve our energy needs

Analytical chemist and AAAS Fellow Michelle Buchanan is focused on energy generation, energy storage, energy utilization at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. | Marsha Walton

Analytical chemistry is ubiquitous in our daily lives, from medical procedures to certifying organic food to crime fighting.

"When you go into the hospital and they want to look at what's wrong with you, they do a blood test. That's all analytical chemistry. People who are looking at organic foods, they'll run tests on them to see if there are pesticides, to make sure they really are organic. Any package of food that you have has an analysis of what the calories are; that's analytical chemistry," says analytical chemist, Michelle Buchanan.

Several years ago, Buchanan worked with detectives in Knoxville, Tennessee, on a case that led to important insight about children and fingerprints. During the investigation of the murder of a nine year old, police were baffled because they could not recover the girl's fingerprints from a car where she had been held captive. Mass spectrometry experiments by Buchanan led to the realization that adult and children's fingerprints have a difference in chemical composition.

"Little kids, before puberty, their fingerprints don't have staying power," said Buchanan.

"A lot of fingerprints are created because adults touch their face(s) and hair. That oily skin leaves residual fingerprints. Children don't have that," she said.

That case led to alerting police about the urgency of searching for children's fingerprints immediately at a crime scene, because they often last less than 24 hours.

Buchanan is the Associate Laboratory Director for Physical Sciences at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Department of Energy facility, in Tennessee. She has spent 37 years at ORNL, and now oversees four research divisions: the Center for Nanophase Materials Science, Chemical Sciences, Materials Science and Technology, and Physics. Along with promoting scientific discovery, an equally important goal is to foster both formal and informal collaboration.  "At a national laboratory, it is just part of our DNA to work with each other," said Buchanan.

ORNL is a place that inspires discovery and provides answers.

"All you have to do to learn something new is go down the hall," said Buchanan.

She did just that as a young chemist at Oak Ridge, after observing a phenomenon that she didn't understand. She was working with isomers, and observed that some aromatic hydrocarbons capture electrons, and some don't. So, she knocked on the door of a physicist who was an expert in negative ions, and asked for insight. That meeting would be the launching point for a major part of her research career in negative ion mass spectrometry.

She was named an AAAS Fellow in 2014, elected "for exceptional technical leadership and service in the chemical and physical sciences, and for contributions to setting the nation's research priorities."

Buchanan set personal priorities too. She was the first in her family to attend college, and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Wisconsin. Today, using chemistry to solve the problems of an energy-hungry world is what's on her mind.

"I think the prioritization comes from, not the esoteric, but the things that have high impact. Energy generation, energy storage, energy utilization, those are the three big areas (for me)," said Buchanan.

She spends a lot of her time thinking about thermoelectrics. "If you had very effective thermoelectric materials, you could capture some of the waste heat that is going on, and use it as electricity, to run your car perhaps. A lot of the hybrids, they have regenerative braking. There's a lot of ways that we can capture that lost heat," she said.

Buchanan has also just completed a study for the National Science Foundation (NSF) on bioenergy, including efforts to compost food. She thinks of water, energy, and food needs as connected.

"We waste so much food. That was the thing that came out of what I looked at, that food waste could be used for biomass production. They could take biomass from corn stover, and waste food, and use it for energy, or chemical commodities. That integrative approach is really intriguing to me," she said.

And she believes nuclear energy must be part of the long-term energy equation.

"Nuclear is going to be one of those 'all of the above' options, because we are going to get to the situation where gas prices are going to go way up again. We're living in an artificial world right now," she said.

ORNL currently has people working on recovery of uranium from seawater. "There's actually more uranium in seawater than there is terrestrially. It is getting very close to being commercially viable," she said.

It's what she likes the most about her work, "solving a problem to help people," said Buchanan.

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Analytical chemist and AAAS Fellow Michelle Buchanan is focused on energy generation, energy storage, energy utilization at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. | Marsha Walton
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