Bamidele Omotowa is a Nigerian U.S.-based Chemist, Nuclear Scientist, and Co-Founder of Pearlhill Technologies. In this second part of his interview with Bunmi Fatoye-Matory, he speaks on his American experience and challenges Diaspora Nigerians and scientists face trying to help national development.
PT: Tell us about your American journey.
Omotowa: I was appointed as a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Idaho, where I understudied Prof Jean’ne M. Shreeve (my mentor) in the field of Fluorine Chemistry. She was trained at the University of Washington in Seattle in the early 1960s by Prof George Cady, one of the nuclear scientists that worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1945-1955 window.
I worked at the University of Idaho for six years and two months. It was a unique and prestigious field in the U.S and Europe, which was not available in Nigeria. I learned the bench techniques to manipulate the chemistry, the science, and some engineering of materials in my laboratory.
In 2004, I went to work with Idaho National Laboratory (INL). In 1951, the Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-I), the first reactor built in Idaho at the National Reactor Testing Station (now INL) became the world’s first power plant to produce electricity for Arco, Idaho, using atomic energy. This pioneering reactor operated for 12 years before being shut down for the last time in December 1963.
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson dedicated EBR-I as a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Also built in early 1950s at the Idaho National Reactor Testing Station, the land-based Submarine platform, First generation core nuclear reactor designed by Westinghouse (S1W) was the first prototype naval reactor used by the United States Navy to prove that the technology could be used for electricity generation and propulsion on submarines. The plant was the prototype for the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. The vessel, which was the first submarine to complete a submerged transit of the North Pole on 3rd August 1958, was decommissioned in 1980, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982. Since the early 1950s, nearly 40,000 Navy personnel received training at the Naval Reactors Facility (NRF) at the INL to support the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program by carrying out assigned testing, examination, and spent fuel management activities.
However, the overall responsibility to train Naval officers and enlisted personnel has been transferred to other Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (NNPP) support sites, and the NRF prototype facilities have been shut down and are no longer used for testing and training.
In an aspect of the nuclear plant, uranium oxide (which comes from mining ores in a few countries, like Niger) is paired with the most reactive element in nature, fluorine, to create gaseous mix of radioactive and non-radioactive Uranium fluorides. The required radioactive component is a minor component and is separated from the non-radioactive major byproduct (“depleted uranium fluoride waste”) by centrifuge purification process. Low-level radioactive nuclear waste byproducts of the process were buried at INL and other sites since early 1950s. It is estimated to have accumulated to almost a billion tons of waste.
In October of 1995, the state of Idaho, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reached the Settlement Agreement for a lawsuit filed by the state to prevent shipment of spent nuclear fuel to the INL for storage. Idaho got a court order mandating that federal nuclear waste leave state boundaries by a specific date.
The DOE’s environmental cleanup will remove radioactive waste from the site, protecting water sources serving the local population. The Project needed personnel with expertise to do this when I left the University of Idaho in 2004. I was hired as a Chemist by the, then, operating contractor, the British Nuclear Fuel Limited (BNFL).
Meanwhile, the uranium fluoride waste at other sites in the U.S. contained about 25 percent valuable fluorine in it. Fluorine is a very expensive chemical to dispose of and so its recovery is desirable. Besides, it has become difficult to contain the very reactive volatile material.
After working for BNFL for seven months, another company, International Isotopes Inc. (INIS), hired me to support their team to develop unique fluorine extraction process (FEP) for fluorine recovery from the uranium fluoride wastes. For four years at INIS, I was the head of the Research and Development Program, and the Analytical Laboratory for Quality Control.
By the end of 2007, INIS had achieved industrial capacity to produce and qualify semiconductor grade ultra-high purity germanium tetrafluoride, silicon tetrafluoride, and boron trifluoride gas products from the depleted uranium fluoride waste of the nuclear plants. As principal investigator, along with receiving several patents for INIS, I had provided direction for successfully obtaining federal funding to support INIS’s strategic project through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program…
*Read the full article titled INTERVIEW: How Nigerian scientists can compete globally — U.S.-based Nuclear Scientist (2), at https://www.premiumtimesng.com/features-and-interviews/266504-interview-how-nigerian-scientists-can-compete-globally-u-s-based-nuclear-scientist-2.html