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Bruce Moyer: Chemical separations across energy eras

Bruce Moyer’s career as a trailblazing chemist began with a Gilbert chemistry set, the perfect Christmas gift for an inquisitive kid growing up in 1960s Pennsylvania. Moyer squirreled away the test tubes and racks of chemicals in his bedroom to conduct unsupervised experiments on solubility, corrosion, and other subjects included in Gilbert’s captivating manual.

Moyer’s coming-of-age science experiments led to a fascination with chemistry that grew with education and experience. As a high school student, he served as the chemistry class lab assistant and worked after school at an old-fashioned pharmacy replete with backroom chemicals. Both served as playgrounds and sources of inspiration to augment his classroom studies. “I would borrow equipment or save my paycheck to purchase chemicals and then use these to test out concepts in my textbook,” said Moyer.

Driven by a love of learning, Moyer says he courted his share of mishaps as a teenage chemist, once generating chlorine gas in his home to observe absorption spectroscopy. “Certain gases absorb different wavelengths of light. Using a prism, you can see gaps in the visible light spectrum when you shine a light through one of these gases,” he explained. “So, I was in my room in the dark, armed with a flashlight, prism, and a small quantity of chlorine gas, oblivious to the irritating fumes beginning to circulate through the house, when, fortunately, my stepdad ran in and tossed the experiment outside.” Otherwise, the experiment was a success, he says.

Today, Moyer is no less spirited but much more prudent as a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), leading the Chemical Separations group for the lab’s Chemical Sciences Division. His 40-year career in separation science has supported the US Department of Energy (DOE) from its onset in the 1970s with research and development spanning several generations of energy priorities focused on nuclear energy, the environment, and critical materials.

Basic-to-applied research

Moyer’s current research, supported by DOE’s Office of Science, addresses the fundamental principles of molecular recognition and self-assemblyprocesses that occur naturally in biochemical systems as molecules self-organize into complex structures like cell membranes or DNA strandsfor energy-efficient separations. 

“Basic science research can help us understand as well as leverage these natural capabilities for versatile applications,” said Moyer. “Greater control of the way molecules selectively bind with other molecules, for instance, could improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of separating and extracting elements from solutions for broad practical uses, such as recovering valuable metals, removing contamination from the environment, or cleaning up radioactive tank waste.”

Moyer’s basic-to-applied research has driven significant advancements in nuclear fuel reprocessing and legacy waste cleanup. His fundamental research on the actinides americium and curium led to breakthrough technologies to effectively extract reusable materials from used nuclear fuel and greatly reduce the volume of radioactive waste. His crowning achievement has been leading the chemical development of the caustic-side solvent extraction (CSSX) process used at the Savannah River Site in the cleanup of millions of gallons of radioactive tank waste.

In addition to his fundamental research activities, Moyer is busy shepherding future energy technologies through the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub supported by the agency’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office. The CMI brings together national laboratories, universities, and industry on innovative research projects to develop new technologies that use rare earth elements and other materials critical to clean energy applications, including magnets, solar panels, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient lighting.

Moyer has been involved with the CMI since it was established in 2013 and currently leads a focus area on diversifying the supply of critical materials, with goals to improve separations and stabilize the supply of rare earths and other elements. One of his team’s most successful approaches has been to elevate the status of cerium, the most abundant rare earth element but also the least valuable. A new cerium-aluminum alloy is turning the tables, gaining industry adoption for high-efficiency engines, hydroelectric turbines, and transportation.

Moyer hopes to expand his research portfolio by applying his expertise in chemical separations to the grand challenge of clean water. “The goal is to ensure an adequate water supply for multiple future uses, ranging from drinking water to power production and agriculture, by reducing energy consumption and cost,” said Moyer. “Chemical separations will play an important role in any solutions to these challenges.”

Spanning energy eras

In a lot of ways, Moyer’s career has grown alongside DOE, both budding during an energy crisis in the late 1970s and spanning formative decades in energy research—from the rise of nuclear power in the 1970s and Superfund cleanup activities in the 1990s to the sustainable energy initiatives of the twenty-first century.

As a graduate student, Moyer was devoted to energy problems as part of his research on water oxidation catalysis, or “water splitting,” and its potential to generate hydrogen for energy uses, especially as a clean fuel alternative. He earned a PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a position at ORNL in 1979, right in the midst of skyrocketing oil prices and a nation mobilizing for energy security.

Moyer’s move to Oak Ridge came at a unique moment in the lab’s history. Much of the scientific population had been a part of the inaugural workforce of the 1940–50s and was nearing retirement by the late 1970s. The political climate of nuclear nonproliferation and an unstable global oil economy heightened the focus on the nation’s energy demands, promoting new research into efficient, oil-alternative technologies to meet power, fuel, water, and other critical resource needs.

“It was a period of crisis but also of great excitement and opportunity,” said Moyer, who was part of a hiring boom that ushered in the lab’s second generation of scientists to focus on peaceful nuclear technologies and other areas of energy production.

“For me, ORNL has been exactly the right environment to look for solutions to critical challenges in chemical separations related to energy,” said Moyer. “In my career, the application has shifted in emphasis over the years, from nuclear to clean energy, but separation science continues to be a critical need in any energy era.”

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the DOE Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov/.