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US Air Force Academy cadet participates in ORNL-based air sampling study

Cadet Elyse Wages, a rising junior at the United States Air Force Academy, visited the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory with one goal in mind: collect air. As a physics major with a focus in nuclear science, Wages took air samples near the High Flux Isotope Reactor and the Spallation Neutron Source for a project that will help her learn more about baseline readings around facilities with radioactive material.

“I’ve always been interested in energy,” said Wages. “In the Air Force, I want to better understand modular reactors and how they can be protected.”

Wages came to East Tennessee with Mike Shaffer, a physics instructor at the Air Force Academy, to collect 100 bags of air over two days. To collect the desired air, they used a modified Pelican case that allowed them to pump in air from the ORNL sites and pump out any other air left in the case — leaving only the air they intend to study in the collection bag. The collected air will be compressed into scuba tanks and shipped to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Researchers at PNNL will help Wages examine the air to determine trace amounts of xenon and argon isotopes, which are specific elements present around nuclear reactors.

“Ideally, we would have a collection system set up for a longer period of time to test changes in levels,” said Amanda Sandifer, experimental high energy and nuclear physicist at ORNL. Sandifer, a former United States Air Force civilian, is looking to establish a program at ORNL with the Air Force Academy to regularly offer opportunities for cadets to become more familiar with equipment and field experiments.

“We at ORNL were able to provide Wages and Shaffer a unique sampling experience relevant to current nuclear test treaty monitoring concerns and gave Wages valuable hands-on experience with equipment and techniques that she may be able to use in future assignments in her Air Force career,” said Sandifer. “This summer research collaboration will hopefully be the first of many projects as we grow our partnership with the U.S. Air Force Academy.”

The High Flux Isotope Reactor and the Spallation Neutron Source are DOE Office of Science user facilities.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s 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