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UW Students Receive DOE Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships

August 25, 2021
Jacy Busboom, Nathan Linton, Rene Mendez and Reid Olson

A current University of Wyoming student and two recent UW graduates had the opportunity to work in a professional laboratory setting this summer, with each contributing to a unique research experience. And another UW graduate recently began his internship.

Jacy Busboom, Nathan Linton and Rene Mendez all worked at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) this summer as part of the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program. Reid Olson, who graduated from UW in May with a dual bachelor’s degree in computer science and zoology, began his internship Aug. 23 at National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo.

The program encourages undergraduate students and recent graduates to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers by providing research experiences at Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories. Selected students participate as interns appointed at one of 17 participating DOE laboratories/facilities. The students perform research with the guidance of laboratory staff scientists or engineers on projects supporting the DOE mission.

Linton, a first-year master’s student in mechanical engineering from Lander, worked on a molecular dynamics simulation project for INL’s Materials Science and Engineering Department. He had to produce material properties data for a certain material of interest.

“The real-world value of this research is that it cuts down the time it can take to develop a new material,” says Linton, who received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UW last December. “It’s also cheaper to run simulations, as you don’t have to physically create the material and run tests on it for every material property you are interested in, which can be very expensive.”

Linton adds that he learned a lot about LAMMPS (large-scale atomic/molecular massively parallel simulator) code and how to implement the code in these types of simulations.

Busboom, of Douglas, worked on a project involving bioleaching of mine tailings to recover tellurium, a critical material used in thin-film photovoltaics. Bioleaching is the application of microorganisms to extract metals into solution. Thin-film photovoltaics use a thin film incorporated into solar panels that are used to absorb sunlight and convert it to electricity.

Compared to other thin-film photovoltaics, tellurium -- in the form of cadmium telluride -- products are more efficient.

“I learned both hands-on techniques and how to keep a detailed, interactive lab notebook, which is important when passing on a project to another intern or peer,” says Busboom, who received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UW in May. “In terms of real-world value, this is important for the development of sustainable tellurium production, as much of this still takes place in other countries as a byproduct of copper mining.”

Busboom says her internship work ties into her education at UW, as she is interested in the biology side of chemical engineering and was able to take electives geared toward this. She previously conducted research at UW involving microorganisms that allowed her to apply them to a more advanced topic.

Mendez, who received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in May, worked with Busboom with his mentor, David Reed, and Yoshiko Fujita, both senior staff scientists at INL.

Using bioleaching, Mendez says he investigated the precipitation of rare earth elements. A microbe, called gluconobacter oxydans, was used to produce an organic acid that, when used with oxalic acid, would produce rare earth metals in solution.

“The use of chemistry during these processes directly ties with what I learned at the University of Wyoming,” says Mendez, of El Paso, Texas. “Being able to manipulate the rare earth metals into a form that can be reused resembles the chemistry coursework I have done at UW.”

Currently, substances, such as hydrochloric or sulfuric acid, have to be pumped into the ground to extract the rare earth elements, processes which are extremely damaging to the environment. A new method, which is safe and reliable in extracting and recycling rare earth elements, is necessary as they are commonly used in electronics and automotive systems, Mendez says.

Olson started his internship this week at NREL in the Data, Analysis and Visualization group. He is helping to develop a tool to help individuals determine optimal locations for distributed wind systems.

“This project is highly relevant, considering the environmental challenges we are currently facing,” says Olson, of Casper. “Working on a project that is addressing these challenges is very meaningful for me. I anticipate learning a variety of valuable skills, as well as gaining useful insight from working in a nonacademic research setting.”

The SULI program is sponsored and managed by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists in collaboration with DOE laboratories and facilities.

Applications for the SULI program are solicited annually for three separate internship terms. Internship appointments are 10 weeks for the summer term (May through August); and 16 weeks for both the fall (August through December) and spring (January through May) terms. Each DOE laboratory/facility offers different research opportunities. Not all DOE laboratories/facilities offer internships during the fall and spring terms.

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