Exploring Chemistry at the Furthest Reaches, Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt Revels in the Unknown
Working with some of the heaviest elements is dangerous, difficult, and confusing, but that’s exactly what Albrecht-Schmitt likes about it
On a typical day, his door stands open, ready for anyone—student, postdoctorate, or faculty member—to walk in and have a talk. That’s how he likes to work. Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt’s open door policy has served him well, whether overseeing his own group at Florida State University or managing the collaborations of groups at universities and national laboratories across the nation as the director of the Center for Actinide Science and Technology (CAST) Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC). It’s also helped him lead the radiochemical field into exciting studies of the unusual structures and bonding properties of actinide compounds.
The actinides are among the heaviest known elements, and many are highly radioactive. On many periodic tables, the actinides sit at the very bottom, the lower of the two long bars that lay separate from the rest of the elements. Although the investigation of these elements requires some of the most dangerous and expensive research you can do, Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt is always ready to push further.
But Albrecht-Schmitt’s interests did not always lie with the actinides or even with chemistry. In his childhood, he was interested in animals and in microsurgeries—the repair of things like tendons performed under a microscope. He attributes this interest to his wonder at the amazing things his father, a professor of virology and microbiology, showed him a microscope could see.
During his undergraduate studies, he had the opportunity to explore other fields, and by the end of his sophomore year, he felt certain he would be a professor in chemistry. He views his decision to attend Southwest Minnesota State University as one of his best, because the small town and low student population taught him how to be a good student.
“There was nothing else to do,” he laughs.
He became entranced with inorganic chemistry particularly during this period, doing summer research at Texas A&M, attempting to make a special form of gold. An experiment failed, yielding a deep green liquid, and he placed the flask in the refrigerator. The next day, he returned to find a clear solution with enormous, emerald-colored crystals coating the bottom of the vial, almost like pine needles. He knew then that he had to work with metals.
His entrance into the world of actinide chemistry was nearly accidental, when his group at Auburn University was pursuing the synthesis of materials that produce a voltage under a temperature differential, known as thermoelectrics, and began work with uranium arsenic compounds. It had nothing to do with the fact that it was an actinide, he says, but merely with the search for a chemical system that could be easily tuned. But somewhere during that project, and particularly after experiencing the rich coordination chemistry of the actinides, he was hooked.
In the more common metals like iron or nickel, the metal will bond to only four or six other atoms. The arrangement of those atoms around the center is called the coordination geometry, and in the common metals, these are fairly simple shapes like planar squares, tetrahedra, or octahedra. In the actinides, however, bonds to eight or more atoms are the standard, yielding much more complex geometries, such as dodecahedra, which to a classically trained inorganic chemist can be incredibly exciting. As Albrecht-Schmitt puts it, “Once you see that square antiprism, that’s it.”
From there, his lab began putting together the equipment to work with even heavier, rarer, and more radioactive actinides, like neptunium and americium, and shortly thereafter, they were one of the first new radiochemistry labs at a university in years.
The chemistry of the actinides is deeply complicated, and much about it is completely unknown. While that makes inquiries into the field daunting, it doesn’t bother Albrecht-Schmitt. “I like the unknown,” he said. “No matter how hard you try, it stays unknown.” Certainly, his attempts to uncover those unknowns are supported by the robust characterization capabilities at Florida State, which he describes as like paradise.
“You can match it, but you can’t surpass it,” he said. “I’m limited only by my imagination.” He also gives high praise to the work-life balance that Tallahassee and the surrounding landscape in the Florida Panhandle give him. “Work comes home, home comes to work, and they both go fishing with me.”
Albrecht-Schmitt stills runs a research group of his own in addition to his responsibilities as an EFRC director, but his personal style of advising helps manage his disparate obligations. Specifically, he prefers to let his students guide their own projects almost entirely.
“Your project is truly your project, not your professor’s.” He prides his group on this independence, that figure-it-out-on-your-own mentality.
But along with this spirit of independence, he also prizes a sense of family, both within his own group as well as within whole departments. He regularly invites his students to his home for crawfish boils and get-togethers. When asked what aspect of culture he would try to cultivate if building a department from the ground up, he says he prefers departments with people who want to hang out, where faculty feel free to walk into one another’s offices and just have a talk.
Reinforcing that motivation to communicate and be a community is what he sees as one of the biggest benefits of the EFRCs. “It’s the glue that allows collaborations to stick together.” And by collaborations, he means more than ‘here, let me send you a sample and you take a measurement and we write a paper.’ Being part of an EFRC, opined Albrecht-Schmitt, provides a framework for more long-term, transformative collaboration, where collaboration means more than just different people working on different aspects of a project but instead coming together to make things happen that neither could do alone.
For CAST and for Albrecht-Schmitt, this certainly means pushing further into the depths of actinide chemistry, striving to where there remain unknowns that no one thinks can be known and always trying to know them anyway.
The Center for Actinide Science and Technology (CAST) Energy Frontier Research Center is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences.
About the author(s):
Ryan Greer is a graduate student in chemistry at Florida State University and is a member of the Center for Actinide Science and Technology Energy Frontier Research Center. His research explores the nature of covalent bonding in actinide complexes using charge density studies and the quantum theory of atoms in molecules.