In some scientific fields, researchers probe the outer edges of what is possible, and their discoveries unfold gradually over decades. In others, the focus is on accelerating processes to realize and deliver the commercial benefits of science more quickly.
Both types of work are important at Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory committed to accelerating the science that drives U.S. prosperity and security. The latter kind is also personally meaningful to David Bettinardi, a nuclear chemical engineer at Argonne who helps advise commercial companies on the technical aspects of chemical separation processes for radioisotopes used in life-saving procedures and medicines. His firsthand experiences learning hard economic truths has closely shaped his approach to scientific objectives.
“We found a way to remove more than 99% of impurities all at once with just one chemical. In the end, it will reduce processing time and result in a larger number of usable doses for patients.” — David Bettinardi, nuclear chemical engineer, Argonne National Laboratory
The youngest of four from a Chicago-area working class family, Bettinardi took out sizeable student loans to go to college. He earned his bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and planned to continue more academic coursework. But, without a high-paying job and with considerable debt to pay off, his plan became unfeasible. Two personal shocks were also forthcoming. Within a few years of graduating, both his parents passed away unexpectedly. Bettinardi suddenly realized that his adult life — and his plan — required redirection.
“I had a bit of a freak-out moment,” he recalled. “I felt lost and pushed down and I needed to totally reassess everything and look forward.”
Forward meant westward. With an inheritance he hadn’t expected or wanted, Bettinardi moved to Oregon to be closer to remaining family. He used the money to pay off his student loans, and he began rethinking how he could still have a scientific career without all the debt. At the age of 26, he returned to school. He entered a nuclear chemical engineering program at Oregon State University and, new mindset at full throttle, he not only earned his Ph.D. in a whirlwind four years, but he also wrote an award-winning dissertation that addressed economically feasible applications of nuclear chemical separations.
“I have to admit I initially chose my field because I was worried about my future,” said Bettinardi, who dedicated his dissertation to his parents. “I knew I loved physics, and I knew engineering was especially satisfying. Fortunately, in my case, both things — what I loved and what pays — went hand-in-hand.”
His unique experiences and “rubber meets road” perspective may be one reason why his work with start-up companies has been so successful. New radioisotope producers and suppliers enter the business of designing and selling radioisotopes for oncology and cardiology procedures because they believe in science and their products. But it’s always a business. Safety, efficiency and smart economics are key to any business’s success.
Bettinardi began working to improve the processing, recycling and purification processes for molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which decays to Tc-99m — the most used medical radioisotope in the world. Tc-99m is used for detection of heart disease, bone decay and some types of hard-to-find cancers. Over time, his research changed to revolve around a new process that produces the isotope using linear accelerators like Argonne’s Low-Energy Accelerator Facility.
“Short-lived radioisotope production is quite logistically complex, involving at least five major steps in the global supply chain to work in tight coordination,” said Bettinardi. “That’s why it can be susceptible to shortages and disruptions. I’ve been fortunate to be closely involved in applied research that really digs into the details of these processes to improve their efficiency so they can avoid disruptions.”
One of his projects involved recycling of a molybdenum-100 (Mo-100) target from which Mo-99 is created.
“There is a process developed at Argonne where we take an irradiated Mo target, dissolve it and use it in a medical device to produce the Tc-99m used in medicine. Then, when that product is used up and Mo-99 is decayed, we recycle the original Mo-100 material to create a new target that can be irradiated over and over again,” explained Bettinardi. “Similar to efforts to recycle nuclear fuel, it’s really in everyone’s best interest to recycle that material for as long as we can.”
In his area of expertise, Bettinardi zeroes in on the chemical separation processes. Bettinardi works as part of a team developing Mo-99 technologies.
“One project we recently did was to identify a single-step removal of three radio-impurities from Mo-99,” he said. “We found a way to remove more than 99% of impurities all at once with just one chemical. In the end, it will reduce processing time and result in a larger number of usable doses for patients.”
Bettinardi knows firsthand how critical it is to make good choices, not just scientifically but economically as well. Lately, he has been working to broaden 3D printing capability at Argonne to include printing of fluorinated polymers — materials similar to TeflonTM — that are robust enough to withstand degradation from even the most difficult-to-work-with chemicals.
“There are printable materials that are extremely chemically resistant and highly complementary to applied chemistry research,” he said. “It would be great to be able to produce an impeller blade or a superconducting magnet spacer on a printer instead of trying to find the right specs online or wait months for a custom-built part.”
Bettinardi is also starting to think about ways he can help others who may not have had a straightforward path into a scientific career. Mentoring young graduates appeals to him, especially those in the LGBTQ community. He’s also hopeful his own experiences will help him advise early career scientists on how to navigate twists and turns that likely lie ahead. Having gone through a significant growth period in his own personal and professional life, he is ready to think about what future David Bettinardi can accomplish.
“At this point, I trust him,” he said. “I think he’s going to do great.”
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.