By Andrew Mobbs. Photos by Chance Saechao.
Sasha Chemey, who joined the College of Engineering this fall as an assistant professor of nuclear engineering, often turns to sports to clarify how he envisions his new role.
“As a chemist, I bring a different perspective. As a person with fundamental nuclear research experience, my research is not purely engineering. So, I talk to people in different areas within our school elsewhere,” Chemey said. “Hopefully, my role can help us play a little positionless basketball and bring a team together that transcends any specific discipline.”
Chemey’s Oregon State University roots date back to 2019, when he was a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Walt Loveland, professor of chemistry. Describing Loveland as a “nuclear chemist’s nuclear chemist,” Chemey jumped at the chance to work with him.
“Much of what we did was separations chemistry for our lab purposes and synthetic chemistry for making thin targets. We can then hit these targets with neutrons and ions to study nuclear reactions,” Chemey explained. “Even cooler, you make a bunch of different things in these reactions, and if you can separate out the mixture of products based on chemistry, you can measure the radiation that comes off each element and have a better idea of the reaction dynamics.”
Chemey still works closely with Loveland, whose office is just down the hall in the Radiation Center. Some of their current studies entail what Chemey calls a “pure physics perspective” on fission, the process through which atoms break apart and release energy.
“That process underpins modern nuclear energy production,” Chemey said.
Chemey’s fascination with nuclear research started when he was an undergraduate at Michigan State University, where he obtained bachelor’s degrees in both chemistry and political theory. He secured a two-year research assistantship, allowing him to work at the particle accelerator facility on campus. Learning from researchers there and participating in experiments studying the nuclear structure of radioactive isotopes during his first year solidified his passion, and he continued working for his mentor Sean Liddick after his initial appointment.
“I fell in love with questions around the nucleus. That was the introduction to the physics aspects, but I was a chemist. I was encouraged by Sean to reach out and try different things. So, I went to Florida State University and earned my Ph.D. in chemistry in the Albrecht-Schönzart actinide chemistry lab,” Chemey said.
At Florida State, Chemey’s research focused on the actinide elements of the periodic table and the chemical structures they formed, primarily in reactions with the fluoride ion. These elements are radioactive, and their isotopes have half-lives ranging from seconds to billions of years.
“We were studying not the nuclear, but the electronic, structure and how it influenced chemical bonding,” Chemey explained. “That actually has some implications for nuclear engineering because fluoride molten salt reactors are a possible new generation of reactors that will use fuel more efficiently, produce less waste, and be accident tolerant.”
Here at Oregon State, Chemey’s research interests overlap among chemical separations, nuclear physics, and materials engineering. He collaborates with others at this interface — or, as he’d say, plays positionless basketball with them. This includes his current research group of three undergraduates and one graduate student studying nuclear engineering. Part of their work so far involves nuclear reactions with the actinides, while other interests focus on compounds between the radioactive actinides and main group elements.
“These elements have very distinct nuclear and chemical properties that are useful. For example, boron tends to absorb neutrons quite intensely — not useful as a fuel, but useful if you want accident-safe waste storage underground. Meanwhile, they are mechanically and chemically resilient, desirable properties for this goal. Carbides and nitrides are useful in reactors for the opposite reason; they don’t absorb neutrons well, and they’re able to reduce the radioactive fuel needed,” Chemey said.
On a broader level, Chemey is devoted to nuclear science because he knows it can help sustain our planet better than coal or natural gas. Eco-friendly nuclear power is versatile; it can potentially mitigate water pollution, irrigate farms, address waste by closing the nuclear fuel cycle, and more.
Outside of teaching and his research, Chemey is also a mentor in the Beaver Connect program. He supports his undergraduates as they navigate their college experiences, connecting them to resources based on their unique goals and having meaningful conversations with them.
Chemey loves living in Corvallis and the sense of community that it offers. When he’s not hiking a trail, playing on a softball diamond, or working in the lab, he relishes spending time with his wife, Emma, and their two cats, Perry and Niffler, as well as cheering on the Chicago Cubs, the Michigan State Spartans, and, naturally, the Oregon State Beavers.