New grant helps YSU professor top $4M mark

The process to get to the award stage took eight months.

Special to The VindicAtor

YOUNGSTOWN — Physics professor James “Jeff” Carroll’s research on nuclear isomers has already attracted the most federal grant funds ever awarded to a single faculty member in Youngstown State University history. Now he’s adding another $1 million to his tally.

Carroll, an internationally-respected nuclear physicist, has been awarded a three-year, $1.09 million research grant by the federal Defense Threat Reduction Agency to continue researching ways to release the energy stored in nuclear isomers.

The latest award brings Carroll’s nuclear isomer research grant total to more than $4 million since 2000. YSU and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., were the only two isomer research projects to get money in the most recent round of funding.

Carroll said the competitive award was essentially a renewal of previous grants received from the Department of Defense through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, but the DTRA recently began awarding grants in the field so the application process was tough and drawn-out. The process — from initial pre-proposal, through the invited proposal stage to the official award — took eight months.

“These agencies usually give three-year awards, then assess whether we’re providing the quality information they’re looking for,” he said. “This is the third renewal of a three-year award, and that speaks well of how the project is regarded in Washington and elsewhere.”

Most Department of Defense research funds go to projects of a more immediate nature, such as work that has potential to improve the safety of the troops in Iraq, Carroll explained. Allocations to fund long-term projects such as isomers are much more limited, so the competition is stiff.

Nuclear isomers have the potential for use as long-life power sources for a variety of specialized applications, said Carroll, an Oklahoma native who came to YSU in 1995 from the University of Texas in Dallas. The research he has been conducting for more than a decade with teams of YSU undergraduate and graduate students is focused on studying the isomers and on finding ways to “turn on” the energy inside.

YSU’s Isomer Physics Project concentrates on discovery research, trying to develop a better understanding of the fundamental processes with new experiments, he said, rather than looking for applications.

For example, one student project now under way involves creating a container that will allow researchers to shine X-rays on a small amount of a particular nuclear isomer inside a vacuum while using sensors to measure any energy that is released. The samples they’re using are miniscule — Carroll showed a sample, encased in a metal frame the size of a half-dollar, which he said contained only one hundred billionths of a gram of an isomer.

A graduate student from the physics department of the University of Surrey in England has just arrived to work with the research project as part of an internship, the third student from that institution to participate, and Carroll says he typically employs about five other YSU students as research assistants.

“We have a lot of really smart, hard-working students from a variety of departments; only about half are physics majors,” he said. “The students do the vast majority of the work. My role is to keep things going in the same direction.”

Grant funds pay student wages and research release time for Carroll, buy materials and equipment, and pay the research team’s travel expenses. Carroll plans to take a group to Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago later this year for some off-site experiments there, and another experiment may be scheduled at a facility near Tokyo.

In previous years, the student researchers have traveled to labs in Canada, Russia and Japan and the United States, as well as working in YSU’s own X-Ray Effects Laboratory.

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