A Plutonium Needle in a Haystack

New results could significantly improve resonance ionization mass spectrometry ultra-trace analysis of plutonium isotopes.

Image courtesy of Elisa Romero-Romero
Resonance ionization mass spectrometry is a highly selective and sensitive technique for analyzing extremely small amounts of elements. It uses tunable lasers to ionize atoms of the desired elements.

The Science

Even tiny amounts of plutonium are harmful to human health and the environment. But plutonium also helps us study the universe: the isotope plutonium-244 hints at nucleosynthesis and neutron star mergers. Researchers therefore need ways to detect what they call “ultra-trace” plutonium. Ultra-trace refers to tiny amounts of a material—similar to the mass of a nucleotide of the DNA in a single human cell. Researchers have now used special lasers to study the fingerprints of plutonium’s photoionization. This is the absorption of enough energy from light to cause an electron to leave and create a positive ion. The technique allowed researchers to identify ultra-trace amounts of plutonium atoms at record levels of efficiency.

The Impact

Detecting plutonium is important for many areas of scientific research. It is part of studies such as nuclear forensics and safeguards, environmental science, reactor safety, and astrophysics. Among other variables, scientists study the concentration of plutonium and the ratios of its various isotopes in samples. However, these samples usually contain only tiny ultra-trace amounts of the element. With this new technique, nuclear physicists improved laser ionization efficiency of plutonium tenfold. This frees more of this element for analysis by a technique called resonance ionization mass spectrometry.


Investigators studied three-step resonance photoionization spectra of plutonium with titanium-sapphire lasers. The goal was to develop more efficient laser ionization schemes for ultra-trace analysis of plutonium isotopes by resonance ionization mass spectrometry. This technique can benefit a diverse range of applications. For example, plutonium-244 is the longest-lived plutonium isotope, with a half-life of about 80 million years, and its observation in deep-sea crusts and sediments tells scientists something about the nucleosynthesis of chemical elements in neutron star mergers. For these applications, scientists need extremely sensitive analytical techniques to characterize plutonium isotopes and their abundances.

In this study, researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville used three pulsed titanium-doped sapphire laser beams to examine spectra created from plutonium’s photoionization. The technique uses stepwise resonant excitation of the atoms with three photons to achieve extremely high element-selectivity. The ions produced are mass-selectively detected. This leads to excellent isotope selectivity and background suppression from undesired species. The researchers observed thirteen new second-step energy levels, and they chose six to investigate a large number of third-step states. These efforts led to the identification of a highly efficient three-step scheme with an overall ionization efficiency of more than 50 percent for plutonium – a ten-fold improvement over its previously reported ionization efficiency.


Alfredo Galindo-Uribarri
Oak Ridge National Laboratory


This material is based on work supported by the Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Nuclear Physics.


Galindo-Uribarri, A., et al., High efficiency laser resonance ionization of plutonium. Scientific Reports 11, 23432 (2021). [DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-01886-z]

Related Links

Romero-Romero, E., Development of Ultrasensitive Analytical Techniques to Detect Trace Elements. Ph.D. thesis (University of Tennessee Knoxville, 2019).

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Performer: DOE Laboratory