Solving a Subatomic Shell Game

Physicists at Michigan Technological University have filled in some longtime blank spaces on the periodic table, calculating fundamental properties of the lanthanides, a series of 15 elements known as rare earths.

Specifically, they have determined their electron affinities, the amount of energy required to detach an electron from an anion, or negative ion (an atom with an extra electron orbiting around its nucleus). Elements with low electron affinities (like iron) give up that extra electron easily. Elements with high electron affinities (like chlorine) do not.

“I remember learning about electron affinities in 10th grade chemistry,” said Research Associate Steven O’Malley. “When I began working as a grad student in atomic physics, I was surprised to learn that many of them were still unknown.”

Among them were the lanthanides, which are used in the production of lasers and sunglasses. In terms of their atomic structure, lanthanides are among the most complex elements on the periodic table, which is why no one had been able to calculate their electron affinities before.

Here’s what makes them so tricky. Electrons orbit in shells around an atom’s nucleus, something like the layers of an onion, but in stranger shapes. Within each shell are a number of subshells. A subshell is like an egg carton: it can hold from one to a certain number of electrons, but no more.

Typically, as you work your way down and across the periodic table to larger and larger atoms, the inner shells fill up with electrons, and then new shells and subshells are formed and fill up pretty neatly.

That’s not what happens with the lanthanides. Before their so-called 4f subshell fills up, the additional electrons begin making new shells. Then, gradually, as you move across the periodic table to heavier atoms in the lanthanide series, that 4f subshell finally fills up with its maximum number of 14 electrons.

Why would this matter for electron affinity? A number of forces hold electrons in their orbits around the atom’s nucleus. Two simple ones are electrons’ attraction to protons in the nucleus and repulsion away from their fellow orbiting electrons, what physics professor Don Beck calls “the B.O. effect.”

The forces exerted by a full shell on the electrons orbiting farther from the nucleus are pretty constant, which had made it relatively easy to calculate the electron affinities of most elements. But if there are vacancies in the shell–as there are in the lanthanides–the electrons in that shell can move around, playing musical chairs, as it were.

The forces an electron exerts from each spot in the shell are different. And, in addition to simple electrical factors, there are many complex variables to contend with at the subatomic level, including relativistic and many-body effects.

“It’s a nightmare,” says Beck. With several electrons bouncing around in those 14 slots, over 200 different arrangements of electrons of the 4f subshell are possible in some of the lanthanides.

In 1994, the Beck research group, supported by the National Science Foundation, began work on one of the simpler lanthanide atoms, cerium. Then they started to approach the “nightmare” middle of the lanthanide row from both ends, one anion at a time. The most difficult was neodymium (Nd-) which took about six months.

In 2007, O’Malley and Beck began a final push to complete the remaining lanthanides (promethium through erbium) by

(1) narrowing down which variables to include in the calculations; and

(2) writing scripts and computer codes to automate much of the calculation.

Ultimately, they cut the overall work time by about 85 percent. In just 18 months, they found electron affinities for all the lanthanides, including electron affinities for high-energy, excited states of the anions. All in all, they discovered 118 lanthanide anion states, 63 of which were new.

What’s next? The team’s theoretical results have already been partially verified by experimentalists, but they are still working to better understand the lanthanides theoretically, to help identify just what is being measured experimentally.

In the meantime, they are turning their attention to the next row in the periodic table.

“We expect to have electron affinities for a portion of the actinides–actinum through plutonium–available sometime this summer,” Beck said.

For more in-depth information, visit Proposal Submission Problems

The electronic proposal submission system named has numerous system performance issues and one affecting Michigan Tech is extremely slow server response time when submitting proposal applications. Institutions across the nation are experiencing this same issue. At Michigan Tech alone we had 3 proposals in the last two weeks that we were unable to submit due to slow server response time. This issue of slow response time is beyond the control of staff in the Sponsored Programs Office (SPO).

At a national meeting representatives from NIH said that there is not a quick fix to the slow server response time and that institutions need to plan accordingly and submit their proposals early. They also encouraged institutions not to wait until the day the application is due to submit their proposal but to instead submit early to ensure a successful application.

The SPO procedure for proposal submission states, the complete proposal and all applicable internal paperwork (i.e. transmittal sheet, budget, cost share forms, etc.) are due to the Sponsored Programs Office 48 hours prior to the submission deadline. At minimum we strongly encourage all faculty and staff to adhere to the 48 hours prior to submission deadline. We recommend the complete proposal and applicable internal paperwork be in the Sponsored Programs Office 72 hours prior to the submission deadline for applications.

If you have any questions about please contact SPO at 487-2226. Below are a few tips to help with applications.

  • For Adobe applications, you must use Adobe version 8.1.2 or newer.
  • The system is slower in the afternoon. It is best to submit applications in the morning.
  • For NIH proposals, even though it makes it through, it could experience errors once received by NIH. If this happens, the application needs to be fixed and resubmitted through within two days.

Sponsored Programs Accounting Needs to Expand Index Numbers

Due to the increase in sponsored funding projects over the past few years, we are running out of E2XXXX numbers to assign to sponsored projects.

Therefore, Sponsored Programs Accounting needs to expand the index nubmers to include “E4XXXX” index numbers for sponsor accounts.  Cost share accounts will now include “E5” index numbers and mimic the associated “E4” sponsor account.  For example, a sponsor account index E40101 would have a cost share index of E50101.  Graduate Assistance Cost Share will remain “E3” accounts.

If you have questions regarding this change, please contact Tammy LaBissioniere at the sponsored programs accounting office at 7-2244.

Sign up to Receive Limited Submission Announcements

The Limited Submission Program is a very important internal process when an external sponsor limits the number of proposals submitted by Michigan Tech.

All Michigan Tech faculty and research staff are invited to sign up to the new email list called This email list will only be used to notify subscribers who are interested in receiving announcements when new limited submission funding opportunities are posted on the Vice President for Research website.

The link to the list subscription request, in addition to program guidelines and current known opportunities, can be found at the following website: /proposal-preparation/identification-funding/limited-submission/opportunities.html

If you have any questions about the Limited Submission Program or know of any announcements not currently listed, feel free to contact Cheryl Gherna, coordinator Research Integrity and Compliance, at 487-2902 or

Research Training

In compliance with federal regulations, Michigan Tech requires that all faculty, staff, and students involved in the use of human or animal subjects in research and teaching complete appropriate training. This requirement will be met by successfully completing the appropriate Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) modules. This training will be required to be completed by January 1, 2009 by all investigators for all new IRB or IACUC applications submitted for review regardless of funding source.

For more information from the IRB committee chair, Dr. Susan Amato-Henderson and instructions for accessing the CITI site along with IRB guidelines see:

For more information from the IACUC committee chair, Dr. Tammy Haut-Donahue and instructions for accessing the CITI site along with IACUC guidelines see:

Feel free to contact either Cheryl Gherna or Joanne Polzien in the Research Integrity and Compliance Office with any questions at 487-2902, or email Our office would be happy to assist you in registering in order to complete this training.

Centers of Energy Excellence

The Michigan Strategic Fund now has funded six Centers of Energy Excellence in Michigan, and Michigan Technological University is the university partner for three of them. Michigan Tech also is a university partner for a seventh center, approved but not yet funded.

Governor Jennifer Granholm and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation announced the latest three alternative energy partnerships last week. The state grants go to private companies to partner with Michigan universities to develop innovative alternative energy programs. The goal is to make the state a leader in the alternative energy industry.

“This is an exciting new research model,” said David D. Reed, vice president for research at Michigan Tech. “It’s a three-way partnership–public, private and universities–each doing what they do best.” He called it “a very targeted, specific way to tie university research to economic development.”

Michigan Tech is the sole university partner in two of the new centers. Last summer, Michigan Tech and Michigan State University were named university partners in the first Center of Energy Excellence funded–a partnership with Mascoma Corp. and J.M. Longyear to develop a commercially viable cellulosic ethanol plant.

One of the new partnerships is with Working Bugs LLC, an East Lansing-based company that will work with Michigan Tech to develop specialty biochemical products from the waste from a corn ethanol plant. Working Bugs LLC received $2 million from the state. Chemical engineering professor David R. Shonnard will lead the research at Tech.

American Process Inc., based in Atlanta, heads the other new Center of Energy Excellence. American Process, San Antonio’s Valero Energy Corporation and Michigan Tech will work together to establish a pilot scale biorefinery at the Decorative Panels International hardwood plant in Alpena. American Process Inc. received $4 million the state. Shonnard will contribute research to improve the fermentation processes in the biorefinery, and Russ Alger, director of Tech’s Institute of Snow Research, will work with the companies to develop sodium acetate as a novel anti-icing agent.

The search for innovative uses for the waste created by ethanol production could give Michigan needed economic leverage, Reed said. “Ethanol is a commodity that earns just pennies on the dollar,” he explained. “If producers can get an extra nickel from something in the waste stream, that can give them an enormous competitive advantage.”

Shonnard, who heads the Centers of Energy Excellence at Michigan Tech, called the partnerships “a great opportunity for faculty and students at Michigan Tech to conduct breakthrough research in support of new commercial enterprises in the emerging bioeconomy in Michigan.”

Reed said the selection of Michigan Tech as the university partner in Centers of Energy Excellence, as well as a recently announced $1.5 million grant to a team led by mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics associate professor Jeff Naber to develop flex-fuel hybrid vehicles, validates the Wood to Wheels concept pioneered at Michigan Tech.

“Wood to Wheels drew expertise from all across Michigan Tech to work together on alternative energy solutions from the supply chain to the mill to the vehicle on the road,” Reed explained. “These grants reflect the economic viability of that concept.”

NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide – revised

The National Science Foundation has posted to its website a revised version of the /NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide/ (PAPPG, NSF 09-1) that will be effective for proposals received on or after January 5, 2009. A Summary of Significant Changes is posted with the Grant Proposal Guide (GPG). (

In this revision, NSF has addressed the COGR/AAU request for greater flexibility in charging salary by changing its compensation policy “to no more than two months of [senior project personnel] regular salary in any one year.” The prior limitation to summer salary has been eliminated. If additional time is needed, NSF requires that “any compensation … in excess of two months must be disclosed in the proposal budget, justified in the budget justification, and must be specifically approved by NSF in the award notice.”

Bayh-Dole Act

Ownership of inventions created at Michigan Tech that are the result of efforts conducted under an externally funded project are always dictated by the terms of the contract under which that funding was provided. While the contract terms for projects funded by industry, state governments, and foundations can vary, the invention ownership terms of federally sponsored projects are always the same as defined by federal law.

The Bayh-Dole Act was enacted into law in 1980 and specifically allows universities to retain ownership of inventions that result from federally funded research. Since its enactment, this law had a significant impact on both the economy and state of technology of the United States by encouraging investment in the commercial development and ultimate public dissemination of federally funded, university based innovations.

As stated in 37 CFR 401.14, an invention means, “any invention or discovery which is or may be patentable or otherwise protectable under Title 35 of the United States Code”. The legal standard is any invention or discovery “conceived OR first actually reduced to practice”.

Federal research sponsors are increasingly encouraging university research funding recipients to comply with the Federal Bayh-Dole Act reporting requirements by disclosing all inventions conceived or first actually reduced to practice using federal funds. While many federally sponsored inventions meet the requirements for patentability by being new and not obvious to one of ordinary skill in the art and licensing industry statistics demonstrate that relatively few have all the necessary characteristics for commercial viability. Recently however, federal agencies have been reminding institutions that Bayh-Dole requires the reporting of all inventions that may be patentable regardless of how likely they are to be commercially viable.

Some funding agencies appear to be moving in a direction of using disclosure rates, in part, to demonstrate the value of federal research programs. While commercial outcomes produce the most compelling of these arguments, the overall volume of potentially patentable inventions is also being used as a leading indicator of the potential impact of public investments in research.

Michigan Tech’s invention disclosure form can be downloaded from Draft manuscripts, presentations, and other written materials are acceptable as attachments to the invention disclosure to simplify completion and filing. University researchers that have questions about completing and submitting the form or about federal reporting requirements can contact Robin Kolehmainen at 7-1927 or

Graduate Student Estimating Tables for Proposal Budgets.

Research and Sponsored Programs has updated the graduate student estimating tables for stipend levels and tuition and fee rates. These rates are to be used in proposal budgets to external sponsors. You can find the tables at These rates are effective immediately.