Clarice Phelps

African American nuclear chemist

Clarice E. Phelps (originally Salone) is an American scientist who works at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She was a member of the team that discovered element 117, tennessine. She is the first African-American woman to be involved with the discovery of an element.[1][better source needed] At Oak Ridge, Phelps serves as the program manager responsible for isotopes with industry uses. She also studies the treatment of radioactive "super heavy" elements like plutonium-238 and researches medical use isotopes.

Clarice E. Phelps
Clarice Phelps.jpg
At Oak Ridge in 2018
Clarice E. Salone
EducationTennessee State University (BS, 2003)
Scientific career
Fieldstransuranic elements
nuclear chemistry
nuclear engineering
nuclear power
nuclear reactors
InstitutionsOak Ridge National Laboratory

Early life and educationEdit

Phelps was part of the Tennessee Aquatic Project and Development Group (TAP), which is a nonprofit organization for youth.[2] Phelps earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Tennessee State University in 2003.[3][4]

U.S. NavyEdit

At the U.S. Navy, she worked in areas like nuclear power, reactor theory, and thermodynamics.[5] In the Navy, she lived and worked on board an aircraft carrier (a large military ship that carries airplanes) called the USS Ronald Reagan.[4] She helped maintain the two nuclear reactors on the ship.[5]

Oak Ridge National LaboratoryEdit

In 2009, Phelps joined the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They use Oak Ridge's nuclear reactors to learn about different kinds of isotopes and how they work.[5][6]

Work on tennessineEdit

At Oak Ridge, Phelps was part of the team that helped discover a new element, number 117, called tennessine.[7][8] Phelps is the first African-American woman to help discover an element.[9][10]

Element 117 is called tennessine. It is the second-heaviest element that has been discovered. Several laboratories worked together to discover tennessine. They discovered tennessine by creating it in a nuclear reactor. Scientists created tennessine by shooting calcium isotopes at berkelium isotopes. The two isotopes joined together–called nuclear fusion–and created a new element, tennessine.[11][12]

Work on berkeliumEdit

Berkelium is one of the most dangerous and radioactive elements.[11] Oak Ridge was the only place in the world where berkelium could be made for the experiment (test).[11] After the berkelium was made, it had to be purified (cleaned) to make it ready for the experiment. Berkelium has a half-life of only 310 days. This means that after 310 days, half of the berkelium will disappear because of radioactive decay. Oak Ridge could only make a small amount of berkelium (less than 30 milligrams). They had to work fast to purify it before it was lost because of radioactive decay.[8][9]

Phelps and two of her co-workers worked for three months to purify the berkelium.[13][9] They did it and only lost less than one milligram of berkelium.[9] Phelps called the purification a tedious process that involved many steps.[8] After they were done, they sent the very pure berkelium to another laboratory in Dubna, Russia, called the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR). There, scientists fused the berkelium with calcium to create tennessine.[12] They named the new element "tennessine" after Tennessee, the US state where Oak Ridge resides.[14][15]

In 2013, Phelps became the manager of Oak Ridge's programs that make the isotopes nickel-63 and selenium-75.[5][6][7] She has also studied isotopes of plutonium[16] and neptunium, which are used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to power spaceships.[6][13][17] Phelps also studies isotopes that are used for medical research and treatments, like actinium, lanthanum, europium, and samarium.[5][6] Phelps has studied electrodeposition with californium-252 for the Californium Rare Isotope Breeder Upgrade project (CARIBU).[6] Oak Ridge makes most of the world's californium, which is used in cancer treatments.[17]

Awards and recognitionEdit

In 2017, Phelps won the YWCA Knoxville Tribute to Women Technology, Research, and Innovation Award. This award recognizes "local women who lead their fields in technology and excel in community service".[7][18][19] Phelps is a member of the American Chemical Society.[6] Phelps helped start a program to teach robotics, drones, circuitry, and coding to inner city high school students in Knoxville, TN.[5][7] In 2019, Phelps was featured in the IUPAC Periodic Table of Younger Chemists "for her outstanding commitment to research and public engagement, as well as being an important advocate for diversity."[20][21]

Wikipedia controversyEdit

Phelps' contribution to the discovery of Element 117 was the subject of controversy after her article was twice deleted after discussion from the English Wikipedia.[22][23][24]



  1. "Periodic Table of Younger Chemists". International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. 2019. She is the first African-American women [sic] to be involved with the discovery of an element, tennessine (Element 117).
  2. "Tennessee Aquatic Project and Development Group" (PDF). Tennessee Aquatic Project and Development Group. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-02-01. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
  3. "Spring Commencement Exercise of the Ninety-First Year" (PDF). Tennessee State University. 2003-05-10. p. 22. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2018-09-08. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Board of Directors". YO-STEM. Archived from the original on 2019-04-04. Retrieved 2019-04-28.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Simoneau, Sean (2018-12-17). "Clarice Phelps: Dedicated service to science and community". Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Archived from the original on 2019-02-05. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 "Clarice E Phelps". Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Archived from the original on 2018-09-01. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Ellis, Jason (2017-09-19). "Phelps wins YWCA Tribute to Women". Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Archived from the original on 2018-09-01. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Jansen, Kerri (2019-04-24). "Podcast: Scientists share what it takes to make a superheavy element". Chemical & Engineering News. 97 (17). Archived from the original on 2019-04-26. Retrieved 2019-04-29.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Jarvis, Claire L. (2019-04-25). "What a Deleted Profile Tells Us About Wikipedia's Diversity Problem". Undark Magazine. Archived from the original on 2019-04-28. Retrieved 2019-04-29.
  10. Zaringhalam, Maryam; Wade, Jess (2019-04-12). "It matters who we champion in science". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2019-04-16. Retrieved 2019-04-29.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Chapman, Kit (2016-11-30). "What it takes to make a new element". Chemistry World. Archived from the original on 2019-04-13. Retrieved 2019-04-29.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Oganessian, Yu. Ts.; Abdullin, F. Sh.; Bailey, P. D.; Benker, D. E.; et al. (2010-04-09). "Synthesis of a New Element with Atomic Number Z=117". Physical Review Letters. 104 (14): 142502. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.104.142502. Retrieved 2019-02-06. (PDF Archived 2016-12-19 at the Wayback Machine)
  13. 13.0 13.1 ORNL Creative Mediaundefined (Director) (2018-03-13). REDC final approval. Event occurs at 392 seconds. Retrieved 2019-04-29.
  14. Fedorova, Vera. "At the inauguration ceremony of the new elements of the Periodic table of D.I. Mendeleev". Joint Institute for Nuclear Research. Archived from the original on 2018-09-07. Retrieved 2019-04-29. This fact of collaboration is important in history because the third element – tennessine, element 117 was named in honour of the state, where the famous Oak Ridge National Laboratory is situated.
  15. Roberto, Jim (2016-07-21). "The Discovery of Element 117". Retrieved on 6 February 2019.
  16. (2017-10-01) "Status Summary of Chemical Processing Development in Plutonium-238 Supply Program". Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Retrieved on 2019-02-06. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Parks, Cecil (2018). "Innovation Through Nuclear Science and Technology" (PDF). Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2018-06-12. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
  18. "YWCA Tribute to Women finalists and special award winners". Knoxville News Sentinel/USA Today. 2017-06-30. Archived from the original on 2018-09-08. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
  19. "YWCA spotlights Karen Weekly at annual Tribute to Women". University of Tennessee Athletics. 2017-09-15. Archived from the original on 2018-09-01. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
  20. "10 more younger chemists added on the IUPAC100 Periodic Table". IUPAC. June 3, 2019. Retrieved June 4, 2019.
  21. "Two ORNL researchers featured on 'Periodic Table of Younger Chemists'". The Oak Ridger. 29 July 2019. Retrieved 30 January 2020.
  22. Jarvis, Claire (April 26, 2019). "What a Deleted Profile Tells Us About Wikipedia's Diversity Problem". The Wire. Retrieved April 29, 2019.
  23. "Wikipedia doesn't think this Black female scientist is notable enough for a page". The Daily Dot. 2019-04-29. Retrieved 2019-04-30.
  24. Jarvis, Claire (25 April 2019). "A deleted Wikipedia page speaks volumes about its biggest problem". Fast Company. Retrieved 2019-05-02.
  25. Torrico, M. N.; Boll, R. A.; Matos, M. (2015-08-01). "Electrodeposition of actinide compounds from an aqueous ammonium acetate matrix: Experimental development and optimization". Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section A: Accelerators, Spectrometers, Detectors and Associated Equipment. 790: 64–69. doi:10.1016/j.nima.2015.03.056. ISSN 0168-9002. Archived from the original on 2019-04-26. Retrieved 2019-02-06. This work was performed at the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center (REDC) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) under the supervision of the Nuclear Materials Processing Group (NMPG), which is part of the Nuclear Security and Isotopes Technology Division (NSITD) ... thanks to Sandra Davern for radiographic imaging and to Clarice Phelps and Donny McInturff of REDC for materials and chemical support.

Other websitesEdit