Butterfly Molecule Cleans Nuclear Waste

Wednesday, March 14, 2012 @ 02:03 PM gHale

In a move that could help improve clean-up processes for nuclear waste, a new uranium molecule is in development.

The distinctive butterfly-shaped compound is similar to radioactive molecules scientists proposed to be key components of nuclear waste, but they thought were too unstable to exist for long.

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However, the compound is robust, which implies that molecules with a similar structure may be present in radioactive waste, researchers said.

This suggests the molecule may play a role in forming clusters of radioactive material in waste that are difficult to separate during clean-up, said scientists at the University of Edinburgh, who conducted the study.

Improving treatment processes for nuclear waste, including targeting this type of molecule, could help the nuclear industry move toward cleaner power generation, where scientists can recover all the radioactive materials from spent fuel and make it safe or used again. This would reduce the amount of waste and curb risks to the environment.

The Edinburgh team worked in collaboration with scientists in the U.S. and Canada to verify the structure of the uranium compound. They made the molecule by reacting a common uranium compound with a nitrogen and carbon-based material. Scientists used chemical and mathematical analyses to confirm the structure of the molecule’s distinctive butterfly shape.

“We have made a molecule that, in theory, should not exist, because its bridge-shaped structure suggests it would quickly react with other chemicals,” said Professor Polly Arnold of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry. “This discovery that this particular form of uranium is so stable could help optimize processes to recycle valuable radioactive materials and so help manage the UK’s nuclear legacy.”

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the EaStCHEM partnership and the University of Edinburgh funded the study.