Manchester University scientists have revealed how arsenic molecules might be used to ‘fish out’ or clean up the most toxic elements from radioactive nuclear waste. This could be a breakthrough that could make the decommissioning industry even safer and more effective. If successful the method may reduce the public relations tension in fission driven nuclear power.

Elizabeth Wildman, a PhD student in the research group led by Professor Steve Liddle based at The University of Manchester, has reported the first examples of thorium with multiple bonds to arsenic to exist under ambient conditions on multi-gram scales where before they had only been prepared on very small scales at temperatures approaching that of intensely cold interstellar space (3-10 Kelvin).

The finding has been published in the leading journal Nature Communications. There is free access at this writing.

Elizabeth Wildman, from Manchester’s School of Chemistry said, “Nuclear power could potentially produce far less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, but the long-lived waste it produces is radioactive and needs to be handled appropriately. In order to find ways of separating, recycling and reducing the volume of nuclear waste, research has focused on developing our understanding of how elements like thorium and uranium interact with elements from around the periodic table to potentially help improve nuclear waste clean-up.”

Professor Liddle, Head of Inorganic Chemistry and Co-Director of the Center for Radiochemistry Research at The University of Manchester, added: “We need to reduce the volume of nuclear waste in order to make it easier to handle and process it to remove benign elements or separate the high level from low level waste.”

This research follows up on previous research published on uranium-phosphorus, uranium-arsenic, and thorium-phosphorus chemistry. This latest study looked at how the soft element arsenic interacts with thorium, because arsenic could in principle be used in organic molecules that bond to metal atoms and improve extraction processes.

“There is currently significant interest in using organic molecules to extract, selectively, metal ions from the ‘soup’ of nuclear waste and fish out the more radioactive and toxic ones and leave the rest behind,” Professor Liddle added. “This requires an understanding of chemical bonding and how the organic extractants bind to different metals. We can then exploit this knowledge to achieve separation by having them selectively bind to one type of metal and remove it from the soup.”

“Arsenic is a soft donor, so we have prepared model complexes with it to understand the nature of the bonding. Until now, complexes exhibiting multiple bonds between thorium and arsenic were limited to spectroscopic experiments carried out at temperatures close to that of interstellar space (3-10 Kelvin) where only a few molecules were made at a time. Here, we have made molecules in multi-gram quantities and they are stable under ambient conditions enabling us to study them more straightforwardly. We might be able to use this new knowledge and understanding in a real system in the future.”

This is excellent news. The pile of nuclear waste is growing. While physically small compared to more conventional energy systems, the nuclear waste is something that has to be attended to for hundreds of centuries as technology utilization stands today. There are technologies maturing to use the waste, but greater understanding and research and development is grievously slow.

If isolating out or concentrating the most dangerous of the fuel components can reduce the size of the waste pile and offer up the useful components for reuse then this is breakthrough news, indeed.


3 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on March 14, 2017 8:14 AM

    Scientifically speaking this might be a big leap forward. But, to the layman adding arsenic to nuclear waste just sounds like you are making a more toxic cocktail.

  2. Brian Westenhaus on March 14, 2017 10:13 AM

    One can hope very few realize arsenic itself can be toxic. 😉

  3. Peter on March 17, 2017 4:50 AM

    Alternatively, the thermionic energy convertor (TEC) can convert heat to electricity more efficiently without the need for big, expensive equipment through the phenomenon of thermionic emission. TECs were first developed in the 1950s for use in space programs, but scientists had not managed to make TECs efficient enough to apply to industrial electricity production. Now, with modern materials and approaches, it is possible to improve their efficiency significantly.

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