Engineers at Lancaster University have led research that discovered a way to generate renewable biofuel additives, using radiation that could be derived from nuclear waste.

The renewable proportion of petroleum fuels is set to increase to 20 percent over the coming years, meaning the discovery of a new production pathway for such additives/biofuels could help in the fight to cut carbon dioxide emissions and tackle climate change. Engineers propose a process to generate one such additive, solketal, using waste from both biochemical and nuclear industries – new deemed a ‘nuclear biorefinery’.

The research paper entitled ‘Nuclear-driven production of renewable fuel additives from waste organics’, has been published in the science journal Communications Chemistry.

Nuclear-biorefinery process schematic depicting a spent fuel storage pool; an equivalent scenario is also plausible for the case of dry storage. Image Credit: Lancaster University. Click image for the largest view.

Lancaster University PhD researcher Arran Plant said, “This research presents a new advance that utilizes radiation that could, in the future, be derived from nuclear waste to produce renewable biofuel additives from biodiesel waste, which could then be used in modern petroleum fuel blends. With the renewable proportions of petroleum-derived fuels set to increase from 5 per cent to 20 per cent by 2030, fuel additives sourced this way could help address net-zero carbon emission targets.”

Malcolm Joyce, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at Lancaster University, said, “Co-generation with nuclear energy is an important area of current research, for example, using heat alongside the production of electricity. We set out to determine whether radiation might also present a similar possibility, and discovered that it can – in this case yielding a low-carbon fuel additive.”

Dr Vesna Najdanovic, an expert in biofuels from Aston University, and previously at Lancaster University, said, “I am so excited about our work as it reveals a new method for processing wastes from biodiesel industry using spent nuclear energy. This green technology will pave the pathway to use waste as a resource to produce valuable chemicals and biofuels.”

Reliable, low-carbon energy from nuclear or biofuels is integral to many strategies to reduce carbon emissions, however nuclear plants have high upfront costs and the manufacture of biodiesel produces waste glycerol, which has few secondary uses.

Combining technologies to create raw materials from waste glycerol using ionizing radiation could diversify nuclear energy use, and also make a valuable use of biodiesel waste.

Researchers have discovered that leftover energy from spent nuclear fuel can be harnessed to produce a short-lived, radiation-induced catalyst. This catalyst facilitates a reaction that produces both solketal and acetol. This process forgoes the requirement for costly and energy-intensive steps such as pH changes, high temperatures, high pressures or additional catalytic reagents with negligible ongoing radiation-processing costs once fully set up.

Solketal is an emerging fuel additive that increases fuel octane numbers and reduces gum formation, consequently preventing irregular fuel combustion (knocking) and engine efficiency losses while also lowering particulate emissions. Meanwhile, acetol can be used in the production of other useful chemicals such as propylene glycol and furan derivatives, or as a dyeing agent for textile manufacturing.

Considering the scalability of this process to existing nuclear facilities within Europe (i.e. spent fuel pools or contemporary Pressurized Water Reactors), researchers have hypothesized that 104 tonnes per year of solketal could be generated by nuclear co-production. This would equate to significant quantities of usable fuel blend per year.

An increase of 5 percent to 20 percent v/v in the renewable proportion of commercial petroleum blends is forecast by 2030, and it was announced recently that E10 petrol will be adopted as the standard grade in the UK. Nuclear-driven, biomass-derived solketal could contribute in this context towards net-zero emissions targets, combining low-carbon co-generation and co-production.

The research was carried out by Lancaster researchers Arran Plant and Professor Malcolm Joyce, along with Dr Vesna Najdanovic from Aston University, in collaboration with experts from the Jo┼żef Stefan Institute — Reactor Physics Department in Slovenia. It was supported by Lancaster University, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Royal Society.


This is incredibly good news – unless one is terrified by anything ‘nuclear’. But in reality there isn’t anything in this research offering a nuclear reaction, rather the radiation now just going to waste would be doing something quite useful and beneficial. This technology should get its legs and go to work, but we just know that politics are going to get involved and then . . . likely an endless wait to benefit from an immense and valuable resource.


1 Comment so far

  1. Jordan Turner - Beta Analytic on October 1, 2021 1:52 PM

    Very interesting. Great to see progress and new technologies for renewable energy.

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