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Study highlights new use for nuclear waste

13 January 2020

Researchers have found a new use for unused stockpiles of nuclear waste which they say may be more useful than previously thought. By transforming nuclear waste into a versatile compound, the chemistry researchers say the waste could be used as a new energy source as well as a way to create valuable commodity chemicals.

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

In the paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society on December 19, three University of Sussex researchers explain how depleted uranium (DU), a radioactive by-product of nuclear power, could be a useful resource. By using a catalyst which contains DU, Professor Geoff Cloke, Professor Richard Layfield and Dr Nikolaos Tsoureas were able to convert ethylene (an alkene used to make plastic) into ethane (an alkane used to produce a number of other compounds including ethanol).

DU is stored in expensive facilities or used to manufacture missiles, but this new research could help reduce the burden of DU’s large-scale storage while also leading to the development of more complicated alkenes.

Prof. Layfield said: “The ability to convert alkenes into alkanes is an important chemical reaction that means we may be able to take simple molecules and upgrade them into valuable commodity chemicals, like hydrogenated oils and petrochemicals which can be used as an energy source.

“The fact that we can use depleted uranium to do this provides proof that we don’t need to be afraid of it as it might actually be very useful for us.”

Working in collaboration with researchers at Université de Toulouse and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the Sussex team discovered that an organometallic molecule based on depleted uranium could catalyse the addition of a molecule of hydrogen to the carbon-carbon double bond in ethylene – the simplest member of alkene family – to create ethane.

Prof. Cloke said: “Nobody has thought to use DU in this way before. While converting ethylene into ethane is nothing new, the use or uranium is a key milestone. The key to the reactivity were two fused pentagonal rings of carbon, known as pentalene, which help the uranium to inject electrons into ethylene and activate it towards addition of hydrogen.”

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