Chemists Have Found a Productive Use for Stockpiles of Nuclear Waste

Nuclear Waste

Chemists have found a new use for the waste product of nuclear power — transforming an unused stockpile into a versatile compound which could be used to create valuable commodity chemicals as well as new energy sources.

Depleted uranium (DU) is a radioactive by-product from the process used to create nuclear energy. With many fearing the health risks from DU, it is either stored in expensive facilities or used to manufacture controversial armor-piercing missiles.

But, in a paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Professor Geoff Cloke, Professor Richard Layfield, and Dr. Nikolaos Tsoureas, all at the University of Sussex, have revealed that DU could, in fact, be more useful than we might think.

By using a catalyst which contains depleted uranium, the researchers have managed to convert ethylene (an alkene used to make plastic) into ethane (an alkane used to produce a number of other compounds including ethanol).

Their work is a breakthrough that could help reduce the heavy burden of large-scale storage of DU, and lead to the transformation 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 catalyze 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.”

Reference: “Ethene Activation and Catalytic Hydrogenation by a Low-Valent Uranium Pentalene Complex” by Nikolaos Tsoureas, Laurent Maron, Alexander F. R. Kilpatrick, Richard A. Layfield and F. Geoffrey N. Cloke, 19 December 2019, Journal of the American Chemical Society.
DOI: 10.1021/jacs.9b11929

14 Comments on "Chemists Have Found a Productive Use for Stockpiles of Nuclear Waste"

  1. Interesting but use of DU as a catalyst is unlikely to provide a meaningful alternative to long term storage.

  2. DU isn’t particularly radioactive, and isn’t radioactive waste. It’s uranium with the U235 removed (less than 1%), it is a nasty heavy metal byproduct of the nuclear industry.

  3. Turning it into a hydrogenated oil or petrochemical for fuel doesn’t make it any safer for our environment. It just becomes like another hydrocarbon that will essentially end up adding CO2 to our atmosphere. Hypothetically, It would have made more sense to take some of the wasted trillions on the US military budget and launch that nuke trash into the sun.

  4. DU is the nonradioactive leftover from U isotope separation.

  5. > launch that nuke trash into the sun

    A few problems with that.

    An accident in launch means spraying nuclear waste over a wide stretch of territory, epic level dirty bomb.

    It would, given sufficient quantities, make our sun heavier, impede hydrogen fusion, and cause a deleterious hastening of the red giant phase.

    Better to deal with such waste here on Earth, to be honest. Exporting the problem is not a solution.

  6. Okay. So we have a use for the non radioactive heavy metals. We are also investigating how to use the radioactive waste too. Regardless nuclear power still scares the pants off of your average citizen. Solve the psychological issue and we might finally dump coal for good.

  7. Look at all these smart people in the comments. Climate change has happened since day one of this planet and will continue to happen. It is a hoax to take your wealth and force you to live in boxes with millions others sid by side to keep you controlled.

  8. No, let’s not try launching waste into space on a rocket that might not make it and instead, spread the waste around the globe .

  9. The problem is not with DU it is with the radioactive waste itself. Solve it here on earth not the sun. Even if we manage to get off to the sun without accident we still don’t know how our son will react with sufficiently large quantity of the waste. That said climate change is no new phenomenon. It has always taken place as soon as the universe was born and will continue to do so. I don’t think it’s happening any faster than before but rather we now have the technology to know more about climate change than it was possible to thousands of years before. Our contribution to climate change is not more than the years where everything needed coal or petroleum

    • *sun.

      And yes, climats have always been changing, but, “Our contribution to climate change is not more than the years where everything needed coal or petroleum.”

      In 1960 there were about 3 billion people on earth. Today there are 7+ billion. Our contribution to climate change is very real, and significantly more than 60 years ago. Are you mad?

  10. “Our contribution to climate change is not more than the years where everything needed coal or petroleum”

    In 1960 there were about 3 billion people on earth. Today there are 7+ billion. Our contribution to climate change is very real, and significantly more than 60 years ago.

    Climate change deniers are either corporate/government shills or plainly refuse to look at obvious evidence.

  11. Love the idea of using the sun as a dump but assuming we wouldn’t harm the sun😂 How many tons of waste exist and what’s the payload of each launch, the cost of one use rockets, I’m guessing it’s way more than those “wasted military $”. Still choking from the harming sun bit, not sure how close our dump truck can get to the sun before vaporizing! The point that not all launches have been successful is the logical deal breaker. So back on earth looks like humans gonna have to try and figure it out, as always! We aren’t any smarter then our pred but we have more scientific knowledge. I recall “the population bomb” 50 yrs ago saying we would soon be toast, instead population more than doubled and there’s more prosperity and less hunger than ever. No everything isn’t perfect but never will be,just like us. It’s not the end of the world and the world won’t end us but we can end each other if we buy into hysterical fear.
    Sooner then later scientific innovation will make more efficient renewables that replace the behemoth wind and solar farms that aren’t as clean as touted, but everything is relative. If something can be done to replace systems with cleaner and cheaper systems then great, but if pulling the plug on present methods without having a totally viable alternative is going to hurt all people in so many ways.

  12. The best idea stated, was to convert the DU into crystals for reuse of Nuclear Fuel, and use that for rocket fuel for the new SpaceForce rockets.

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