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Can Clever Chemistry Eliminate Nuclear Waste?

Professor of Chemistry Stephen Cooke receives a $107,000 grant from the U. S. Department of Energy for uranium and thorium research.

What would the energy landscape look like if nuclear waste could be eliminated?

That’s a big question that Professor of Chemistry Stephen Cooke hopes fundamental chemistry research might someday answer. So does the U. S. Department of Energy that’s awarded him a $107,000 three-year research grant.

The Elements of Power Generation

Replacing fossil fuels will take a spectrum of solutions such as solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear power.

Nuclear power remains an extremely viable source of energy, and significant advances in efficiency, safety, and miniaturization have been achieved in recent years. However, its waste products pose serious environmental and health hazards.

The elements uranium and thorium power nuclear plants to produce electricity. Cooke notes how less is known about the fundamental chemistries of these elements as opposed to more common ones such as carbon, iron, or nickel.

By studying uranium and thorium, in particular, by measuring their bonds in simple compounds, the hope is to better understand the role of the highest energy electrons, or f-electrons, in chemical bonding. If the behavior of these electrons can be understood, then it’s possible that further efficiencies might be achieved in the disposal and recycling of nuclear waste in the future.

“At its simplest, clever chemistry might result in nuclear waste no longer being ‘waste.’”

What might the waste become? Cooke’s role is not to speculate. Rarely does the kind of fundamental research he conducts directly connect to new technologies.

“As a tractable example, 100 years ago, no one cared very much about the element silicon, and yet now it’s vital for all digital technologies,” Cooke explains. “That’s due in part to the fundamental research performed on silicon over the years.”

It may be difficult to see what lies ahead, but “The hope here is that our team will gather new information on some novel chemistry of uranium and thorium, which can then be implemented further down the line by engineers and technologists to do something useful.”

The Research

For each of its three years, the grant will fund two seniors to visit Missouri University of Science and Technology, where the experiments will take place, to conduct research for their senior projects.

But there won’t be test tubes and beakers involved. It’s performed under high vacuum in large cylindrical steel chambers, three feet in diameter and six feet long.

“Lasers are used to force reactions between uranium or thorium with other precursor gases to make new, simple chemicals, which are then studied using highly resolved spectroscopy,” he explains. “The spectral signals we collect can be analyzed off-site to provide novel insights into the nature of how uranium or thorium bond with other atoms.”

But aren’t uranium and thorium radioactive and extremely dangerous?

“Yes, and cancer-causing,” says Cooke. “The dust is also pyrophoric (ignites spontaneously in air), and to cap it all off, they are acutely toxic.”

But the amounts being used are tiny and always behind one inch of steel, so the product materials are never handled directly.

Thorium spectrum visible