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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Scientists Make a Big Breakthrough in Nuclear Research

Dr. Stephen Liddle in the School of Chemistry at The University of Nottingham leads a team that seems to be first to create a stable version of a uranium ‘trophy molecule’, a compound that has eluded scientists for decades.

The research paper has been published in the journal Science.  The Nottingham chemistry team has shown that they can prepare a terminal (completed molecules, if you will allow the simplification) uranium nitride compound that is stable at room temperature and can be stored in jars in crystallized or powder form.

The previous attempts to prepare uranium-nitrogen triple bonds have required temperatures as low as 5 Kelvin (-268 °C or –450 °F) – that’s about the temperature of interstellar space, which is difficult to achieve, work with and manipulate, requiring specialized equipment and techniques.

This breakthrough should have important implications for the nuclear energy industry’s future – uranium nitride materials potentially could offer a viable alternative to the current mixed oxide nuclear fuels used in reactors.  Nitride compounds exhibit superior high densities, melting points, and thermal conductivities and the process the Nottingham scientists used to make the compound could offer a cleaner, low temperature fuel production process than methods used currently.

Usually uranium nitrides are prepared by mixing dinitrogen or ammonia with uranium under high temperatures and pressures. But the harsh reaction conditions used in the preparation introduce impurities into the compound that are difficult to remove.  That has encouraged scientists in to focus their attention on using low temperature, molecular methods.  Until now all previous attempts resulted in bridging, rather than the target terminal, nitrides.

The Nottingham team’s method, much of the practical work completed by PhD student David King, involved using a very ‘bulky’ nitrogen ligand (an organic molecule bonded to a metal) to wrap around the uranium centre and to create a protective pocket in which the nitride nitrogen can sit. The nitride was stabilized during the synthesis by the presence of a weakly bound sodium cation (positively charged ion), which blocked the nitride from reacting with any other elements. In the final stage, the sodium was gently teased away, removing it from the structure and leaving the final, stable uranium nitride triple bond.

Dr. Liddle simplifies the explanation, “The beauty of this work is its simplicity — by encapsulating the uranium nitride with a very bulky supporting ligand, stabilising the nitride during synthesis with sodium, and then sequestering the sodium under mild conditions we were able to at long last isolate the terminal uranium nitride linkage.”

Liddle adds another important feature that should help encourage the adoption of the process, “A major motivation for doing this work was to help us to understand the nature and extent of the covalency in the chemical bonding of uranium. This is fundamentally interesting and important because it could help in work to extract and separate the 2 to 3 per cent of the highly radioactive material in nuclear waste.”

The new uranium-nitride compound contains an unpaired electron that was found using EPR spectroscopy showing that it behaves differently from similar compounds prepared at Nottingham.
Professor Eric McInnes, from The University of Manchester explores the impact the new look into the molecule with, “EPR spectroscopy can give detailed information about the local environment of unpaired electrons, and this can be used to understand the electronic structure of the uranium ion in this new nitride. It turns out that the new nitride behaves differently from some otherwise analogous materials, and this might have important implications in actinide chemistry which is of vital technological and environmental importance in the nuclear fuel cycle.”

On the down side a new fuel production process would entail years of regulatory review.  Still . . .
High densities offer a smaller more energy dense fuel that could offer both full size reactors and the coming small and perhaps now even miniature reactors a physical downsize.  Higher melting points offer greater safety putting the popularly fearsome “meltdown” further out of possibility.  Higher thermal conductivities permit engineering with faster thermal movement, an advantage in operation and in safety because a smaller more rapidly cooling fuel assembly would cut the time an extensive effort would be needed to handle a reactor in distress.

Further research could very well have a major impact on the dangers of used fuels.  If Liddle is right and the research works out for extracting the 2-3% of the most radioactive actinides it’s going to be very useful – as both the radioactive materials can be reprocessed and the useable uranium recycled – more energy from less uranium – a good thing.

Yet if the Nottingham discovery is commercial the state of the regulated and approved engineering is going to be challenged offering the U.S. and other hysteria based regulatory authorities a chance to stall and delay progress.

Decades have passed waiting for this news.  It’s reasonable to expect that years more will go by until the industry, consumers and environmentalists get the benefits.

It would be wise for citizens and consumers to swift kick the regulators.  The Brits deserve a big congrats and thanks for a major improvement that’s been decades in the search.


Let’s not let the opportunity to put this news to work pass us by.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Source: A Big Nuclear Breakthrough

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  • Victor on September 03 2012 said:
    The idea that nuclear fuel is limited is true in the absolute sense, but not relevant for human use. The same is true for fossil fuels. There is plenty of both but there is a confusion about the difference between proven reserves and probable reserves, as well as a confusion about costs, which is related.There are only small proven reserves of nuclear fuel because there is a market glut. Stockpiles amassed in past decades in anticipation of a boom that didn't happen depress the price and eliminate incentive for exploration. Those who are aware of this issue and how it affects discovery prefer to speak of probable reserves and guess a ten fold increase, though that is only a guess, it may be a hundred or thousand fold increase. More importantly the world is awash in nuclear fuel in low concentrations. The seas brim with U235 but the cost to extract it from seawater is above current market price.Newer designs for reactors require less fuel because they burn it more completely, exhausting all fissionable material. And we have always had the technology to produce U235 from the much more abundant U238 using breeder reactors.The notion of litmeid nuclear fuel isn't valid, anymore than the notion of litmeid fossil fuels is valid. Both arguments are bait and switch obfuscation that conceal relevant facts.Plutonium in the hands of crazies is not a nuclear power issue, it's a crazies issue. It's the same for biotechnology and nanotechnology. There is absolutely no way that any nation or collection of nations can control either the amount or distribution of Pu in the world. China alone proves that point but there are several other players, and if there weren't that would merely be incentive for others to enter the market. It's worrisome, but it is a fantasy to think that we can make any difference by inhibiting ourselves. This is a head-in-the-sand approach.It isn't that there are any sure answers to crazies that we could implement if we only had the will. It is that there are no answers, no way to eliminate risks. Like gunpowder, there is simply no way to stifle the spread of this technology so we must focus on managing it, engage with the issue rather than seeking to hide from it.

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