Scientists discover new material for isolating specific elements from nuclear waste

14 June 2016

A group of scientists from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), in Switzerland, might have discovered a new material capable of isolating specific elements from nuclear waste in a simpler way than the existing methods. After trying out 125,000 options, they had finally found a solid candidate which they called SBMOF-1.

According to the researchers, it could successfully separate specific molecules from nuclear waste at room temperature which would make the process very cheap and safe. The study had been published in the Journal Nature Communications.

The research team said, SBMOF-1 could act as a sponge. The material which is incredibly tiny, can contain individual molecules and thus separate them from a whole group. The EPFL team said in the paper that it had managed to absorb and isolate nuclear waste gases such as Xenon and Krypton. However, according to commentators, the most extraordinary claim was that the process could be carried out at room temperature.

The material can be ''programmed'' for specific molecules and then, to form crystal formations similar to how coral reefs worked, which made it perfect as a storage method.

When the first nuclear reactor to produce plutonium was set up in 1940s, during World War II, scientists managed to develop a reprocessing method to extract the resulting plutonium from natural uranium fuel after a fission. The method was called the bismuth phosphate process which was designed and tested by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The process though was unstable and inefficient but the times made it necessary.

After the end of the war in 1949, the ORNL created a new process to extract uranium and plutonium by reprocessing already spent nuclear fuel. The process was named PUREX, which is a liquid-to-liquid extraction method.

The process is also called solvent extraction and the main idea was to mix the processed fuel with a variety of solutions which worked by surrounding individual particles, like uranium and plutonium, isolating them from the rest of the ''mixture'', allowing the scientists to extract them.

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