A Sussex University study has shown how unused stockpiles of nuclear waste can be transformed into something useful.
According to the scientists led by Professors Geoff Cloke, Richard Layfield and Dr Nikolaos Tsoureas, the waste product of nuclear power can 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 armour-piercing missiles.
Sussex scientists have now managed to convert ethylene (an alkene used to make plastic) into ethane (an alkane used to produce a number of other compounds including ethanol) by using a catalyst which contains depleted uranium.
This breakthrough could help reduce the heavy burden of large-scale storage of DU, and lead to the transformation of more complicated alkenes.
“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,” notes Layfield.
“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.
“Nobody has thought to use DU in this way before,” contends Cloke.
“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.”
Image and content: Getty Images via Forbes/University of Sussex