Chemists Have Found a Productive Use for Stockpiles of 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.”

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