Manchester student makes thorium breakthrough

A PhD student from the University of Manchester has made a discovery about the chemical nature of thorium that could have applications for nuclear fuel management.

(Credit: University of Manchester)
(Credit: University of Manchester)

Elizabeth Wildman, a member of a Manchester research group led by Prof Steve Liddle, found compounds where unusual forms of phosphorus – known as the devil’s element – are stabilised by thorium, a radioactive chemical element named after the Norse god of thunder that can be used as a nuclear fuel.

“This has been an exciting experience and I am delighted my work has been recognised in this way,” said Elizabeth. “It seems the Norse god of thunder has tamed the devil’s element.”

The research examined how ‘soft’ elements such as phosphorus can interact with thorium in unusual bonding environments. It examined species with single and double thorium-phosphorus bonds, and managed to trap a naked phosphorous atom between two thorium ions. The work was published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Nuclear power could provide energy security for the UK and produce far less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, but the waste it produces is potentially very dangerous if not handled properly” said Liddle, who is co-director of the Centre for Radiochemistry Research at the University of Manchester.

“In order to find ways of reducing the volume of nuclear waste and recycle unspent fuel, research has focused on developing our understanding of how radioactive actinide elements interact with elements from around the periodic table that they could come into contact with in the fuel cycle.”

“We have a long way to go before we have a fully developed framework of understanding of the bonding of these elements, but the surprising findings of this study contribute to building that understanding.”