Nanoparticles clean up

US researchers at the University of Idaho plan to use highly magnetic nanoparticles to help clean up spent nuclear fuel.

US researchers plan to use highly magnetic nanoparticles to help clean up spent nuclear fuel.

In a one-year project funded by $732,000 from the US Department of Energy, they plan to show that when the magnetic nanoparticles (MNPs) are joined with binding chemicals called chelators, they can be used to extract radioactive nuclides, such as uranium and plutonium, from spent nuclear fuel.

Leading the interdisciplinary research team at the University of Idaho are principle investigators You Qiang, associate professor of physics, and Andrzej Paszczynski, associate professor of microbiology, molecular biology and biochemistry. The pair will work in collaboration with Linfeng Rao, a nuclear chemist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

If successful, the researchers will kill three birds with one stone by recovering usable nuclear fuel, making nuclear waste easier and safer to dispose of, and accomplishing the task in an environmentally friendly way.

In the process the researchers are investigating, magnetic nanoparticles are coated with an organic molecule called alkyl-oxa-diamide. This allows them to attach themselves to radioactive actinides from the nuclear waste. Once that is complete, the bonds are broken, separating the actinides from the nanoparticles, both of which can be reused.

‘The MNPs are not toxic and can even be reused many times. The process does not produce any secondary waste,’ said Qiang.

The new technology is superior to current nuclear separation technologies in many ways. Some current techniques result in impurities in the final product while others generate significant amounts of hazardous secondary waste.