Softly does it to solve our nuclear waste problem

16 Jun 2015 11:18:24.877
PA 89/15

Nuclear power could produce far less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, but the waste it produces is potentially some of the most dangerous in the world. Driven by the need to find ways of separating, recycling and reducing nuclear waste, chemists at The University of Nottingham are developing our understanding of how uranium interacts with elements from around the periodic table to potentially help improve the selective extraction of spent uranium in nuclear waste clean-up.

Stephen Liddle, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Royal Society University Research Fellow and one of the stars of the Periodic Table of Videos, said: “We need to reduce the volume of nuclear waste to make it easier to handle, and process it to remove benign elements or separate the high level waste from low level waste. This latest study looked at how soft elements such as arsenic interact with uranium — arsenic could in principle be used in organic molecules that bond to metal atoms and improve extraction processes.”

The research, which was carried out by an interdisciplinary team in the School of Chemistry and The Universities of Manchester and Regensburg, has been published in Nature Chemistry

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Professor Liddle said: “There is currently a lot of interest in using organic molecules to extract, selectively, metal ions from the ‘soup’ of nuclear waste and fish out the ‘bad’ ones and leave the rest behind. This requires an understanding of chemical bonding and how the organic extractants bind to different metals. We can then exploit this knowledge to achieve separation by having them selectively bind to one type of metal and remove it from the soup.

Evidence is mounting

There is mounting evidence that the molecules that are best at this contain soft donor atoms to the metals, so we need to understand soft donor-to-metal binding better. Arsenic is a soft donor. So, using Arsenic, which occurs naturally in many minerals, we have created model complexes to understand the nature of the bonding. We might be able to use this new knowledge and understanding in a real system in the future.”

Professor Liddle’s work has already been highlighted in the scientific media such as Science, Nature family, Chemistry World, Chemical and Engineering News and Chemistry in Australia. Professor Liddle also appears frequently on the School of Chemistry’s Periodic Table of Videos

Outstanding research has gone from strength to strength

Professor Liddle’s research in this field dates back to November 2009 when he was recognised for his outstanding and creative early career research with a £890,000 Starting Independent Research Grant (StG) by the newly established European Research Council (ERC) to study speculative and ground-breaking research into molecular depleted uranium chemistry uranium.

In January 2014 he was awarded The Consolidator Grant (CoG) from the European Research Council (ERC) £2m to develop his research at the frontier of fundamental molecular uranium chemistry.

His group’s search for cleaner, low temperature nuclear fuels led to their ‘trophy molecule’ breakthrough published in Science in June 2012. And another surprise came in May 2013 when they identified the previously unknown bonding properties within the molecule. The research was published inNature Chemistry in May 2013.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain’ (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Research Project of the Year’ at the THE Awards 2014. It is ranked in the world’s top one per cent of universities by the QS World University Rankings, and 8th in the UK by research power according to REF 2014.

The University of Nottingham in Malaysia (UNMC) is holding events throughout 2015 to celebrate 15 years as a pioneer of transnational education. Based in Semenyih, UNMC was established as the UK's first overseas campus in Malaysia and one of the first world-wide.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Stephen Liddle in the School of Chemistry at The University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 846 7167,
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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