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Robust ligands could help recycle nuclear waste

Nitrogen-based ligands bind selectively to actinides and separate them for potential reuse in nuclear fuel

by XiaoZhi Lim, special to C&EN
July 4, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 27

To read the original, longer version of this story, please click here.
Researchers designed ligands that bind to actinides and separate them from nuclear waste under harsh industrial conditions.
Structure of ligands designed to separate actinides from lanthanides.
Researchers designed ligands that bind to actinides and separate them from nuclear waste under harsh industrial conditions.

Recovering and recycling actinides, such as plutonium, in spent nuclear fuel could potentially reduce nuclear waste and render it nonradioactive. Now researchers report a robust class of ligands that could aid in that recovery process: The ligands bind to actinides and efficiently separate them from other nuclear fission by-products, even under harshly acidic and radioactive conditions (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2016, DOI: 10.1021/jacs.6b03106). Alessandro Casnati of the University of Parma, Elena Macerata of the Polytechnic University of Milan, and colleagues designed a series of nitrogen-based ligands with an aromatic backbone that show selectivity for actinides over lanthanides, other periodic elements that are produced during fission and contaminate the fuel. The researchers tested the ligands’ binding ability on an organic solution of actinides and lanthanides extracted from samples of nuclear waste. They shook the extract with an aqueous solution of each ligand and allowed the mixture to separate into organic and aqueous layers. After five minutes, the aqueous layer contained almost 95% of the radioactive actinides, bound to the ligands. The ligands maintained their separation performance even while being bombarded with up to 200 kilograys of radiation, which is about 2,000 times the normal amount emitted by spent fuel.


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