Separating isotopes via surface diffraction | October 30, 2017 Issue - Vol. 95 Issue 43 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 95 Issue 43 | pp. 6-7 | Concentrates
Issue Date: October 30, 2017

Separating isotopes via surface diffraction

Molecular beam scattering method offers simple route to isotope enrichment
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Analytical SCENE
Keywords: Separations, isotope, enrichment
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As a beam of neon isotopes (red and blue) strikes a silicon crystal (green), surface diffraction causes a portion of the beam to separate into isotopically enriched streams.
Credit: APS/Alan Stonebraker
This image depicts a surface diffraction process that separates isotopes in a molecular beam.
 
As a beam of neon isotopes (red and blue) strikes a silicon crystal (green), surface diffraction causes a portion of the beam to separate into isotopically enriched streams.
Credit: APS/Alan Stonebraker

Isotope separation methods are key to numerous scientific and industrial processes. Nuclear power plants and weapons, for example, require fuels enriched in a select isotope. And isotopically pure or enriched samples are used in scientific research and medical procedures. Isotopes can be separated via fractional distillation, gaseous diffusion, and centrifugation. The process can also be driven by chemical, magnetic, and electrostatic methods. But these techniques are often energy intensive and require many sequential separation steps. Kevin J. Nihill, Jacob D. Graham, and Steven J. Sibener of the University of Chicago have come up with a potentially simpler method based on surface diffraction. The team reports that when a beam of neon strikes a methyl-capped silicon crystal, a portion of the beam diffracts, scattering 20Ne and 22Ne isotopes into beams that emerge at slightly different angles (Phys. Rev. Lett. 2017, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.119.176001). A single pass causes 22Ne, the less abundant isotope, to be enriched by a factor of 3.5. A higher degree of separation can be achieved by using additional diffraction steps or by exploiting mass-based differences in the isotopes’ velocities, the team suggests.

 
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