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Plutonium research to aid nuclear cleanup techniques

"What makes this discovery so interesting is that the material -- rather than being really complicated and really exotic -- is really, really simple," said chemist Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt.

By
Brooks Hays

May 8 (UPI) -- Researchers at Florida State University have discovered a plutonium-organic hybrid compound that doesn't behave as expected. The compound behaves as if it composed of lighter elements such as iron or nickel.

The discovery -- detailed in the journal Nature Chemistry -- could yield new technologies and methods for cleaning up nuclear waste.

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"What makes this discovery so interesting is that the material -- rather than being really complicated and really exotic -- is really, really simple," Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt, a professor of chemistry at Florida State University, said in a news release. "Your imagination goes wild, and you think, 'Wow, I could make that class of compound with many other types of heavy elements. I could use other heavy elements like uranium or maybe even berkelium.'"

While observing plutonium atoms from their new compound under a microscope, researchers saw electrons pinging back an forth between a pair of positively charged plutonium ions -- a phenomenon typically only seen among the atoms of lighter elements.

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The vibrating electrons alerted scientists to the possibility that they had created something unusual.

"Plutonium makes wild, vibrant colors," Albrecht-Schmitt said. "It can be purple, it can be these beautiful pinks. It can be this super dark black-blue. This compound was brown, like a beautiful brown chocolate bar. When we saw that color, we knew something was electronically unusual about it."

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For Albrecht-Schmitt and his colleagues at Florida State, the goal is to develop better, safer and cheaper ways to clean up nuclear waste. In order to so, researchers need to better understand how plutonium behaves chemically and electronically.

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Thanks to the latest findings, scientists now have a better understanding of plutonium's electronic peculiarities.

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