June 4 (UPI) -- Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a faster way to purify elements. The breakthrough could help researchers discover new elements, reprocess nuclear fuel more efficiently and isolate actinium-225, an isotope with promise as a cancer treatment.
The involved chemists described their new process this week in the Nature Communications.
"Our proposed process appears to be much more efficient than existing processes, involves fewer steps, and can be done in aqueous environments, and therefore does not require harsh chemicals," Rebecca Abergel, head of Berkeley Lab's Heavy Element Chemistry group, said in a news release. "I think this is really important and will be useful for many applications."
Abergel and her colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are particularly interested in the isolation of heavy elements -- elements at the bottom of the periodic table that can be used for medical treatments, space exploration and nuclear energy production.
An element's separation factor describes how easily it can be separated from mixture.
"The higher the separation factor, the fewer contaminants there are," Abergel said. "Usually when you purify an element you'll go through the cycle many times to reduce contaminants."
The less an element needs to be purified, the faster and more cost-effective the isolation process is. For the researchers' new separation technique, Abergel and her colleagues experimented with actinium-225, an isotope that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy cells unharmed in targeted therapies.
Researchers at LBNL have been developing improved production processes for actinium-225.
"With any production process, you need to purify the final isotope," Abergel said. "Our method could be used right after production, before distribution."
In lab tests, scientists deployed synthetic ligands, small molecules that bind metal atoms. Specific ligands can be used to target positive metal ions, which pull contaminants away from the element.
Scientists hope to use their new method to isolate different types of therapeutic isotopes.
"Based on what we've seen, this new method can really be generalized, as long as we have different charges on the metals we want to separate," Abergel said. "Having a good purification process available could make everything easier in terms of post-production processing and availability."