Chemical process could offer alternative to plutonium storage

Scientists have developed a method of reacting highly unstable elements, such as plutonium and uranium with more stable substances in order to create compounds that are environmentally friendly and harder to use in weapons.


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A team of scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US have improved upon a method of combining plutonium with boron, which creates a very stable and insoluble compound, not easily converted back to pure plutonium. Until now this has only been possible though a long process involving physical grinding together of the elements, and heating to temperatures of 3000°C. The new procedure, however, involves a more complex chemical reaction between plutonium halides and magnesium-diboride at a temperature of 400-800°C, producing plutonium boride and magnesium chloride, the latter being easily washed away at the end of the process.

“We’re using reactive compounds to overcome the problems of working these very complex reactions that involve double-decomposition, or the double-breakdown of compounds into simpler compounds or elements,” said Anthony Lupinetti, one of the researchers on the project.

“We’re interested in synthesising actinide materials [such as plutonium and uranium] that have well-known properties – and have an important impact on our storage problems – using new methods and new materials,” said Kent Abney, of Los Alamos’ Chemistry Division. “With the goal of finding processes that are easier to do and with end results that provide the country with a better way to store our surplus nuclear materials.”

Abney and Lupinetti are also exploring ways to use readily available compounds to get the actinide-boron reactive temperatures even lower, using unusual materials as solvents in the process, such as lithium chloride and potassium chloride, which melt at temperatures of around 350°C when mixed in equal amounts.

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