19 July 2016

MagLab scientists study solutions to nuclear waste problem

With a new $10 million federal grant, an interdisciplinary group of researchers will explore the mysteries of the world’s most radioactive elements.

Chemist Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt (right) will lead the research effort, which includes physicist Ryan Baumbach (left).

Chemist Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt (right) will lead the research effort, which includes physicist Ryan Baumbach (left).

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Over the decades of the Cold War, the United States stockpiled tens of thousands of nuclear weapons containing highly radioactive uranium and plutonium. Although that period is now a chapter in history books, many of those weapons remain, as do their dangerous, not fully-understood ingredients. In fact, defense-related activities have resulted in about 13,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level nuclear waste, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

It’s a daunting environmental and health problem that a team scientists from the National MagLab and Florida State University (FSU) will work to better understand, thanks to a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced this week.

Led by Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt, a chemist at FSU and the National MagLab, the team will study the chemistry and physics of the heaviest and most radioactive group of elements in the periodic table. Known as actinides, they include plutonium, uranium and a dozen other elements.

Under the four-year grant, Albrecht-Schmitt will bring together scientists representing different fields and ways of thinking to create the Center for Actinide Science & Technology. In addition to helping find solutions to the nation’s nuclear waste problem, the center’s research promises to make significant contributions to basic physics and chemistry. “Our center will create an atmosphere for cross-fertilization of disciplines and generate new use-inspired basic research that solves long-standing problems in nuclear science,” said Albrecht-Schmitt.

MagLab physicists Ryan Baumbach, Stan Tozer and David Graf will round out the center’s scientific brain trust, each contributing specialized expertise to the project.

“The MagLab contributes both the intellectual capital of the world's finest physicists with research facilities available nowhere else,” said Albrecht-Schmitt. “We have been able to push the limits of our understanding of the periodic table through the use of this national facility.”

The researchers hope that, with new techniques and tools they plan to develop, to probe more deeply into the periodic table than has ever been possible. Although uranium and plutonium have been studied, the heavier, more unstable elements beyond them on the periodic table — so-called “transuranics” that include americum, curium, berkelium, californium and einsteinium — remain largely a mystery to chemists and physicists. They decay relatively quickly, making them difficult to study.

“We have an opportunity to study transuranics that have never been studied before,” said Baumbach, who will synthesize and characterize actinide-containing crystals as part of the grant. “That’s pretty cool.”

The scientists expect to develop new techniques and instruments in order study these elements at high pressure, ultra-cold temperatures and high magnetic fields. Exposing the materials to extreme environments and measuring what happens can reveal valuable information about their electronic and magnetic properties — knowledge that can both advance our basic understanding of the world and direct scientists toward ways to manage nuclear waste.

The DOE grant is one of four awarded this week to create Energy Frontier Research Centers devoted to nuclear waste issues. The other host institutions are The Ohio State University, the University of South Carolina and DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is the world’s largest and highest-powered magnet facility. Located at Florida State University, the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the interdisciplinary National MagLab hosts scientists from around the world to perform basic research in high magnetic fields, advancing our understanding of materials, energy and life. The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation (DMR-1157490) and the state of Florida. For more information, visit us online at nationalmaglab.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest at NationalMagLab.