Newswise — A new recycling plant will soon recover uranium from the ashes of radioactive garbage to be recycled back into nuclear fuel using an efficient, environmentally friendly technology inspired by decaffeinated coffee. The technique's future may even hold the key to recycling the most dangerous forms of radioactive waste.
Over the course of 20 years, Chien Wai, a University of Idaho chemistry professor, has developed a process that uses supercritical fluids to dissolve toxic metals. When coupled with a purifying process developed in partnership with Sydney Koegler, an engineer with nuclear industry leader AREVA and University of Idaho alumnus, enriched uranium can be recovered from the ashes of contaminated materials. On Wednesday, Aug. 20, representatives from the company and the university will sign an agreement to share the technologies and pave the way for the recycling plant's construction.
"Radioactive waste is a big problem facing the United States and the entire world," said Wai. "We need new, innovative technology, and I think supercritical fluid is one such technology that will play an important role in the very near future."
A supercritical fluid—in this case carbon dioxide—is any substance raised to a temperature and pressure at which it exhibits properties of both a gas and a liquid. When supercritical, the substance can move directly into a solid like a gas and yet dissolve compounds like a liquid. For example, says Wai, supercritical carbon dioxide has directly dissolved and removed caffeine from whole coffee beans for decades.
When the carbon dioxide's pressure is returned to normal, it becomes a gas and evaporates, leaving behind only the extracted metals. No solvents required, no acids applied, and no organic waste left behind.
"That's why decaffeinated coffee tastes so good," said Wai, while chuckling at the beauty and simplicity of the process. "There is no solvent used, and so no solvent left behind."
Because the technology is so simple, cost-effective and environmentally friendly, AREVA is eager to test its first full-scale use on 32 tons of incinerator ash in Richland, Wash.
The existing plant in Richland fabricates fuel for commercial nuclear power plants from raw enriched uranium supplied by utility customers as uranium hexafluoride (UF6). During normal operation, common items including filters, rags, paper wipes, and gloves become contaminated with uranium. The waste is burned to reduce its volume and increase its uranium content, making it easier to recover the uranium.
Nearly 10 percent of the ash's weight is usable enriched uranium, worth about $900 dollars per pound on today's market. This means about $5 million dollars is currently sitting in the garbage waiting to be recovered. The process may even become the basis of the next generation of plants designed to recover useful materials from spent fuel.
"This agreement and technology is something Idaho should be very proud of," said Wai of the supercritical fluid technology transfer. "We have developed something special. And to me, that something is important to Idaho and to the U.S., particularly as we look for alternate energy sources in the future."
The new recycling plant is expected to be operational in 2009 and will take about a year to process AREVA's ash inventory. When finished, much of its operating time can be devoted to ash received from other sites.
The technology licensing agreement that will be signed by the university and AREVA will allow AREVA to use several of Wai's discoveries to extract the metals from the ash. AREVA provided funding and will gain rights to the University of Idaho's share of a joint University of Idaho and AREVA patent developed in cooperation with Wai over the past four years that further separates the enriched uranium from the extracted metals.
"This process has been extremely collaborative—it's one of those that you just love," said Gene Merrell, the university's chief technology transfer officer and assistant vice president for research. "It's going to be a great deal that will benefit the University of Idaho, AREVA and the entire world."
Technology transfer is a process common to research universities. Rights to patents are sold to companies, or used to create new start-up companies, and benefit all parties involved. Not only do the technology's profits benefit the university and future research, it allows the university to ensure its technology is being used in a useful and efficient way.
But for Wai, this technology transfer is only the beginning. He is now working to make the technology even more environmentally friendly and also to recycle different forms of radioactive waste.
The key to Wai's research is to find a soluble chemical compound to bind with the uranium. Because carbon dioxide cannot directly dissolve metals such as uranium, a binding agent called a ligand is introduced to the equation. Once the ligand is applied, the supercritical carbon dioxide flows through the waste, dissolving both the ligand and the metals bounded to it. Dissolving and extracting any desired metal—possibly even radioactive material from high-level radioactive waste—simply requires finding a binding agent that works. Wai predicts supercritical fluids will be used in the not-too-distant-future to recycle even higher levels of radioactive waste.
"To me, accomplishing that is important to Idaho and to the United States, particularly as we look for alternate energy sources in the future." said Wai. "I believe nuclear energy will play a very large role, and that it can be done in a very environmentally safe and sustainable way."
Photos of the event and the supercritical process can be found at http://www.today.uidaho.edu/PhotoList.aspx.
About the University of IdahoFounded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state's flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university's student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 150 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit http://www.uidaho.edu.
About AREVAAs the leading U.S. nuclear vendor and a key player in the electricity transmission and distribution sector, AREVA Inc.'s 5,300 U.S. energy employees are committed to serving the nation and paving the way for the future of the electricity market. With 45 locations across the nation and nearly $2 billion in energy revenues in 2007, AREVA Inc., through its subsidiaries, combines U.S. leadership, access to worldwide expertise and a proven track record of performance. In the U.S. and in more than 100 countries around the world, AREVA is engaged in the 21st century's greatest challenges: making energy available to all, protecting the planet, and acting responsibly toward future generations. AREVA Inc. is headquartered in Bethesda, Md.