Groundbreaking work by a team of chemists on a fringe element of the periodic table could change how the world stores radioactive waste and recycles fuel.
The element is called californium — Cf if you’re looking at the Periodic Table of Elements — and it’s what Florida State Professor Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt, the lead researcher on the project, calls “wicked stuff.”
In carefully choreographed experiments, Albrecht-Schmitt and his colleagues found that californium had amazing abilities to bond and separate other materials. They also found it was extremely resistant to radiation damage.
“It’s almost like snake oil,” he said. “It sounds almost too good to be true.”
Albrecht-Schmitt said that the discoveries could help scientists build new storage containers for radioactive waste, plus help separate radioactive fuel, which means the fuel could be recycled.
“This has real world application,” he said. “It’s not purely an academic practice.”
Albrecht-Schmitt’s work, “Unusual Structure, Bonding, and Properties in a Californium Borate,” appears published in the newest edition of Nature Chemistry.
But, running the experiments and collecting the data were not small tasks.
After years of working with the U.S. Department of Energy, Albrecht-Schmitt obtained 5 milligrams of californium costing $1.4 million, paid for through an endowment to the university in honor of retired professor Gregory Choppin.
But that tiny, expensive element has opened a whole new world of nuclear chemistry.
“We’re changing how people look at californium and how it can be used,” Albrecht-Schmitt said.
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