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‘Venus flytrap’ — a new way to treat nuclear waste

By Gerald Parkinson |

The cleanup of nuclear waste could be simplified by a process being developed at Northwestern University (Chicago, Ill.; www.northwestern.edu) and Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, Ill.; www.anl.gov). Nuclear waste consists mainly of non-toxic sodium ions, but this is mixed with a very small amount of highly radioactive cesium isotopes that have proved difficult to separate from the mix. Northwestern and Argonne have developed an ion exchange material that promises to solve this problem by selectively extracting the cesium, thereby producing a concentrated waste stream that can be more easily treated. The new material is a rigid, porous structure of gallium and antimony sulfides. In laboratory tests, crystals of the material are stirred in an aqueous solution of surrogate cesium and sodium, potassium and calcium ions. Cesium is trapped in the crystals, but not the other ions, says Mercouri Kanatzidis, a senior scientist with Argonne and a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University. Kanatzidis compares the capture mechanism to that of a Venus flytrap. The cesium reacts with sulfur atoms in the framework, causing the pores to narrow and trap the cesium. The other ions, in contrast to cesium, bond strongly to the water and…
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