Three years from now, commercial nuclear fuel industry moguls might have to thank three WSU professors for a tool that could boost their business.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently gave $500,000 to a small group of chemists at WSU to develop a way to rapidly extract precious metals from spent nuclear fuel. Following removal, the metals could sell for use in electronics parts.
“Just like any batteries, eventually the fuel goes bad, and you have to treat it,” said Nathalie Wall, assistant professor and project member.
In burning the fuel, other elements are produced, some of which are highly desirable precious metals that can be used in electronics, Wall said.
Associate professor Aurora Clark leads the project. Clark, a computational chemist, aims to create a software program in the next three years to identify molecules that effectively remove palladium, rhodium, ruthenium and even silver, platinum and gold from spent fuel.
“This kind of technology hasn’t really existed before,” she said. “People haven’t really taken this approach to it.”
A single ton of spent nuclear fuel can contain hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of these precious metals, Clark said.
Wall will work with Paul Benny, an associate professor, to create solutions that mimic spent nuclear fuel for the program. Working with actual spent nuclear fuel would be too dangerous at this point, Wall said.
Nonetheless, the solution will contain the precious metals the professors hope to extract from spent nuclear fuel.
Clark said she sees the project extending beyond its three-year funding span. At that point, she plans to actually start getting the software out to the nuclear fuel industry.
She said though there is a greater push for renewable energy use, the transition to cleaner sources will take a while. Nuclear fuel can fill the gap in the mean time.
“I don’t think anyone really thinks nuclear energy is going to be the thing we do forever,” she said. “But it needs to be a component.”
As long as nuclear fuel is still in the mix, Clark said she hopes her software program will help the fuel industry and the government to improve its reuse and recycling of spent fuel.
“We’re hoping that if we design this technology and this software that can pull out these metals, it’ll help inspire not only the United States and our power policy, but also industry to recycle and reuse the spent fuel more and more,” she said.