Prof gets 3/4 million dollars to find new ways to process uranium

A researcher at the University of Kansas was awarded $750,000 by the U.S. Department of Energy so that he and his team can examine several previously unexplored ways to process uranium using cheaper and safer methods than those currently employed.

James Blakemore, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, wants to delve deeply into a study of the fundamental factors that limit how atoms make bonds to uranium. His study will focus on the most common form that uranium can take in the environment, the so-called uranyl ion (UO22+).

James Blakemore, far right, with some of the students from the Blakemore Laboratory at KU. Photo by Kansas University.

Uranyl is found in natural environments, such as seawater, and also in nuclear waste. It is composed of uranium strongly bonded to two oxygen atoms. Thus, to be able to work with this ion, Blakemore's project will develop ringlike structures that can tightly bind uranyl and bring it into a controlled molecular environment for further chemical activation.

Together with a team or researchers, Blakemore will be preparing new compounds that pair a single uranium atom with a second metal center. They will study how the properties of uranium are modified by these specialized environments with the goal of reducing the energy input required for further reactivity at the uranium center. Some of the energy inputs will come from electricity, in the form of electrochemical potential, which means that the scientists will also be studying the electron-transfer properties of new uranium-containing compounds.

“My group and I are approaching the challenging problem of making and breaking bonds to uranium with tools that I have used previously in other areas of renewable-energy chemistry," Blakemore explained in a university press release.

Despite the challenges it poses when it comes to the preparation and handling of nuclear fuel, as well as the recycling and storage of waste materials, scientists across the world are paying attention to the possibilities that uranium offers as a source of clean energy that could help meet current and future energy demands.