Plutonium may be at the very bottom of the periodic table, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. New research from Florida State University suggests the radioactive element could help us stay on top of nuclear waste.
Plutonium is a common nuclear waste product and is one of the most dangerous materials in the world. But getting rid of plutonium isotopes is no easy task. Especially, when their half-lives can reach all the way up to 80.8 million years.
Enter Professor Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt.
Professor Albrecht-Schmitt is the brains behind the recent study. For decades he has been searching for a scientifically viable way to clean up plutonium waste.
"In order to develop materials that say trap plutonium, you first have to understand at the most basic level, the electronic properties of plutonium," says Albrecht-Schmitt.
"So that means making very simple compounds, characterizing them in exquisite detail and understanding both experimentally and theoretically all of the properties you're observing."
But when Albrecht-Schmitt and his team began examining the electronic properties of plutonium, they found something they weren't expecting.
Strangely, the team found that plutonium-organic hybrid compounds behave remarkably similar to compounds made with much lighter elements, like iron or nickel.
This means the electronic structure of the plutonium compound could be a lot less complicated than scientists previously thought.
The team figured this out when they observed an electron moving back and forth between two plutonium ions, a behaviour that is typical of lighter elements.
"What makes this discovery so interesting is that the material — rather than being really complicated and really exotic — is really, really simple," says Albrecht-Schmitt.
"Your imagination goes wild, and you think 'Wow, I could make that class of compound with many other types of heavy elements.' I could use other heavy elements like uranium or maybe even berkelium."
The plutonium compound that Albrecht-Schmitt and his team created was at once noticeably unique.
"Plutonium makes wild, vibrant colors," explains Albrecht-Schmitt.
"It can be purple, it can be these beautiful pinks. It can be this super dark black-blue. This compound was brown, like a beautiful brown chocolate bar. When we saw that color, we knew something was electronically unusual about it."
The secrets of plutonium may provide scientists with the information they need to develop technologies that can clean up nuclear waste using heavy, nuclear elements.
But funding for this research is limited, and not everyone is as lucky as Albrecht-Schmitt, who just last year received $10 million from the Department of Energy to form a new Energy Frontier Research Center.
"It's been exciting for me to do chemistry that other people can only dream of. And all I have to do is walk out of my office and go around the corner, and I can stop dreaming and just do it," says Albrecht-Schmitt.
Let's hope, for the sake of our planet, that Albrecht-Schmitt is dreaming big.
The study was published in Nature Chemistry.