Energy & Environment

University of Houston researchers found that crystals could be key in managing nuclear waste

The crystals are both inexpensive to produce and easy to modify, which means they could potentially have a wide variety of uses.


Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media

Nuclear energy has been a subject of intense debate for several decades. While some say it could power the future, scientists and activists have expressed serious concern about safety issues and the problem of nuclear waste.

Researchers at the University of Houston may have found a solution to this last issue. They said the key lies in small molecular crystals based on cyclotetrabenzil hydrazones.

While the team had been working with the crystals since 2015, they hadn't considered their potential for nuclear waste management until recently. Dr. Alexandra Robles said that attending a conference on iodine capture gave her the idea to run tests on the crystals.

"We exposed the samples to iodine vapor to see if we would observe a color change indicating iodine being removed," said Robles. "One compound changed from an orange to a really dark purple, and it just kept absorbing iodine over the course of several weeks."

After testing more compounds, the research team found one that absorbed extremely high amounts of iodine. They realized that, since radioactive iodine tends to erode nuclear reactors, their compound could potentially address a huge concern in radioactive waste management.

"Iodine destroys nuclear paint, the coating that prevents corrosion in these vessels," explained Professor Ognjen Miljanic, head of the team's laboratory. "Our compound would be a coating on top of a coating, working as an interlayer to prevent iodine from reaching the paint."

The crystals are both inexpensive to produce and easy to modify, which means they could potentially have a wide variety of uses. The research team said they could be used for everything from carbon dioxide capture to making more eco-friendly lithium-ion batteries.

While she's excited about all of the discovery's potential, Robles said she's especially hoping to make a positive impact on the environment. If their findings are sustainable, she said they could make nuclear energy a safer and more viable solution to the energy crisis.

"I have a lot of interest in bringing more environmentally conscious solutions to the energy industry," said Robles. "I got into this field because I want to find real solutions to problems that exist in this industry."

The team has already had their findings published in a major scientific journal and they've filed a provisional patent application through the University of Houston. Moving forward, they hope to find partners willing to help fund their continued research into the crystals' potential.

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