Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A New Way To Refine Uranium

Australian scientists have come up with a way to refine uranium in a way that would conceivably halve production costs.
There are at present only two methods for sifting uranium atoms, or isotopes, to create the right mix. One, called diffusion, involves forcing uranium through filters. Being lighter, U-235 passes through more easily and is thus separated from its heavier counterpart. The second method, widely adopted in the 1970s, uses centrifuges to spin the heavier and lighter atoms apart.

Both, said Dr Goldsworthy, are "very crude. You have to repeat the process over and over," consuming enormous amounts of electricity. The spinning method requires "thousands and thousands of centrifuges".

The Lucas Heights team, working for Dr Goldsworthy's research company Silex (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation), is the only one in the world developing a third technique that involves streaming uranium through lasers tuned to a frequency that only "sees" the U-235 atoms.

The lasers electrically charge the atoms, which become trapped in an electromagnetic field and drawn to a metal plate for collection. "It's absolutely cutting-edge technology, incredibly difficult to develop," Dr Goldsworthy said.

During the 1980s and '90s the US, France, Britain, Germany, South Africa and Japan attempted to develop laser-enrichment technology, but all failed. One US effort involving 500 scientists gave up after spending $2 billion.

"By world standards, we have worked on a shoestring budget," Dr Goldsworthy said, estimating the "more elegant and sophisticated" Australian concept at about $65 million.

Hat tip: Slashdot.