Going Nuclear

Grad student hopes research sheds light on nuclear waste
Alexander Myers

Graduate student Alexander Myers uses a glove box to safely handle chemicals while conducting research. A glove box is a sealed box filled with an inert gas such as nitrogen gas. A lot of the compounds Myers works with are air and water sensitive, so he uses the glove box to prevent chemical reactions with air and water.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

A fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry hopes his research eventually will lead to solutions for dealing with nuclear waste. Alexander Myers has been working with Associate Professor Justin Walensky in exploring the fundamentals of actinide chemistry. Actinides comprise the very bottom row of the periodic table, and all of the elements on the bottom row are radioactive.

“We’re studying the fundamental chemistry of the actinides because their chemistry is so underdeveloped compared to transition metals or other elements on the periodic table,” Walensky says.  “These elements do not receive a lot of interest from researchers due to their radioactivity. In fact, Alex has made compounds that no one else can make almost anywhere.”

Going to California

Myers recently received a research award from the Department of Energy to carry out part of his doctoral dissertation at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. He will leave Columbia for California in January and continue the research he has been conducting with Walensky.

“At MU, I am making some neptunium complexes, and I’m going to ship them out to Lawrence Berkeley ahead of time, so I can go out there and do some magnetic studies on those complexes,” Myers says. “While I’m out there, I’m also going to make the plutonium analogues and run the magnetism on those as well.” Since actinides typically are magnetic, studying their magnetism is a method to probe what happens in the electronic structure of the molecules.

A Process to Reprocess

By looking at the chemistry of actinides like thorium, uranium, and neptunium, Myers and Walensky hope to solve the conundrum of nuclear energy—what to do with nuclear waste?

“In order for nuclear energy to be viable in this country, we need to reprocess nuclear waste,” Walensky says. “We need to find new, advanced techniques to separate actinides out in order to reprocess. Reprocessing is something we don’t do in the United States, and if we want to rely on nuclear energy, we’re going to have to reprocess at some point.”

Reprocessing involves elements beyond uranium but their chemistry is not well understood, and this research will hopefully shed some light in this area.

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