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Researchers Perfect Nanotechnology Tool for Studies of Nuclear Waste Storage

Researchers at the University of Guelph (U of G) recently published an article in Nature Scientific Reports in which they describe the first every use of antimatter to investigate processes connected to potential long-term storage of nuclear waste.  The team studied radiation chemistry and electronic structure of materials at scales smaller than nanometres.

The U of G team worked with collaborators at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission and utilized the TRIUMF particle accelerator in Vancouver.  Based on these first-ever measurements at the accelerator, the team able to to show that their system is a proven tool that will enable radiation studies of material to be used to store nuclear waste.

“This system can now be applied along with other measurements to determine and help to potentially design the best material for containers and barriers in nuclear waste management”, said the U of G professor Khashayar Ghandi, the lead author of the research paper.

Currently, used nuclear fuel bundles – still highly radioactive — are held in vaults in temporary storage.  Long-term, experts aim to use deep geological repositories to permanently entomb the material. Buried in rock formations hundreds of metres underground, the fuel containers would be held in engineered and natural barriers such as clays to shield people and the environment from radiation. It takes almost 100,000 years for radioactivity from nuclear waste to return to the level of natural uranium in the ground.

The researchers also discovered the intriguing properties of clays that may make them useful in other industries. Clays may serve as catalysts to change chemicals from one form to another – a benefit for petrochemical companies making various products from oil. Other industries might use clays to capture global-warming gases such as carbon dioxide and use those gases to make new products.

The research may ultimately help in designing safer underground vaults for permanent storage of radioactive waste.  Other applications of the nanotechnology tool include new ways of generating and storing hydrogen, and technologies for capturing and reusing greenhouse gases.

TURI Publishes Nanomaterials Fact Sheet

Recently, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI), a research, education, and policy center established by the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act of 1989, published a nanomaterials fact sheet.  The fact sheet is part of a series of chemical and material fact sheets developed by TURI that are intended to help Massachusetts companies, community organizations, and residents understand the use of hazardous substances and their effects on human health and the environment.  The fact sheet also includes information on safer alternatives and safer use options.

According to the fact sheet, TURI researchers have started a blueprint for design rules for safer nanotechnology.  The design rules include five principles, which together follow the acronym SAFER, as shown below.  The principles focus on aspects such as modifying physical-chemical characteristics of the material to diminish the hazard, considering alternative materials, and enclosing the material within another, less hazardous, material.  The fact sheet notes that other researchers have proposed other more specific design rules, which include avoiding chemical compositions of engineered nanomaterials that contain known toxic elements, and avoiding nanomaterials with dimensions that are known to possess hazardous properties.

Design Principles for SAFER Nanotechnology

  1. Size, surface, and structure: Diminish or eliminate the hazard by changing the size, surface, or structure of the nanoparticle while preserving the functionality of the nanomaterial for the specific application;
  2. Alternative materials: Identify either nano or bulk safer alternatives that can be used to replace a hazardous nanoparticle;
  3. Functionalization: Add additional molecules (or atoms) to the nanomaterial to diminish or eliminate the hazard while preserving desired properties for a specific application;
  4. Encapsulation: Enclose a nanoparticle within another less hazardous material; and
  5. Reduce the quantity: In situations where the above design principles cannot be used to reduce or eliminate the hazard of a nanomaterial, and continued use is necessary, investigate opportunities to use smaller quantities while still maintaining product functionality.

The fact sheet provides a summary of regulations concerning nanomaterials.  Massachusetts currently has no regulations specifically governing the use or release of nanomaterials.  At the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) primarily regulates nanomaterials under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The fact sheet notes that as of 2017, companies using or manufacturing nanomaterials that have not been subject to pre-manufacture notices or significant new use rules will be subject to a one-time reporting and recordkeeping rule.