A newly discovered form of uranium could lead to a nuclear power plant small enough to fit in your car and eventually even power it.
Scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory have created a long-sought molecule known as uranium nitride. Besides offering cheaper and safer nuclear fuel, the new molecule could extract more energy from fossil fuels, making cars more fuel-efficient, and could also lead to cheaper drugs.
"Actinide nitrides are candidate nuclear fuels of the future," said Jaqueline Kiplinger, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who led the team of researchers on the recent Nature Chemistry paper. "But they can also break carbon-hydrogen bonds, which are very strong."
Uranium nitride rips the hydrogen atoms off a carbon atom -- no easy task.
A similar process happens every day in car engines. Unfortunately a lot of energy in those bonds is lost as heat.
If the two atoms could be split apart without losing all that energy, gasoline could be used much more effectively not only to fuel a car, but also to improve a whole variety of petroleum-related products, from plastics to drugs.
Unfortunately the new molecule is destroyed when it rips hydrogen atoms off a carbon atom. For uranium nitride to become commercially viable, it would have to knock one hydrogen atom after another and not destroy itself in the process.
The scientists would, in other words, have to turn uranium nitride into a catalyst. That should be possible, said Kiplinger, but right now it is not.
Scientists might not have a cheap, reliable and reusable molecular bond-breaker, but nature already does. Found in virtually every organism on Earth, cytochrome P450 is an enzyme involved in a massive number of chemical transformations, from from creating energy in mitochrondria to drug metabolism.
"Our studies suggest that uranium nitride breaks carbon-hydrogen bonds like cytochrome P450," said Kiplinger.
By studying exactly how uranium nitride breaks C-H bonds, scientists could learn more about how cytochrome P450 breaks C-H bonds, a process which, despite its biological and potential economic importance, is poorly understood.
"For me the most interesting aspect of this new molecule is its chemistry," said Trevor Hayton, a scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was not involved in the Los Alamos National Laboratory study. "But one motivation to create this new molecule is its proposed use as a new nuclear fuel."
Uranium nitride could lead to smaller, cheaper and even portable nuclear power plants. NASA, Hyperion Power Generation and other organizations are all looking at using uranium nitride as a next generation nuclear fuel in their reactors.
Despite uranium's association with deadly radiation, the new molecule contains depleted uranium, which is relatively harmless from a radiological standpoint and offers many opportunities in catalytic and industrial applications.
The ability to quickly and reliably destroy carbon-hydrogen bonds could make drugs and other industrially important chemicals cheaper. Many of these compounds are petroleum-based. It takes high temperatures, high pressures and multiple steps to refine oil into everyday items.
If this new molecule could do the job at room temperature, room pressure and in a single step, it would save time and money.