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Energy Department funds FIU research that could make nuclear fuel easier to reuse, safer to store
FIU radiochemistry Assistant Professor Christopher Dares and Ph.D. student Barbara Garcia are tackling some of the nuclear power industry's greatest challenges.

Energy Department funds FIU research that could make nuclear fuel easier to reuse, safer to store

June 7, 2022 at 1:20pm

FIU researchers and their federal collaborators are working on some of the biggest challenges facing the nuclear power industry.

By better understanding how they can remove contaminants from used nuclear fuel, researchers could make existing fuel for nuclear power plants easier to reuse and ensure unusable spent fuel does not have to be stored for thousands of years.

“I’m excited,” said FIU radiochemistry Assistant Professor Christopher Dares. "I’m excited because to have these ideas that you've had in your head and that you've shown proof of concept of in order to be provided the opportunity, thanks to the Department of Energy, is thrilling. I am eager to get started.”

The U.S. Department of Energy granted Dares, of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, an Early Career Award of $750,000 over five years to conduct his research. The award pays for student researcher salaries, materials needed to carry out experiments and travel to national labs to study the human-made elements in used in nuclear fuel that complicate fuel reprocessing.  These elements, like americium, are created when elements like uranium absorb neutrons instead of splitting. Understanding their behavior is grand scientific challenge.


“Supporting talented researchers early in their career is key to fostering scientific creativity and ingenuity within the national research community,” said Energy Department Office of Science Director Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. “Dedicating resources to these focused projects led by well-deserved investigators helps maintain and grow America’s scientific skill set for generations to come.”

For Dares, a physical inorganic chemist who has focused research on renewable energy technologies including solar energy conversion, said working on the nuclear fuel problem presents an opportunity leverage his prior work. For example, Dares said that using light and a little electricity can change the chemical state of actinides, the nuclear fuel contaminants they’re hoping to remove, so researchers can easily spot them.

This solution using visible light might be the holy grail. Minimizing the materials added to nuclear fuel to separate elements simplifies the process and make it more attractive for industry.
“We might be able to reduce further still the energy requirements and make the reactions that we want to have happen, faster and more selectively,” Dares said. “Because if we can do that, we decrease the costs associated with recycling fuel.”