cleaning up nuclear energy

Houston research team discovers new application for crystals in nuclear energy

Radioactive waste is an obstacle to nuclear energy adoption potential. This research team from the University of Houston has discovered a potential solution. Photo via uh.edu

Researchers at the University of Houston have unlocked a new way to use crystals to safely dispose of radioactive waste.

The team of UH researchers published a paper in Cell Reports Physical Science this month detailing their discovery of how to use molecular crystals to capture large quantities of iodine, one of the most common products of radioactive fission, which is used to create nuclear energy.

According to a statement from UH, these molecular crystals are based on cyclotetrabenzil hydrazones. Ognjen Miljanic, professor of chemistry and author of the paper, and his team have created the organic molecules containing only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which create ring-like crystals with eight smaller offshoots, earning them the nickname "The Octopus."

The discovery was made by Alexandra Robles, the first author of the study and a former doctoral student in Miljanic’s lab.

The crystals have an uptake capacity similar to that of porous metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) and covalent organic frameworks (COFs), which traditionally have been considered the “pinnacle of iodine capture materials," according to UH. They allow iodine to be moved from one area to another, are reusable and can be produced using commercially available chemicals for about $1 per gram in an academic lab.

“They are quite easy to make and can be produced at a large scale from relatively inexpensive materials without any special protective atmosphere,” Miljanic said in a statement.

The team also believes the crystals can be used to capture additional elements like carbon dioxide.

“This is a type of simple molecule that can do all sorts of different things depending on how we integrate it with the rest of any given system,” Miljanic continued. “So, we’re pursuing all those applications as well.”

Next up, Miljanic is looking to find a partner that will help the team explore practical applications and commercial aspects.

UH has been making net-zero news lately. A team of students from UH placed in the top three teams in a national competition for the Department of Energy earlier this summer. The college also shared details about its forthcoming innovation hub, which will house UH's Energy Transition Institute, as well as other centers and programs.

Joseph Powell, founding director of UH's Energy Transition Institute, sat down with EnergyCapitalHTX last week to talk about UH's vision for the organization.

Ognjen Miljanic is a University of Houston professor of chemistry and author of the paper. Photo via UH.edu

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A View From HETI

Discovery Green's Earth Day event generated more than 3,800 pounds of garbage — and over 90 percent of it was diverted from landfills. Photo courtesy of Discovery Green

Discovery Green celebrated Earth Day with a major milestone this year — achieving it’s Zero Waste goal.

The nonprofit, along with Citizens’ Environmental Coalition and Houston Public Works, are announced that the 2024 Green Mountain Energy Earth Day, which generated more than 3,800 pounds of garbage, diverted the majority of that waste from landfills. "Zero Waste," as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is successfully diverting at least 90 percent of waste from the landfill.

On Earth Day, Discovery Green composted 2,200 pounds of waste and recycled 1,300 pounds of trash.

“Part of Discovery Green Conservancy’s mission is to serve as a village green for our city and be a source of health and happiness for all. Our goal is to sustain an exceptional environment for nature and people,” Discover Green President Kathryn Lott says in a news release. “We are beyond thrilled to have achieved Zero Waste certification.”

The achievement was made possible by volunteers from the University of Houston – Downtown.

Steve Stelzer, president of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition’s board of directors, acknowledged how rare the achievement is in a public space in a major city like Houston.

“Discovery Green Conservancy stepped up and made a commitment to weigh, measure and record everything. They should be congratulated to have done this at this scale,” Stelzer adds. “The Conservancy said they were going to do it and they did. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”

The 2024 event included:

  • 31,000 visitors in attendance
  • 60 + exhibitors
  • 100 + volunteers
  • 12 artists
    • 9 chalk artists
    • Donkeeboy and Donkeemom
    • Mark Bradford
  • 25 Mark Bradford artworks made of scrap presented in partnership with Houston First
  • 4 short films shown
  • 3,836.7 pounds of waste collected during Green Mountain Energy Earth Day

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