A novel approach to the production of renewable biofuel additives involves the use of radiation derived from nuclear waste.

Researchers from Lancaster University (U.K.), Jožef Stefan Institute (Slovenia) and Aston University (U.K.) have demonstrated a process to synthesize an additive called solketal by use of waste from both biochemical and nuclear industries. The nuclear biorefinery system integrates technologies to produce raw materials from the waste glycerol produced by biodiesel processing.

After samples of glycerol were placed inside a research reactor, irradiation by neutrons and gamma rays catalyzed the compound to yield a valuable solketal fuel additive, which is used to make biodiesel as well as other liquid fuels. Harnessing residual energy from exhausted nuclear fuel for this application eliminates the need for expensive, energy-intensive steps requiring high temperature, pH changes, high pressure or additional catalytic reagents with negligible ongoing radiation-processing costs when completely set up.

Nuclear biorefinery process schematic depicting a spent fuel storage pool. Source: Malcolm John Joyce et al.Nuclear biorefinery process schematic depicting a spent fuel storage pool. Source: Malcolm John Joyce et al.

Running tubes of glycerol through used fuel pools, where highly radioactive used fuel is stored at power plants and interim sites, exposes the desired surface area of glycerol for irradiation. A practical arrangement could see the chemical processing taking place in other buildings so as to minimize disruption to power plant operation.

The research reported in Nature Communications Chemistry suggests that this method offers scope to scale up to produce around 57 tons of solketal per year for a typical used fuel pool.

To contact the author of this article, email shimmelstein@globalspec.com