I don't know what's more exciting - the new discovery, or knowing one of the discoverers.
AUSTIN, Texas — Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have devised a new method for enriching a group of the world's most expensive chemical commodities, stable isotopes, which are vital to medical imaging and nuclear power, as reported this week in the journal Nature Physics. For many isotopes, the new method is cheaper than existing methods. For others, it is more environmentally friendly.
A less expensive, domestic source of stable isotopes could ensure continuation of current applications while opening up opportunities for new medical therapies and fundamental scientific research.
Chemical elements often exist in nature as a blend of different variants called isotopes. To be useful in most applications, a single isotope has to be enriched, or separated out from the rest.
A combination of factors has created a looming shortage of some of the world's most expensive but useful stable isotopes.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office released a report warning that there may soon be a shortage of lithium-7, a critical component of many nuclear power reactors. Production of lithium-7 was banned in the U.S. because of environmental concerns, and it's unclear whether the current sources, in China and Russia, will continue meeting global demand.
Nuclear medicine in particular could benefit from the new method, the researchers say. Many stable isotopes are precursors to the short-lived radioisotopes used in medical imaging, cancer therapies and nutritional diagnostics.
The new method also has the potential to enhance our national security. The researchers used the method to enrich lithium-7, crucial to the operation of most nuclear reactors. The U.S. depends on the supply of lithium-7 from Russia and China, and a disruption could cause the shutdown of reactors. Other isotopes can be used to detect dangerous nuclear materials arriving at U.S. ports.
Raizen's co-authors on the paper are Tom Mazur, a Ph.D. student at the university; and Bruce Klappauf, a software developer at Enthought and a former senior research scientist at UT Austin.
Now, Raizen's top goal is getting this technology out of the lab and into the world. The MAGIS invention has been issued a U.S. patent, which is owned by The University of Texas at Austin, with Raizen and Klappauf as inventors.
Raizen plans to create a nonprofit foundation to license the technology.
University of Texas at Austin:
Improved method for isotope enrichment could secure a vital global commodity
Contact: Steve Franklin
University of Texas at Austin