University of Texas at Austin researchers have discovered a new method to enrich the world’s most expensive chemical commodities, stable isotopes. The variants are crucial for medical imaging and nuclear power, and with the new discoveries, the scientists were able to perform the process in a cheaper, environmentally friendly way.
The chemical elements that exist in nature are a combination of different variants, known as isotopes, which can be useful in many applications if a single isotope is enriched or separated from the rest. That method can now become less expensive and more domestic, as well as continue to ensure the sequence of current applications and give rise to new opportunities for medical therapies and fundamental scientific research.
“Isotopes are among the most expensive commodities on Earth,” explained Mark Raizen, professor of physics in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences and author on the study, which was recently published in the journal Nature Physics. “One ounce of a stable isotope that needs the calutron to separate it can run around $3 million. That’s roughly 2,000 times the price of gold. And that has held back certain medical therapies.”
The new method for enriching stable isotopes, MAGIS (magnetically activated and guided isotope separation) uses little energy, unlike the current methods, since it uses low-powered lasers and permanent magnets. It also has a smaller environmental impact than other chemical processes, such as ones used to produce lithium-7.
“I believe this is world-changing in a way that is unique among all the projects that I have done. And I do feel passionately about it,” said Raizen. “There are many potential uses of isotopes that we don’t even know yet. But they’ve been held back because the price has been so high, or it’s been unavailable. That will be one of the missions of the foundation — to explore and develop isotopes to benefit humanity.”
Nuclear medicine is one of the fields that could benefit from the new method, since many stable isotopes are precursors to the short-lived radioisotopes needed for medical imaging, cancer therapies, and nutritional diagnostics. National security is another possibility, as the researchers used the method to enrich lithium-7, crucial to the operation of most nuclear reactors. The country depends on their supply of lithium-7 from Russia and China. The detection of dangerous nuclear materials arriving at U.S. ports is another one of the possible uses.
MAGIS has been criticized because of its potential for terrorists or rogue states to enrich uranium in order to create nuclear weapons. However, Raizen justifies that uranium has unique chemical characteristics, which makes him believe that the concerns are unfounded.
The next step for Raizen is to transport the technology out of the lab and into the world. MAGIS was already issued a U.S. patent, which is owned by The University of Texas at Austin, with Raizen and co-author Bruce Klappauf, a software developer at Enthought and a former senior research scientist at UT Austin, as inventors. The other co-author is Tom Mazur, a Ph.D. student at the university. Raizen also aims to create a nonprofit foundation to license the technology.
The shortage of the stable isotopes is caused by a combination of factors, and last year the Government Accountability Office released a report about the lack of lithium-7. The production of the component used in nuclear power reactors is illegal in the U.S. due to environmental concerns. Molybdenum-99 is another isotope, which is essential for medical imaging and used in tens of millions of heart, kidney, and breast procedures each year. Currently it is produced in an aging nuclear reactor in Canada that will cease operations in 2016.