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J Am Chem Soc. 2011 Oct 5;133(39):15721-9. doi: 10.1021/ja206020u. Epub 2011 Sep 2.

Toward mechanistic understanding of nuclear reprocessing chemistries by quantifying lanthanide solvent extraction kinetics via microfluidics with constant interfacial area and rapid mixing.

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Department of Chemistry and Institute for Biophysical Dynamics, The University of Chicago, 929 East 57th Street, Chicago, Illinois 60637, United States.


The closing of the nuclear fuel cycle is an unsolved problem of great importance. Separating radionuclides produced in a nuclear reactor is useful both for the storage of nuclear waste and for recycling of nuclear fuel. These separations can be performed by designing appropriate chelation chemistries and liquid-liquid extraction schemes, such as in the TALSPEAK process (Trivalent Actinide-Lanthanide Separation by Phosphorus reagent Extraction from Aqueous Komplexes). However, there are no approved methods for the industrial scale reprocessing of civilian nuclear fuel in the United States. One bottleneck in the design of next-generation solvent extraction-based nuclear fuel reprocessing schemes is a lack of interfacial mass transfer rate constants obtained under well-controlled conditions for lanthanide and actinide ligand complexes; such rate constants are a prerequisite for mechanistic understanding of the extraction chemistries involved and are of great assistance in the design of new chemistries. In addition, rate constants obtained under conditions of known interfacial area have immediate, practical utility in models required for the scaling-up of laboratory-scale demonstrations to industrial-scale solutions. Existing experimental techniques for determining these rate constants suffer from two key drawbacks: either slow mixing or unknown interfacial area. The volume of waste produced by traditional methods is an additional, practical concern in experiments involving radioactive elements, both from disposal cost and experimenter safety standpoints. In this paper, we test a plug-based microfluidic system that uses flowing plugs (droplets) in microfluidic channels to determine absolute interfacial mass transfer rate constants under conditions of both rapid mixing and controlled interfacial area. We utilize this system to determine, for the first time, the rate constants for interfacial transfer of all lanthanides, minus promethium, plus yttrium, under TALSPEAK process conditions, as a first step toward testing the molecular mechanism of this separation process.

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