We Don’t Need to Be Afraid of Depleted Uranium via Popular Mechanics

  • It’s much more useful than you think.
  • By Caroline Delbert
  • In new research, scientists used depleted uranium to catalyze turning ethylene into ethane.
  • Scientists are always searching for ways to safely use depleted uranium, including in warfare and in nuclear energy.
  • The reaction works by combining ethylene with a uranium-based molecule complex with special carbon rings.

Scientists at the University of Sussex have used depleted uranium, a common and problematic nuclear waste product, to help catalyze a valuable chemical reaction. Geoff Cloke, Richard Layfield, and Nikolaos Tsoureas combined depleted uranium with octatriynyl and a ligand into a complex called uranium III. This catalyst turned ethylene into ethane in a reaction called hydrogenation—the same way we get hydrogenated oils for use in food.


In their research, the scientists combined the uranium-based organometallic molecule with ethene. The uranium molecule complex is a coordination compound, meaning a metal center with ligands surrounding it. Ligands are like binding pieces. The ethene molecules have double-bonded carbons, and these double bonds are weakened and simplified by pentagonal carbon rings in the uranium complex, which allow hydrogens to bond in.

The U.S. military has used depleted uranium as part of certain armor-piercing weapons and armor, which the government has sworn is safe. Because of the circulation of aging weapons and equipment around the world over time, even outlawing use of depleted uranium would take decades to really be impactful, like waiting for all the leaded fuel cars to age out and be replaced. It’s still a major public health concern. The usage is also based on depleted uranium’s properties rather than an off-label way to “dispose” of it, but that couldn’t happen without laws that allow depleted uranium to be sold for commercial use.

While turning ethylene to ethane is an old idea, no one has ever used uranium before. “The fact that we can use depleted uranium to do this provides proof that we don’t need to be afraid of it as it might actually be very useful for us,” Layfield said in the press release.

Read more at We Don’t Need to Be Afraid of Depleted Uranium

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