Taking the “Radioactive” out of Nuclear Waste

Bacteria eating up some yummy waste
from Discovery News

This afternoon I’ve been studying chemistry. It all started with the Big History lesson my son and I are on, which is about the formation of stars. Somewhere in there, in amid the introductions to fusion and elements, was a description of unstable atoms. This made me think of radioactivity, which led me to the Khan Academy lecture on Types of Decay. While watching the video, I started wondering if there was a way to re-stabilize the atomic balance, making something no longer radioactive. In the middle of thinking I should drop everything and get a nuclear engineering degree, just to solve this problem, I remembered something about waste clean-up. I wondered, “What about bacteria?”

You can see how my mind works.

So I googled “microbes eating radioactive waste.’ Sure enough, there are some that do. That is cool enough. But the coolest part is how they do it. They actually siphon off those extra electrons via little pili, like hairs, that touch the radioactive waste. Well, actually, they ‘transfer’ them. I’m not exactly sure if they are transferring the electrons to themselves or to the material. Whichever way they do it, it stabilizes the waste. This makes it non-radioactive and allows it to drop out of suspension (as in when it is in fluid) so it can be gathered up more easily.

Great idea: Use nature to do our dirty work, since it does such a better job.
Practical step: Chemistry! Biology! Getting those bacterium out there on the job.


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