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Energy department award supports professor's study of safer, cheaper nuclear power

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

LAWRENCE — The use of uranium as a source of clean energy might soon take a leap forward, following the announcement that a University of Kansas chemistry professor has received a prestigious five-year award for work on this topic from the U.S. Department of Energy. 

James Blakemore, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, was awarded an Early Career Research Award worth $750,000 over five years for his research proposal “Uranyl capture and activation with Lewis acids and macrocyclic hosts.” Blakemore is the first KU researcher to receive this prestigious award, which includes support for graduate student researchers, travel to national and international conferences, and funds for supplies and laboratory consumables. 

“This award is significant not only in the support it provides for essential research but in recognizing James as an emerging leader in his discipline," said Clarence Lang, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. “I am so pleased that he has received this honor.” 

The project will examine several previously unexplored ways to process uranium, the central element in nuclear power, using cheaper and safer methods than those currently used. Uranium, among the heaviest elements that chemists study, is an attractive energy source for meeting current and future energy needs because it does not release carbon dioxide or other pollutants into the atmosphere during routine use. However, issues surrounding preparation of nuclear fuel and handling, recycling and storage of waste materials remain significant impediments to further deployment of important nuclear technologies. These challenges are driven in part by the fundamental chemical properties of uranium — the chemical reactions that transform uranium from its natural forms into more useful compounds often require harsh and expensive chemicals. 

To make progress in this challenging area, Blakemore and his team will delve deep into a study of the fundamental factors that limit how atoms make bonds to uranium. Their study will focus on the most common form that uranium can take in the environment, the so-called uranyl ion (UO22+). Uranyl is an interesting target because it is found in many natural environments, such as seawater, and also in the wastes that arise from use of nuclear technologies. Uranyl is a rather unusual linear molecule composed of uranium strongly bonded to two oxygen atoms. To work with this ion, Blakemore’s project will develop macrocyclic (ringlike) structures that can tightly bind uranyl and bring it into a controlled molecular environment for further chemical activation. 

“My group and I are approaching the challenging problem of making and breaking bonds to uranium with tools that I have used previously in other areas of renewable-energy chemistry," Blakemore said. “The Department of Energy’s support of my group’s work is a welcome endorsement of this perhaps unconventional approach, and it will be exciting to see where the path leads.”

In one aspect of the project, Blakemore and his team will be preparing new compounds that pair a single uranium atom with a second metal center. They will study how the properties of uranium are modified by these specialized environments, with the goal of reducing the energy input required for further reactivity at the uranium center. Some of the energy inputs will come from electricity, in the form of electrochemical potential, and thus Blakemore and his team will also be studying the electron-transfer properties of new uranium-containing compounds. 

"Since his arrival in 2016, James has been pushing the envelope in inorganic chemistry research with an approach that is highly innovative, interdisciplinary and collaborative,” said Brian Laird, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “This award is well-deserved and is an indication of many good things to come.”

This year, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science’s Early Career Research Program awarded research funding to 84 scientists from across the nation to support the work of exceptional researchers during the crucial early career years. “We are proud of the accomplishments these young scientists have already made and look forward to following their achievements in years to come,” said Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. 

The Department of Chemistry is housed in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Kansas. The College is the heart of KU, educating the most students, producing the most research and collaborating with nearly every entity at KU. The College is home to more than 50 departments, programs and centers, as well as the School of the Arts, School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures and School of Public Affairs & Administration.

Photo: James Blakemore, far right, with some of the students from the Blakemore Laboratory at KU.