Tiny Robots May Save Earth from Radioactive Waste

Scientists developed microrobots that remove radioactive uranium in simulated wastewater, mimicking the wastewater generated by nuclear power plants.

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These tiny, self-propelling robots may offer a gleam of hope into removing the radioactive isotopes from both the wastewater and the environment, should a spill happen. The new study appears in ACS Nano.

Industrial accidents, like the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plant failures, have detrimental consequences for the environment and for humanity as a whole.

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Scientists have been working on coming up with ways to capture and remove radioactive materials from water, but encountered many limitations.

The most effective recent technique involves using metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which are compounds capable of trapping particular substances.

Researchers wanted to add a micromotor to a MOF called ZIF-8 to see if it can help with the cleanup of radioactive waste.

ZIF-8 is shaped like a rod and has a diameter of 1/15 the width of a human hair. Researchers added iron atoms and iron oxide nanoparticles to both stabilize and magnetize the structure. Platinum nanoparticles at one end of each ZIF-8 rod converted hydrogen peroxide in the water into oxygen bubbles, thus propelling the tiny robots.

As a result, the microrobots recovered 96% of the uranium they were cleaning up in an hour. At the end, the research team collected the rods with a magnet and stripped off the uranium, thus allowing the microbots to be reused.

The hope is that someday, microbots can be the answer to radioactive waste management, the team said.