A Scalable, Safer, and Potentially Cheaper Way to Isolate Valuable Isotopes

A team of researchers, led by Yuan Yang, have developed a new method for purifying materials that are crucial for energy, medicine, and scientific research. 

Jul 13 2023 | By Grant Currin

Media Contact

Holly Evarts, Director of Strategic Communications and Media Relations 347-453-7408 (c) | 212-854-3206 (o) | [email protected]

About the Study

JOURNAL: Science Advances

TITLE: "Liquid solution centrifugation for safe, scalable, and efficient isotope separation"

AUTHORS: Joseph F. Wild, Heng Chen, Keyue Liang, Jiayu Liu, Stephen E. Cox, Alex N. Halliday, Yuan Yang

FUNDING: This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, grant number DE-SC0022256, and the seed funding support from Columbia University’s Research Initiatives in Science and Engineering (RISE) competition, started in 2004 to trigger high-risk, high-reward, and innovative collaborations in the basic sciences, engineering, and medicine.

A provisional patent (U.S. 63/425,181) has been filed related to this work. The authors declare that they have no other competing interests.

Schematic of the liquid solution centrifugation process

Heavier isotopes become more concentrated at the outer edge of the centrifuge, while lighter isotopes become more concentrated at the inner edge. The electrostatic force acts to attract the target ions and counterions to one another, resulting in charge neutrality. This schematic is to show the design of a swing bucket centrifuge used to produce experimental data in this work. Credit: Columbia Engineering

New research published in Science Advances, led by Yuan Yang, associate professor of materials science at Columbia Engineering, and collaborators at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, demonstrates a novel technique for isolating isotopes. 

High Stakes

Oxygen is a critical component in the positron emission tomography (PET) scans oncologists use to search for tumors. But not just any oxygen will work. While most oxygen atoms have eight neutrons, about 1 in 500 atoms has ten. Those extra neutrons are necessary for the PET imaging scans to work.

The Challenge

It’s extremely expensive to isolate the slightly heavier oxygen atoms. A cubic meter of regular water (H2O) costs less than $2 from your tap. When the lighter oxygen atoms (and hydrogen) are removed, the heavier oxygen atoms that remain are worth closer to $30,000.

The Breakthrough

Researchers at Columbia figured out how to isolate heavier or lighter atoms — called isotopes — by dissolving the target element and salts in water before spinning that solution in a centrifuge. It’s more effective, cheaper, and easier to scale than the current state-of-the-art techniques, which also use toxic chemicals that aren’t necessary for the new method.

Broader Applications

Pure isotopes are extremely useful — and extremely valuable. Every year, tens of millions of people across the world receive medical tests that require a hard-to-extract isotope called 100-Molybdenum. Calcium isotope Ca-48 is so rare and sought-after that a single gram currently costs $250,000. And if nuclear fusion becomes a viable source of energy, it will take thousands of tons of a lithium isotope to satisfy the world’s energy demands.

Looking Ahead

Since collaborating with Columbia Technology Ventures to patent the new technology, the researchers have been in touch with several companies about building prototypes and developing a plant to begin isolating isotopes. They’ve used computational modeling to discover several innovative methods that further increase the method’s efficiency.

Dive Deeper

This research is described in a paper published July 12 in Science Advances.

The Yang lab addresses a range of problems in the fields of sustainable technologies and clean materials. While a large emphasis is on developing next-generation lithium-based batteries using modern electrochemical engineering and nanoscience, other recent directions have included developing methods to separate important isotopes which have broad applications in the fields of nuclear fusion and radiomedicine.

Stay up-to-date with the Columbia Engineering newsletter

* indicates required