From PNNL: “Oxygen: Not at All Random”


July 2015

Rejecting random diffusion, oxygen atoms create detailed architectures in uranium dioxide, radically altering our understanding of corrosion

Oxygen atoms follow a set pattern in corroding uranium dioxide, the primary component of fuel rods in nuclear reactors, not random diffusion. Understanding this pattern opens new doors for controlling corrosion. Image by Cortland Johnson, PNNL.

Results: Corrosion follows a different path when it comes to uranium dioxide, the primary component of the rods that power nuclear reactors, according to a new study by scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, University of Chicago, and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. In uranium dioxide, the oxygen atoms-key corrosion creators-do not diffuse randomly through the material. Rather, the oxygen atoms settle into the third, sixth, ninth, etc., layers. They space themselves within the layers and alter the structure by causing the layers of uranium atoms above and below to draw closer to the oxygen. The oxygen atoms essentially self-assemble into a highly structured array.

Why It Matters: Oxygen’s interactions can extensively corrode materials, whether it is a car in a field or a fuel canister in a nuclear reactor. Under certain conditions, oxygen corrodes fuel rods and causes them to swell by more than 30 percent, creating problems during both routine operations and emergency situations. Also, this swelling can be a problem for long-term storage of nuclear waste. The study shows atomic-level changes counter to those shown by the classical diffusion model that states most of the oxygen atoms are near the surface. The new study gives scientists accurate information to understand the start of corrosion, possibly leading to new ways to avoid corrosion-related failures.

See the full article here.

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Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is one of the United States Department of Energy National Laboratories, managed by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The main campus of the laboratory is in Richland, Washington.

PNNL scientists conduct basic and applied research and development to strengthen U.S. scientific foundations for fundamental research and innovation; prevent and counter acts of terrorism through applied research in information analysis, cyber security, and the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction; increase the U.S. energy capacity and reduce dependence on imported oil; and reduce the effects of human activity on the environment. PNNL has been operated by Battelle Memorial Institute since 1965.