Most people are familiar with cubic zirconia as a more economical alternative to diamonds in jewelry, but for University of Saskatchewan researcher Andrew Grosvenor, the interest lies in its remarkable properties beyond its ability to sparkle.
Cubic zirconium is hard, durable, resists corrosion, and has a high melting point – more than 2,750 degrees Celsius. These qualities make it ideal for use in nuclear reactors or to sequester nuclear waste products.
“This material has a large number of current and potential applications,” Grosvenor says. “In this case, it could be used to store radioactive waste elements or to act as a host for neutron absorbers, which would be placed in a nuclear reactor.”
Grosvenor, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan, is exploring cross-country collaboration with colleagues from Atomic Energy of Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories to look at ways of combining zirconium with other elements to create new materials with a range of uses.
Their initial meetings, held in early February, were made possible through the Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation (CCNI) at the U of S. They included a tour of campus facilities, including the Canadian Light Source, the national synchrotron facility.
“Members of the CCNI talked to me about how my research could benefit from collaboration with AECL,” Grosvenor says. “AECL is really one of the world’s leader’s in nuclear research – we just haven’t had a chance to see it yet. With AECL becoming more of a public lab, it’s a great time to develop a relationship and possible collaboration.”
Zirconium alloys are already used extensively in the nuclear industry, for example to clad fuel rods. However, for Grosvenor’s purposes, a major challenge is to get zirconium to hold its cubic crystal form – easy enough at high temperatures, but harder as the material cools to room temperature. Crystals for jewelry, for example, must incorporate other elements to achieve this.
Grosvenor and his team – and potentially, collaborators from AECL, will work to find out how to determine the proper composition where zirconium holds stable at wide variety of temperatures and can incorporate various elements.
“One of the central roles of the CCNI is to facilitate interactions among collaborators in industry, government and academia,” says John Root, interim director of CCNI. “The institute will also act as a funding venue to help grow those collaborations and make sure the people are in place to expand them.”
The CCNI received the official go-ahead February 21 with the signing of a multi-year agreement at the U of S by Rob Norris, the provincial minister responsible for Innovation Saskatchewan. The agreement provides $30 million for all aspects of nuclear research, from medical imaging and treatment to accelerator technology and advanced materials. The CCNI expects to issue its first call for research proposals this spring.
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