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Californium is “wicked stuff” and could change how organizations store radioactive waste and recycle fuel.

Californium — Cf if you’re looking at the Periodic Table of Elements — is “almost like snake oil,” said Florida State Professor Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt, the lead researcher on the waste storage project. “It sounds almost too good to be true.”

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In carefully choreographed experiments, Albrecht-Schmitt and his colleagues found that californium had amazing abilities to bond and separate other materials. They also found it was extremely resistant to radiation damage.

Albrecht-Schmitt said the discoveries could help scientists build new storage containers for radioactive waste, plus help separate radioactive fuel, which means the fuel could end up recycled.

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“This has real world application,” he said. “It’s not purely an academic practice.”

After years of working with the U.S. Department of Energy, Albrecht-Schmitt obtained 5 milligrams of californium costing $1.4 million, paid for through an endowment to the university in honor of retired professor Gregory Choppin.

But that small, expensive element opened a whole new world of nuclear chemistry.

“We’re changing how people look at californium and how it can be used,” Albrecht-Schmitt said.

David A. Dixon, professor of chemistry at the University of Alabama, and his graduate student, Ted Garner, provided the calculations and theory on why the californium could bond in such unique ways, while scientists at Argonne National Laboratory helped correlate the theory with the experiments. Evgeny Alekseev and Wulf Depmeier of Germany also provided an improved understanding on the atomic structure of californium.

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