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Use of Diffusion for Nuclear Energy Applications: Uranium Enrichment

Use of Diffusion for Nuclear Energy Applications: Uranium Enrichment

Gaseous diffusion has been used to produce enriched uranium for use in nuclear power plants and weapons. Naturally occurring uranium contains only 0.72% of 235U, the kind of uranium that is “fissile,” that is, capable of sustaining a nuclear fission chain reaction. Nuclear reactors require fuel that is 2–5% 235U, and nuclear bombs need even higher concentrations.

One way to enrich uranium to the desired levels is to take advantage of Graham’s law. In a gaseous diffusion enrichment plant, uranium hexafluoride (UF6, the only uranium compound that is volatile enough to work) is slowly pumped through large cylindrical vessels called diffusers, which contain porous barriers with microscopic openings. The process is one of diffusion because the other side of the barrier is not evacuated.

The 235UF6 molecules have a higher average speed and diffuse through the barrier a little faster than the heavier 238UF6 molecules. The gas that has passed through the barrier is slightly enriched in 235UF6 and the residual gas is slightly depleted. The small difference in molecular weights between 235UF6 and 238UF6 only about 0.4% enrichment, is achieved in one diffuser (see the figure below). But by connecting many diffusers in a sequence of stages (called a cascade), the desired level of enrichment can be attained.

This figure shows a large cylindrical container oriented horizontally. A narrow tube or pipe which is labeled “porous barrier” runs horizontally through the center of the tube and extends a short distance out from the left and right ends of the cylinder. At the far left, an arrow points right into the tube. This arrow is labele, “Uranium hexafluoride ( U F subscript 6 ).” A line segment connects the label, “High pressure feed tube,” to the tube where it enters the cylinder. In the short region of tube outside the cylinder, 5 small, purple circles and 4 small, green circles are present. Inside the cylinder, an arrow points right through the tube which contains many evenly distributed, purple circles and a handful of green circles which decrease in quantity moving left to right through the cylinder. Curved arrows extend from the inner area of the tube into the outer region of the cylinder. Three of these arrows point into the area above the tube and three point into the area below. Two line segments extend from the label, “Higher speed superscript 235 U F subscript 6 diffuses through barrier faster than superscript 238 U F subscript 6,” to two green circles in the space above the tube. In the short section of tubing just outside the cylinder, 8 small, purple circles are present. An arrow labeled, “Depleted superscript 238 U F subscript 6,” points right extending from the end of this tube. The larger space outside the tube contains approximately 100 evenly distributed small green circles and only 5 purple circles. Eight of the purple circles appear at the left end of the cylinder. A tube exits the lower right end of the cylinder. It has 5 green circles followed by a right pointing arrow and the label, “Enriched superscript 235 U F subscript 6.”

In a diffuser, gaseous UF6 is pumped through a porous barrier, which partially separates 235UF6 from 238UF6 The UF6 must pass through many large diffuser units to achieve sufficient enrichment in 235U.

The large scale separation of gaseous 235UF6 from 238UF6 was first done during the World War II, at the atomic energy installation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as part of the Manhattan Project (the development of the first atomic bomb). Although the theory is simple, this required surmounting many daunting technical challenges to make it work in practice.

The barrier must have tiny, uniform holes (about 10–6 cm in diameter) and be porous enough to produce high flow rates. All materials (the barrier, tubing, surface coatings, lubricants, and gaskets) need to be able to contain, but not react with, the highly reactive and corrosive UF6.

Because gaseous diffusion plants require very large amounts of energy (to compress the gas to the high pressures required and drive it through the diffuser cascade, to remove the heat produced during compression, and so on), it is now being replaced by gas centrifuge technology, which requires far less energy. A current hot political issue is how to deny this technology to Iran, to prevent it from producing enough enriched uranium for them to use to make nuclear weapons.

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