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Radiochemistry

Radiochemistry: an answer to social challenges

The amount of cancer patients in the world rises every year. To this day, no final solution for the management of high-level radioactive waste is available. Society therefore faces some challenges. Radiochemistry can provide an answer to these challenges. What is radiochemistry? Radiochemistry is the part of chemistry which deals with radioactive substances. Scientists study chemical processes on irradiated and natural radioactive materials in order to apply them in the chemical and medical sectors. In the medical sector, for example, these processes are used to produce medical radioisotopes. These radioisotopes are essential in the fight against cancer. They are used worldwide to diagnose, treat and monitor cancer during treatment.

SCK CEN - Onze verantwoordelijkheid (2019)

Separation chemistry as a key competence

Radiochemistry plays a central role in SCK CEN’s large projects. Separation chemistry is one of the key competences of the research centre in the development of new radiochemical processes. Thanks to separation chemistry, scientists obtain purified products. High purity is necessary for the characterisation and implementation of those products. In recent years, SCK CEN has joined forces with the main European radiochemical laboratories. This has enabled the research centre to broaden and strengthen its expertise in that field.

The application possibilities are wide. These three areas are the backbone of the radiochemical research of SCK CEN.

Three research areas

  • Belgium is considering geological disposal of its high-level radioactive waste and spent fuels. In order to reduce the burden and risks for future generations, SCK CEN is studying alternative scenarios. One of these is the advanced separation of chemical elements in irradiated fuel. By separating these elements into fractions, each separate fraction can be treated efficiently and in a targeted manner. SCK CEN was already a pioneer in this research area in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Nowadays, SCK CEN is developing innovative extraction systems to be able to separate these elements. Scientists at SCK CEN are also studying electrochemical separation processes. Various projects fit in this research area: RECUMO, ASOF, GENIORS and ELECTRON.

  • The production of medical radioisotopes goes through different phases. The BR2 research reactor takes care of the first production phase of medical radioisotopes: irradiating targets. Afterwards, the irradiated targets undergo a chemical process to separate the medical radioisotopes and administer them to patients.

    Scientists of SCK CEN are studying how they can separate and purify the isotopes using a radiochemical process to get qualitative products. Those products will be used in the medical and in the pharmaceutical industry. They focus on the production of a new generation of medical radioisotopes such as lutetium-177, actinium-225 and terbium-161. For example, lutetium-177 and actinium-225 are promising in the treatment of prostate cancer. The BR2 research reactor will take care of the production. But in the future, MINERVA - MYRRHA's particle accelerator up to 100 MeV - will also play an important role.

  • SCK CEN develops radiopharmaceuticals as part of the NURA project. Radiopharmaceuticals are medicines that bring a radioactive isotope to a particular organ via a carrier molecule. Once the carrier molecule has attached itself to the cell, the radioactive isotope irradiates the cancer cell. SCK CEN labels radiopharmaceuticals with new medical radioisotopes and carries out preclinical trials.

    Does the carrier molecule carry the radioactive isotope to the organ?  How do the radiopharmaceuticals and the cancer cell interact? Do the drugs have the required therapeutic effect? SCK CEN is currently upgrading its laboratories to meet the needs of radiopharmaceuticals.

Separating chemical elements in irradiated fuel? Compare it to household waste: it used to be lumped together and then burned. Now we sort it.
Thomas Cardinaels, expert in radiochemistry
SCK CEN - Radiochemie (2019)

Uranium is the nuclear fuel of a reactor: the fuel will last for about four years. When irradiating uranium, neptunium, americium and curium are created. Those elements, the so-called minor actinides, have a high radiotoxicity and a long half-life. On top of that, they generate a lot of heat. SCK CEN separates and isolates them through liquid-liquid extraction. Afterwards, the separated elements are converted back into a solid material to be burned as a new fuel in a reactor such as MYRRHA. As a result, they do not end up with the high-level radioactive waste. In doing so, SCK CEN reduces the burden and risks of geological disposal for future generations. How does this conversion from liquid to solid take place? SCK CEN uses, among other processes, an innovative sol-gel process for this. The result is round microspheres: small, yellow spheres, only one millimetre in size.

SCK CEN - Radiochemische analyses (2019)

Radiochemical analysis

What radionuclides do the fractions consist of? What is the composition? How pure are the medical radioisotopes? In order to answer all of this, to assess the radiochemical processes and to evaluate the end products, a thorough analysis is needed. We offer a wide range of radiochemical analyses.
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