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Uranium has largely been relegated to nuclear energy and weapons development, but researchers from the University of Manchester think it could do so much more. The scientists discovered that it’s capable of new unprecedented reactions.

Uranium can perform reactions that previously no one thought possible, which could transform the way industry makes bulk chemicals, polymers, and the precursors to new drugs and plastics, according to the new findings.

What makes uranium unique is it sits at a crossroads in the periodic table, not a positional one but one in terms of character; it can behave like the lanthanides sometimes, the 14 element row above the actinides, or sometimes it reacts just like transition metals,” Professor Steve Liddle, head of Inorganic Chemistry at Manchester said.

Even more interesting is the fact that we have more access to uranium than to most transition elements, which are often in low abundance terrestrially and are harder to extract. “[W]e have literally hundreds of tons of depleted uranium sat in storage around the world as a ‘waste’ by-product of uranium enrichment,” Liddle added, “so it’d be great to do something usual with it.

The latest discovery means that industry might now be in a position to develop new compounds that can’t be made in any other way. What’s more, uranium is one of the elements we know the least about and while it is associated with nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the new discovery suggests other uses may be on the horizon.

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Liddle explained that their discovery could lead to the development of new medicines and plastics that are truly biodegradable. Plastic continues to be one of today’s major polluters, with more than 297.5 million tons of plastic used globally. Alongside efforts to reuse and recycle plastic, turning to the element for developing eco-friendly bottles would definitely help.

Steve Liddle, author of the paper, said: “This discovery will lead to some monumental developments that could change the way we live. Development work like this really could pave the way for new medicines and also the creation of truly biodegradable hard plastic.

It is comparable to the discovery of liquid crystal displays, which happened 20 years before everyone sat up and realised that they could be used in modern computer displays and TVs.

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