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Less waste from lower enriched Uranium targets: new separation process for key radiodiagnostic agent reduces radioactive waste

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Less waste from lower enriched Uranium targets

New separation process for key radiodiagnostic agent reduces radioactive waste

Nuclear medicine utilizes technetium-99m among other things for tumor diagnostics. With over 30 million applications worldwide each year, it is the most widely used radioisotope. The precursor material, molybdenum-99, is mainly produced in research reactors. A study at the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Research Neutron Source (FRM II) at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) now illustrates options to significantly reduce the radioactive waste produced during processing to a medical product.

Over 85 percent of all nuclear medicine diagnostic examinations use technetium-99m (Tc-99m). In Germany alone, more than 3 million doses are deployed every year. Coupled to suitable organic molecules, technetium is distributed throughout the body via the blood and accumulates in tumors, for example. When it decays there, the released radiation reveals the precise location of the tumor.

Technetium-99m is produced by irradiating uranium plates, so-called targets, with a high neutron flux that is practically only available at research reactors. Starting from uranium-235 this produces molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which decays to Tc-99m with a half-life of 66 hours. With a half-life of six hours the latter converts to Tc-99, emitting gamma radiation that can be measured.

More waste from low-enriched uranium

The political desire to replace highly enriched uranium with low-enriched uranium also applies to targets being used in the medical field. This is why the Mo-99 irradiation facility currently under construction at FRM II is designed for targets with low-enriched uranium.

"However, this gives rise to a severe problem: the less the uranium plates are enriched with uranium-235, the lower the specific yield of Mo-99 during irradiation," says Dr. Tobias Chemnitz, instrument scientist at the MEDAPP medical irradiation facility at FRM II.

To meet world-wide demand of Tc-99m, at least twice as many uranium plates must be irradiated and processed, depending on the technology used. This produces correspondingly higher volumes of waste. Chemnitz addressed this problem in his doctoral thesis at the Technical University of Munich.

New process avoids up to 15,000 liters of liquid radioactive waste

The final irradiated plates comprise only about 0.1 percent Mo-99. To ensure a purity sufficient for medical applications, the Mo-99 must be separated from the remaining material.

Currently, there are two standard processes in use, based on an acidic and an alkaline process, respectively. In the alkaline variant, the entire target is initially treated with caustic soda. In the process, Mo-99 is preferentially dissolved, while the uranium is insoluble in this solution and remains as a solid. The residual fission products are then separated from the aqueous solution in an elaborate chemical separation process.

Since highly enriched targets have been substituted by low-enriched targets, the same molybdenum yield doubles the volume of the resulting aqueous, medium-level radioactive waste to an annual volume of up to 15,000 liters worldwide – which still has to be cemented to be suitable for final disposal, so that in the end radioactive waste with a volume of 375,000 liters will be produced every year.

The solution: Get rid of the water

To alleviate this problem, Chemnitz and his colleague Riane Stene developed a new method for extracting Mo-99 without the use of aqueous chemistry.

In collaboration with the fluorine chemistry group at Philipps University of Marburg, the researchers developed a system in which the uranium-molybdenum test plates react with nitrogen trifluoride in a plasma. These plates had the same molybdenum content as would later be present in actual irradiated targets.

Finally, they separated the unwanted, excess uranium from the molybdenum via a light-controlled reaction. The separation of the two elements in this manner is every bit as efficient as the sodium hydroxide treatment performed in the first step of the conventional reprocessing procedure – with the notable exception that it produces no aqueous waste.

Only six research reactors produce molybdenum-99

"Currently, six major irradiation facilities worldwide produce Mo-99. Of these research reactors, four are over 40 years old, which leads to unforeseen repairs and associated shutdowns – as has already happened in the recent past. That is why we are proud that the FRM II, together with the French Jules-Horowitz reactor, will be able to secure the European demand for Mo-99 in the future," says Tobias Chemnitz.

TUM has submitted a patent application for the process. Regardless that further development work is still needed, Chemnitz is confident that this novel approach will provide a viable alternative to established processes in the medium term.


T. Chemnitz, Development of a dry-chemical extraction process for 99Mo and plasma-aided synthesis of transition metal hexafluorides. Dissertation, München, 2020.

R. E. Stene, Development of Dry and Non-Aqueous Techniques for the Separation of Molybdenum from Uranium and Investigations of Group Six Metal Fluoride and Oxyfluoride Chemistry. Dissertation, München, 2020.

Riane E. Stene, Tobias Chemnitz, Winfried Petry,Florian Kraus

Reductive photo-chemical separation of the hexafluorides of uranium and molybdenum,

Journal of Fluorine Chemistry, Vol. 240, December 2020, 109655 – DOI: 10.1016/j.jfluchem.2020.109655

More information:

Production of radio isotopes at the Research Neutron Source Heinz Maier-Leibnitz (FRM II):

Production of medical technetium-99m:

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Dr. Tobias Chemnitz

Research Neutron Source Heinz Maier-Leibnitz (FRM II)

Lichtenbergstr. 1, 85748 Garching, Germany

Tel.: +49 89 289 54717 – E-Mail:


The Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Zentrum (MLZ) is a leading center for cutting-edge research with neutrons and positrons. Operating as a user facility, the MLZ offers a unique suite of high-performance neutron scattering instruments. This cooperation involves the Technical University of Munich, the Forschungszentrum Jülich and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon. The MLZ is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, together with the Bavarian State Ministry of Science and the Arts and the partners of the cooperation.

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with more than 600 professors, 48,000 students, and 11,000 academic and non-academic staff. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, combined with economic and social sciences. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with the TUM Asia campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Mumbai, San Francisco, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006, 2012, and 2019 it won recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, TUM regularly places among the best universities in Germany.

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