"Actinide nitrides are candidate nuclear fuels of the future," said Jaqueline Kiplinger, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who led the team of researchers on the recent Nature Chemistry paper. "But they can also break carbon-hydrogen bonds, which are very strong."
Uranium nitride rips the hydrogen atoms off a carbon atom -- no easy task.
A similar process happens every day in car engines. Unfortunately a lot of energy in those bonds is lost as heat.
If the two atoms could be split apart without losing all that energy, gasoline could be used much more effectively not only to fuel a car, but also to improve a whole variety of petroleum-related products, from plastics to drugs.
Unfortunately the new molecule is destroyed when it rips hydrogen atoms off a carbon atom. For uranium nitride to become commercially viable, it would have to knock one hydrogen atom after another and not destroy itself in the process.
The scientists would, in other words, have to turn uranium nitride into a catalyst. That should be possible, said Kiplinger, but right now it is not.
Scientists might not have a cheap, reliable and reusable molecular bond-breaker, but nature already does. Found in virtually every organism on Earth, cytochrome P450 is an enzyme involved in a massive number of chemical transformations, from from creating energy in mitochrondria to drug metabolism.
"Our studies suggest that uranium nitride breaks carbon-hydrogen bonds like cytochrome P450," said Kiplinger.
By studying exactly how uranium nitride breaks C-H bonds, scientists could learn more about how cytochrome P450 breaks C-H bonds, a process which, despite its biological and potential economic importance, is poorly understood.