Half-life heresy: Accelerating radioactive decay
What an exciting idea, that what we thought was immutable is actually mutable! Unfortunately, to read the rest of this article requires a subscription to New Scientist, which I don't have. So I did the next best thing -- I found two other articles about the physicist referred to, Claus Rolfs, the first describing Rolfs' ideas, the second by a fellow physicist who considers Rolfs' ideas fallacious. Time will tell who's correct.
Half-life heresy: Accelerating radioactive decay - fundamentals - 21 October 2006 - New ScientistHere's the description of Rolfs' ideas:
There's nothing you can do to hurry radioactive decay, the textbooks will tell you, but New Scientist meets a physicist who begs to differ.
For all its eureka moments, science has taught us many unpalatable lessons about what we are powerless to do. We can't dim the sun to remedy droughts or global warming. We can't stave off the ravages of time to live for thousands of years. And there's little we can do about radioactive waste from nuclear reactors that will be a health hazard for generations to come. Radioactivity cannot be tamed; all we can do is bundle the waste somewhere safe and wait for it to decay away. So it takes some nerve to say otherwise, and suggest that there are, after all, ways to speed up radioactive decay.
Yet that is exactly what Claus Rolfs, a physicist at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, is doing. His dramatic - and controversial - claim is that by encasing certain radioisotopes in metal and chilling them close to absolute zero, it ought ...
Cool solution to waste disposal
[....] Professor Claus Rolfs, leader of the group at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, said “The method we are proposing means that nuclear waste could probably be dealt with entirely within the lifetimes of the people that produce it. We would not have to put it underground and let our great-great-grandchildren pay the price for our high standard of living.”
The technique involves embedding the nuclear waste in a metal and cooling it to ultra-low temperatures. This speeds up the rate of decay of the radioactive materials potentially cutting their half lives by a factor of 100 or more.
Professor Rolfs added “We are currently investigating radium-226, a hazardous component of spent nuclear fuel with a half-life of 1600 years. I calculate that using this technique could reduce the half-life to 100 years. At best, I have calculated that it could be reduced to as little as two years. This would avoid the need to bury nuclear waste in deep repositories - a hugely expensive and difficult process.”
Rolfs developed the technique after trying to recreate experimentally the way in which atomic nuclei react in the centre of stars. Whilst using a particle collider to carry out his studies, he noticed that more nuclear fusion reactions happened in the collider if the atomic nuclei were encased in metal and cooled. Fusion involves light nuclei coalescing to form heavier nuclei, releasing energy in the process. Radioactive decay is the opposite: a particle is released from a nucleus. Rolfs believes that if cooling nuclei in metal enhances fusion, it could enhance the opposite reaction, namely speeding up the rate at which radioactive particles decay.
According to Rolfs, the lower temperature of the metal means that free electrons can get closer to the radioactive nuclei. These electrons accelerate positively charged particles towards the nuclei, thereby increasing the probability of fusion reactions, or in the opposite case, accelerate particles that are being ejected from the nucleus. [....]
And here's the refutation of his ideas:
Can Germans speed up the radioactive decay?
As physicsweb.org reports, Claus Rolfs et al. from University of Bochum used their local accelerator to speed up or slow down the fusion rate of individual protons, deuterons, and other light nuclei. The authors argue that if the particles are encased in metals, the process is faster than with insulators.
Besides fusion, they have proposed a similar method to speed up the rate of both alpha and beta+- radioactive decay. Rolfs' explanation is based on electrons near the nuclei that accelerate positively charged particles towards the nuclei. Blah blah blah.
I have very serious difficulties in believing this sort of stuff because the electrons can only give the particles electronVolts of energy while you need differences of order megaelectronVolts: electrons can simply be neglected in nuclear physics. In other words, the proposed mechanism and its problems seem equivalent to those of cold fusion. I am far from being the only one who believes that cold fusion is BS. In fact, even sonofusion is probably BS.
For long-lived nuclei that decay via alpha-decay, the huge timescales come from the exponentials that we know from quantum tunnelling. Most of the barrier that the alpha particle needs to penetrate is unaffected by the electrons.
So I am convinced that electrons, chemistry, and atomic physics can't cause any significant changes in the lifetimes of the elements and that their work is nonsense, despite their precious German nationality. But if I am missing something, I am sure that a reader will correct me. Such a discovery would have profound implications. The main problem with radioactive waste is its long lifetime. If you could significantly speed their decay up, that would make a huge political difference for nuclear power plants.