Computer Simulation Study of Third Phase Formation in a Nuclear Extraction Process

  • Junju Mu

Student thesis: Phd


Third phase formation is an undesirable phenomenon during the PUREX process, which is a continuous liquid-liquid extraction approach for the reprocessing of uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. When third phase formation occurs, the organic extraction solution splits into two layers. The light upper layer, which is commonly named the light organic phase, contains a lower concentration of metal ions, tri-n-butyl phosphate (TBP) and nitric acids but is rich in the organic diluent. The heavy lower layer, which is commonly named the third phase, contains high concentrations of metal ions, TBP and nitric acids. As the third phase contains high concentrations of the uranium and plutonium complexes it can thus cause processing and safety concerns. Therefore, a comprehensive understanding of the mechanism of third phase formation is needed so as to improve the PUREX flowsheet. To investigate third phase formation through molecular simulations, one should first obtain reliable molecular models. A refined model for TBP, which uses a new set of partial charges generated from our density functional theory calculations, was proposed in this study. To compare its performance with other available TBP models, molecular dynamics simulations were conducted to calculate the thermodynamic properties, transport properties and the microscopic structures of liquid TBP, TBP/water mixtures and TBP/n-alkane mixtures. To our knowledge, it is only TBP model that has been validated to show a good prediction of the microscopic structure of systems that consist of both hydrophobic and hydrophilic species. This thesis also presents evidence that the light-organic/third phase transition in the TBP/n-dodecane/HNO3/H2O systems, which is relevant to the PUREX process, is an unusual transition between two isotropic, bi-continuous micro-emulsion phases. The light-organic /third phase coexistence was first observed using Gibbs Ensemble Monte Carlo (GEMC) simulations and then validated through Gibbs free energy calculations. Snapshots from the simulations as well as the cluster analysis of the light organic and third phases reveal structures akin to bi-continuous micro-emulsion phases, where the polar species reside within a mesh whose surface consists of amphiphilic TBP molecules. The non-polar n-dodecane molecules are outside this mesh. The large-scale structural differences between the two phases lie solely in the dimensions of the mesh. To our knowledge, the observation of the light-organic/third phase coexistence through simulation approaches and a phase transition of this nature have not previously been reported. Finally, this thesis presents evidence that the microscopic structure of the light organic phase of the Zr(IV)/TBP/n-octane/HNO3/H2O system, which is also related to the PUREX process, is different from that of the common hypothesis, where such system is consisted of large ellipsoidal reverse micelles. Snapshots from simulations, hydrogen bonding analysis and cluster analysis showed that the Zr4+, nitrate, TBP and H2O form extended aggregated networks. Thus, as above, we observe a bi-continuous structure but this time with embedded local clusters centred around the Zr4+ ions. The local clusters were found to consist primarily of Zr(NO3)4·3TBP complexes. This finding provides a new view of the structure of the Zr(IV)/TBP/n-octane/HNO3/H2O system.
Date of Award31 Dec 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAndrew Masters (Supervisor) & Clint Sharrad (Supervisor)


  • micro-emulsion phase transition
  • tri-n-butyl phosphate
  • Gibbs ensemble Monte Carlo
  • molecular simulation
  • molecular dynamics

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