RICHLAND, Wash. — Long ago a ship set sail in the Adriatic sea, possibly heading toward the ancient seaport of Aquileia. But it never made it. For 1,800 years the ship’s wreckage sat on the sea floor, exposed to the elements.
Lab fellow Denis Strachan traveled to Italy last summer in search of the corroded glass… to study how modern-day glass will hold up when storing nuclear waste. He sounds almost as excited about the history as the science.
“These experiments were done for us by our ancient fathers, free,” says Strachan, who works at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash..
After bargaining wrapped up between higher-ups at the Department of Energy and the Italian Cultural Minister, the lab finally started experimenting in June. Scientists wanted to find out:
How much corrosion happened over the last 1,800 years.
How water reacted with the glass.
And what the ancient glass turned into.
Senior scientist Joseph Ryan holds up a blue piece of glass found at the bottom of the sea. Most likely it’s a part of a goblet and its handle. The corrosion looks iridescent, and there’s not much of it.
“You can still see on this material, all of the neat little ridges and decorations that are present on this glass, and its been buried for 1,800 years in just sea water – not really the world’s best repository situation,” Ryan says.
Ryan says they can use the chemistry behind the unintentionally durable Roman glass to make sure what’s used to hold nuclear waste will not fail.
While molten glass pours in the background, Strachan explains one way to store nuclear waste is by turning it into glass through a process called vitrification. Once scientists understand the chemistry of the ancient artifacts, they can put that data into models that will predict how vitrification will hold up over millennia.
“By understanding the chemistry, and understanding the science associated with that, you’re better able then to do the calculation and assure the public,” Strachan says.
The researchers say they have a lot to learn from these artifacts. But early results show the vitrified waste will hold up for many thousands of years.
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