Uranyl Fluoride – UO2F2
Uranyl fluoride (UO2F2), a compound of uranium, is an intermediate in the conversion of uranium hexafluoride UF6 to an uranium oxide or metal form and is a direct product of the reaction of UF6 with moisture in the air. It is very soluble in water. Uranyl fluoride also is hygroscopic and changes in color from brilliant orange to yellow after reacting with water. Uranyl fluoride is reported to be stable in air to 300°C, above which slow decomposition to U3O8 occurs. When heated to decomposition, UO2F2 emits toxic fluoride fumes.
In accidental releases of UF6, UO2F2, as a solid particulate compound, may deposit on the ground. The overall chemical reaction of this event can be represented as: UF6+ 2H2O → UO2F2+ 4HF. These reactions can take place whether the uranium hexafluoride is a solid or a gas, but will take place almost instantaneously when the UF6 is in a gaseous state. The resulting hydrofluoric acid and the presence of additional water results in formation of solids (primarily HF adducts of hydrated uranyl fluoride (UO2F2-nH2O).
Chemical hazards are far more significant than radioactive hazards, though there is a radioactivity concern if prepared with enriched uranium. Material is corrosive, and harmful by inhalation, ingestion or skin absorption. Ingestion or inhalation may be fatal. Effects of exposure may be delayed.
A vial containing solid crystals of uranium hexafluoride.
(Source: Argonne National Laboratory)
Uranium hexafluoride (UF6) is a chemical compound consisting of one atom of uranium
combined with six atoms of fluorine. It is the chemical form of uranium that is used
during the uranium enrichment process. Within a reasonable range of temperature
and pressure, it can be a solid, liquid, or gas. Solid UF6 is a white, dense,
crystalline material that resembles rock salt.
What’s its structure?
|UF6 is octahedral, with all 6 fluorines pointing towards the
corner of an octahedron. Click on the images to see the 3D structure files.
That’s a lot of fluorines!
If you want a compound of an element in a high oxidation state, fluorine is
the most likely element to help you achieve it; partly favoured by the low F-F
bond energy, partly because fluorine forms strong bonds with almost any other
element. So uranium isn’t the only element to form a hexafluoride. Other
actinides like Np and Pu do it; several of the platinum metals like Pt, Ru, Os,
Rh and Ir form them, so do Tc, Re, Mo and W; and of course there are the famous
noble-gas compound XeF6 and the unreactive gas SF6
(important in the electrical industry as an insulating gas and recently the
subject of concern for its potential in global warming) as well as SeF6
and TeF6 . But UF6 is the most important, as we shall see.
What is UF6 like?
It is a white crystalline solid at room temperature (its triple point is 64°C
(147.3°F) and it sublimes at 56.5°C (133.8°F) at atmospheric pressure). The
liquid phase only exists under pressures greater than about 1.5 atmospheres and
at temperatures above 64°C (see the phase diagram).
UF6 crystals in a glass vial. (from http://web.ead.anl.gov/uranium/guide/uf6/index.cf)
Phase diagram, showing relationship betweenpressure, temperature, and physical form (from
Like all the other hexafluorides (except XeF6) it has an
octahedral structure (U-F = 1.994 Å), with strong covalent bonds within the
molecules but only weak Van der Waals’ forces between neighbours, so that it has
a low boiling point and melting point. Vibrational frequencies are
n1 (R) 667 cm-1;
n2 (R) 535 cm-1;
n3 (IR) 624 cm-1;
n4 (IR) 186 cm-1;
n5 (R) 201 cm-1;
n6 (inactive) 140 cm-1.
Is it reactive?
It does not react with dry air, oxygen, nitrogen or carbon dioxide. However,
when it comes in contact with water, even traces, it undergoes hydrolysis to
uranyl fluoride (UO2F2) and the corrosive and toxic gas HF.
UF6 + 2 H2O
+ 4 HF
For this reason, it attacks glass unless absolutely free of either water or
HF. It reacts with many elements (e.g. Group I and II metals; B, Al, Ga,
In, C, Si-Pb etc) forming their fluorides. Most hydrogen-containing
compounds react forming HF, so that hydrocarbons (including arenes) form a
mixture of carbon fluorides, carbonaceous material and HF, but there is no
reaction with fluorocarbons such as Teflon. It attacks many metals, except Ni
(owing to the formation of a surface coating of fluoride) and Al (that bears a
surface oxide layer).
How is it made?
There are many ways of making UF6. Although reaction of uranium
and fluorine was first noted by Henri Moissan, first isolator of fluorine, c.1900,
UF6 was originally reported by Ruff (pioneer of syntheses of many
metal fluorides) and Heinzelmann in 1911. They made it by fluorination of
uranium, and also by fluorination of UC2; fluorine needs to be heated
to react with uranium, unless it is finely divided.
U (s) + 3 F2 (g)
UC2 (s) + 7 F2 (g)
+ 2 CF4 (g) (at 350°C)
An unusual reaction which does not use fluorine (but which has not been
employed commercially) is:
2 UF4 (g) + O2 (g)
+ UO2F2 (g)
The main process used industrially employs fluorination of UF4 at
around 500°C. It is a very exothermic process; temperatures can reach 1100°C in
reactors with capacities of up to 380 kg per hour.
UF4 (g) + F2 (g)
Presumably UF4 has to be made first?
Indeed, and its synthesis from the uranium ore is quite a complicated
process. The uranium is usually present in the ore as an oxide, approximating to
U3O8. This is dissolved in nitric acid forming UO2(NO3)2.6H2O.
(In some places, carbonate leaching, affording [UO2(CO3)3]4-,
is used). This is purified by extraction using a solvent such as
tributylphosphate in kerosene; after evaporation of the solution, the resulting
solid is roasted to form UO3. The resulting UO3 is then
converted into UF6 in a three-stage process.
- UO3 (s) + H2 (g)
- UO2 (s) + 4HF(g)
+ 2 H2O(g)
- UF4 (g) + F2 (g)
How is UF6 used?
It is extremely volatile (it has a vapour pressure of around 120 mmHg at room
temperature) so can be handled as a gas for the isotope separation.
How is the separation achieved?
Several methods have been used:
- Gaseous diffusion
- Electromagnetic isotope separation
- Gas centrifugation
- Laser isotope separation
Electromagnetic isotope separation, using UCl4, was the original
method used in the Manhattan project in a plant at Oak Ridge Tennessee. Laser
isotope separation has been little used, the best known version being the
Australian Silex process. Of the other two processes, something over 90%
of the world’s enriched uranium is obtained
Gas diffusion for isotope enrichment.
In gaseous diffusion, UF6 gas is forced to diffuse under pressure
through porous membranes. The lighter 235UF6 molecules
diffuse slightly faster than the 238UF6 molecules. As the
gas moves, the two isotopes are separated, increasing (enriching) the U-235
concentration, and decreasing (depleting) the concentration of U-238. However,
over 1000 stages are required to produce a UF6 product with even 3-4%
enrichment! As the most volatile uranium compound, UF6 was an obvious
choice for use, but because of its high reactivity and problems associated with
its handling, many alternatives were investigated, such as alkoxides, whilst
unsuccessful attempts were made by Gilman to obtain simple alkyls. Ultimately
the technology was improved to enable full advantage to be taken of its
As an a-emitter, uranium is not especially
hazardous unless ingested by the body. However, the ready reaction of UF6
with water makes it a potentially hazardous substance, owing to the toxicity of
the HF produced. In a 1944 accident when a cylinder containing UF6
was being heated by steam, a weld ruptured, releasing some 400 lb of UF6;
the reaction of UF6 with steam released sufficient HF to cause two
fatalities. Another person was killed by inhaled HF in 1986 following rupture of
a heated cylinder; some 31 other people were exposed to the fumes but no one
else appears to have suffered long-term ill effects.
UF6 and Uranium Processing
Uranium processing. (Source: Argonne National Laboratory)
The gaseous diffusion process used
to enrich uranium requires uranium in the form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6).
In the first step of UF6 production, uranium ore is mined and sent to
a mill where uranium oxide (often called “yellowcake”) is produced. The uranium
oxide is then sent to a UF6 production facility. At the production
facility, the uranium oxide is combined with anhydrous hydrogen fluoride (HF)
and fluorine gas in a series of chemical reactions to form the chemical compound
UF6. The product UF6 is placed into steel cylinders and
shipped as a solid to a gaseous diffusion plant for enrichment.
Uranium hexafluoride is used in
uranium processing because its unique properties make it very convenient. It can
conveniently be used as a gas for processing, as a liquid for filling or
emptying containers or equipment, and as a solid for storage—all at temperatures
and pressures commonly used in industrial processes.
Uranium hexafluoride (UF6)
at ambient conditions is a volatile, white, crystalline solid. Solid UF6
is readily transformed into the gaseous or liquid states by the application of
heat. All three phases — solid, liquid, and gas — coexist at 147°F (64°C) (the
triple point). Only the gaseous phase exists above 446°F (230°C), the critical
temperature, at which the critical pressure is 45.5 atm (4.61 mPa). The vapor
pressure above the solid reaches 1 atm (0.1 mPa) at 133°F (56°C), the
The triple point of UF6
occurs at 22 pounds per square inch, absolute (psia) and 147°F (64°C). These are
the only conditions at which all three states — liquid, solid, and gas — can
exist in equilibrium. If the temperature or pressure is greater than at the
triple point, there will only be gas or liquid.
UF6 phase diagram, showing relationship between
pressure, temperature, and physical form. (Source: Argonne National Laboratory)
Density of solid UF6 at
68°F (20°C) is 317.8 lb/ft3 (5.1 g/cm3). A large decrease
in UF6 density occurs when UF6 changes from the solid to
the liquid state, which results in a large increase in volume. The thermal
expansion of the liquid with increasing temperature is also high. Therefore, it
is important to maintain control of the total mass and physical state of UF6
throughout an operational cycle. To avoid hydraulic rupture, when items with
restricted volumes, such as traps and containers, are filled with UF6,
full allowance must be made for the volume changes that will arise over the
working temperature range to which the vessels will be subjected.
For UF6 to be handled as
a liquid, the pressure must be in excess of 0.15 mPa (1.5 atm) and the
temperature above 147°F (64°C) because the sublimation temperature lies below
the triple point. Thus, any process using liquid UF6 is above
atmospheric pressure and is subject to a potential leakage of UF6 to
the environment, with vapor loss and cooling occurring simultaneously.
Solidification occurs exothermically when the pressure falls below 1.5 atm (0.15
mPa). Thus, if a cylinder heated above the triple point is breached, a rapid
outflow of the UF6 occurs until the pressure drops sufficiently to
start the solidification process. The rate of outflow then decreases but
continues until the contents cool to about 133°F (56°C), which is the
atmospheric sublimation temperature. Some release of material may continue,
depending on the type and location of the breach.
UF6 is hygroscopic (i.e.,
moisture-retaining) and, in contact with water (H2O), will decompose
immediately to uranyl fluoride (UO2F2). When heated to
decomposition, UF6 emits toxic fluoride fumes.
Uranium hexafluoride (UF6)
does not react with oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or dry air. However, UF6
combines with water to form the soluble reaction products uranyl fluoride (UO2F2)
and hydrogen fluoride (HF). For this reason, UF6 is always handled in
leak-tight containers and processing equipment. When UF6 comes into
contact with water, such as water vapor in the air, the UF6 and water
react, forming corrosive HF and a uranium-fluoride compound called uranyl
fluoride (UO2F2). UF6 is essentially inert to
clean aluminum, steel, Monel, nickel, aluminum, bronze, copper, and Teflon.
Teflon is commonly used in the packing and cap gasket for cylinders storing
When released to the atmosphere,
gaseous UF6 combines with humidity to form a cloud of particulate UO2F2
and HF fumes. The reaction is very fast and is dependent on the availability of
water vapor. Following a large-scale release of UF6 in an open area,
the dispersion is governed by meteorological conditions, and the plume could
still contain unhydrolyzed material even after traveling a distance of several
hundred meters. After hydrolysis, UO2F2 can be deposited
as a finely divided solid, while HF remains as part of the gas plume.
In enclosed situations, the reaction
products form a dense fog, reducing visibility for occupants of the area and
hindering evacuation and emergency response. Fog can occur in unconfined areas
if the humidity is high.
In a fire, the reaction of UF6
with water is accelerated because of the increased UF6 vapor pressure
and the large quantities of water formed in combustion of organic materials or
hydrocarbons. Reaction of liquid UF6 with hydrocarbon vapors is
extremely vigorous in flames, with formation of UF4 and low-molecular
weight fluorinated compounds. More heat is generally released in these
hydrocarbon interactions with UF6 than in the corresponding reactions
of hydrocarbons with oxygen.
Uranium hexafluoride (UF6)
and related compounds have radiological and chemical characteristics that pose
potential health risks. Depleted uranium hexafluoride also has potential health
and environmental effects.
The characteristics of UF6
pose potential health risks, and the material is handled accordingly. Uranium is
radioactive and decays into a series of other radioactive elements. Therefore,
UF6 in storage emits low levels of radiation. The radiation levels
measured on the outside surface of filled depleted UF6 storage
cylinders are typically about 2 to 3 millirem per hour (mrem/h), decreasing to
about 1 mrem/h at a distance of 1 ft (0.3 m).
In addition, if UF6 is
released to the atmosphere, the uranium compounds and hydrogen fluoride (HF)
that are formed by reaction with moisture in the air can be chemically toxic.
Uranium is a heavy metal that, in addition to being radioactive, can have toxic
chemical effects (primarily on the kidneys) if it enters the bloodstream by
means of ingestion or inhalation. HF is an extremely corrosive gas that can
damage the lungs and cause death if inhaled at high enough concentrations.