Uranium hexafluoride (UF6), referred to as "hex" in the nuclear industry, is a compound used in the uranium enrichment process that produces fuel for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. It forms solid grey crystals at standard temperature and pressure (STP), is highly toxic, reacts violently with water and is corrosive to most metals. It reacts mildly with aluminium, forming a thin surface layer of AlF3 that resists further reaction.
Milled uranium ore — U3O8, or "yellowcake" — is dissolved in nitric acid, yielding a solution of uranyl nitrate UO2(NO3)2. Pure uranyl nitrate is obtained by solvent extraction, then treated with ammonia to produce ammonium diuranate ("ADU", (NH4)2U2O7). Reduction with hydrogen gives UO2, which is converted with hydrofluoric acid (HF) to uranium tetrafluoride, UF4. Oxidation with fluorine finally yields UF6.
UF6 is used in both of the main uranium enrichment methods, gaseous diffusion and the gas centrifuge method, because it has a triple point at 147 °F (64 °C, 337 K) and slightly higher than normal atmospheric pressure. Additionally, fluorine has only a single stable naturally occurring isotope, so isotopologues of UF6 differ in their molecular weight based solely on the uranium isotope present.
All the other uranium fluorides are involatile solids which are coordination polymers.
Gaseous diffusion requires ca. 60 times as much energy as the gas centrifuge process; even so, this is just 4% of the energy that can be produced by the resulting enriched uranium.
In addition to its use in enrichment, uranium hexafluoride has been used in an advanced reprocessing method which was developed in the Czech Republic. In this process used oxide nuclear fuel is treated with fluorine gas to form a mixture of fluorides. This is then distilled to separate the different classes of material.
About 95% of the depleted uranium produced to date is stored as uranium hexafluoride, DUF6, in steel cylinders in open air yards close to enrichment plants. Each cylinder contains up to 12.7 tonnes (or 14 US tons) of solid UF6. In the U.S. alone, 560,000 tonnes of depleted UF6 had accumulated by 1993. In 2005, 686,500 tonnes in 57,122 storage cylinders were located near Portsmouth, Ohio, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Paducah, Kentucky. The long-term storage of DUF6 presents environmental, health, and safety risks because of its chemical instability. When UF6 is exposed to moist air, it reacts with the water in the air to produce UO2F2 (uranyl fluoride) and HF (hydrogen fluoride) both of which are highly soluble and toxic. Storage cylinders must be regularly inspected for signs of corrosion and leaks. The estimated life time of the steel cylinders is measured in decades.
There have been several accidents involving uranium hexafluoride in the United States. The U.S. government has been converting DUF6 to solid uranium oxides for disposal. Such disposal of the entire DUF6 inventory could cost anywhere from $15 million to $450 million.
The solid state structure was reported by J.H. Levy, J.C Taylor and A.B Waugh. In this paper neutron diffraction was used to determine the structures of UF6, MoF6 and WF6 at 77K.
It has been shown that uranium hexafluoride is an oxidant and a lewis acid which is able to bind to fluoride, for instance the reaction of copper fluoride with uranium hexafluoride in acetonitrile is reported to form Cu[UF7]2.5MeCN.
Polymeric uranium(VI) fluorides containing organic cations have been isolated and characterised by X-ray diffraction.
At room pressure, it sublimes at 56.5 C. The triple point is at 64 oC.
The pentafluoride of uranium (UF5) and diuranium nonafluoride (U2F9) has been characterised by C.J. Howard, J.C Taylor and A.B. Waugh.
The trifluoride of uranium was characterised by J. Laveissiere. The structure of UOF4 was reported by J.H. Levy, J.C. Taylor, and P.W. Wilson.