Earth’s oceans contain more than four billion tons of uranium, which scientists believe could be used to power cities and towns across the globe for the next 10,000 years. Although the heavy metal could one day be used to drive nuclear power plants, the extraction process has so far proved quite difficult. As part of an ongoing project by the U.S. Department of Energy, researchers have come up with a safe and efficient way of extracting uranium using specially-designed adsorbent fibers.
Over the last five years, the DoE has brought together a team of scientists from various universities and laboratories around the country to look into this versatile chemical substance. Efforts to mine uranium from ocean floors date back nearly 50 years. In the 1990s, Japanese researchers made great strides when it comes to developing adsorbent materials, which are basically materials that can hold molecules (gas, liquid or solute) on their surface.
The current research is based on these ideas, with the U.S. scientists having created an incredibly innovative adsorbent substance that can be used to extract uranium from the oceans at far less costs. According to the team, the new material could help reduce the cost of uranium mining by an impressive “three to four times”. It is made up of “braided polyethylene fibers” coated with amidoxime.
Amidoxime, as the researchers point out, is known to attract uranium dioxide molecules, which are converted into uranyl ions via a complex acidic treatment. Before they can be used as fuel for nuclear power plants, however, the ions will need to be processed carefully. The research was made possible with help from the country’s best marine scientists, computation scientists, chemists, chemical engineers and even economists. Speaking about the breakthrough, recently published in the Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research journal, Phillip Britt of Oak Ridge National Laboratory said:
For nuclear power to remain a sustainable energy source, an economically viable and secure source of nuclear fuel must be available. This special journal issue captures the dramatic successes that have been made by researchers across the world to make the oceans live up to their vast promise for a secure energy future.
Don’t hold your breath, however. It might be a while before you see cities being powered entirely by uranium.
Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory