Scientific Breakthroughs

This Material Will Be Used to Extract Uranium From Seawater

Scientists Make Headway in Uranium Extraction From Seawater, New Touted Energy Solution
PHOTOGRAPH: PNNL | Researchers at PNNL’s Marine Sciences Laboratory pack flow-through columns with fibers of adsorbent material.

Scientists recently made headway in uranium extraction from a renewable source — the oceans. Recent research conducted by scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory led to the development of a material that can effectively extract uranium from seawater.

The scientists utilized an ultra-high-resolution technique to study polymer fibers that trap uranium in seawater. The research, presented in an article published in the journal Industrial &  Engineering Chemistry Research, has been funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The program that aimed to economically extract uranium from seawater began in 2011. It involved a multidisciplinary team from various laboratories and institutes in the U.S. Headway was made, showing much promise of meeting global energy needs for the next 10,000 years, considering that the oceans hold over four billion tons of uranium.

Joint Efforts

Nuclear power production is anticipated to increase, but only 100 years of uranium reserves in terrestrial ores is estimated. It is estimated that 1,000 times that amount is dissolved in the ocean.

The researchers noted that about 4 billion tons of overall uranium are available in all of Earth’s seawater. It may entail about eight weeks for 6 grams of uranium to be extracted from seawater. A 1-gigawatt nuclear power plant needs about 27,000 kilograms of uranium to run for a year.

The two laboratories — Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Washington, came out with several papers. The former focused on synthesizing and characterizing uranium adsorbents. The PNNL papers concentrated on marine testing of adsorbents synthesized at national labs and universities.

ORNL noted that notwithstanding the low concentration of uranium and the presence of many other metals extracted from seawater, it succeeded in investigating the local atomic environment around uranium and gained a better understanding of how it is bound to the polymer fibers. ORNL plans to use the new knowledge it gained to design adsorbents that can harness the immense reserves of uranium in seawater.  The laboratory collaborated with the University of Chicago to obtain new data facilitated by the use of the X-ray Absorption Fine Structure spectroscopy that was performed at the Advanced Photon Source.

Continuous Finetuning

It is clearly from such scientific breakthroughs as like these that researchers continue to explore and find ways to improve. As to why many people consider nuclear power a no-go, the reasons range from its not being a quick enough response to climate change, to the huge expense, to increasing possible instigation of nuclear war. Nuclear energy facilities do not emit greenhouse gases when they generate electricity, while certain processes used to construct and fuel the plants do.


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