Sustainable uranium from the sea

Scientists at American government institutions and universities have invented a material that they claim binds to dissolved uranium with an inexpensive polymer.

Publishing their work in the journal Nature Communications, the scientists said the discovery could facilitate sustainable uranium for nuclear power.

“Our approach is a significant leap forward,” said study coauthor Ilja Popovs of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories’ Chemical Sciences Division, in a press release. “Our material is tailor-made for selecting uranium over other metals present in seawater and can easily be recycled for reuse, making it much more practical and efficient than previously developed adsorbents.”

The team modelled their work after microorganisms that eat iron. Bacteria and fungi use natural compounds called “siderophores” to suck iron and other nutrients from hosts. The researchers developed a chemical compound that similar absorbs water-soluble uranium from seawater. The compound that bonds the uranium to a low-cost polymer that collects the radioactive element.

“We essentially created an artificial siderophore to improve the way materials select and bind uranium,” said Popovs.

Mining for uranium is a dirty process that contaminates the environment. But uranium deposits are plentiful and renewable in seawater, as it originates from the natural erosion of rocks and soil. The oceans hold around 1,000 times more uranium than the land.

Image credit: cyril louat via Flickr

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