Researchers have found a way to extract more than 95% of uranium from seawater
Nuclear energy is capable of creating large amounts of electricity without crushing carbon emissions (there is some by-products we have to deal with, but that’s what nuclear tombs are for, right?) at a scale and consistency hard to match with wind and solar.
But there are obstacles to the widespread adoption of French-style nuclear power beyond public perception, political will, and age-old nuclear waste: the fuel.
The power behind nuclear energy comes from tearing apart uranium atoms; a tiny amount of the element releases much more energy than other fuel sources.
Uranium occurs naturally in rocks, soil, and water, but is usually mined on a large scale from uranium mines, which is considered a finite resource.
There is another source of uranium, a vast source: the ocean. The trick is to take it out.
Now, a team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune have created a gel that extracts more than 95% of uranium from seawater.
Their technique “introduces the concept of extracting uranium from natural seawater can lead to an unlimited supply of uranium at an economically affordable cost,” said Sujit K. Ghosh, principal investigator and professor of chemistry at the ‘IISER, at IndiaToday.in.
Getting uranium from seawater: Researchers estimate that there are about 4 billion tons of uranium in seawater. But extracting uranium from seawater efficiently enough to make economic sense is difficult.
Because it is found in such low concentrations, extracting uranium from seawater on a large scale has not been economically feasible, Reid Peterson of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), told New Scientist in 2021.
Researchers around the world, including PNNL, have looked into this result. A team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing created a polymer membrane with a structure similar to blood vessels that absorbed 20 times the uranium of previous materials, according to New Scientist.
And advances keep coming.
Uranium occurs naturally in rocks, soil and water, but is usually extracted on a large scale from mines. There is, however, another source of uranium, a vast source: the ocean. But the trick is to get it out.
A new path: The IISER team’s new technique for extracting uranium from seawater uses an “ionic macroporous metallo-organic structure”.
Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) combine metal ions and organic chains linking them. They also make excellent sponges.
“MOFs are perhaps most famous for their extraordinary porosity and surface area,” Johns Hopkins chemists wrote in a Communications Chemistry article.
IISER’s MOF was able to extract 96.3% of the uranium from natural seawater samples in just two hours, Ghosh told The Indian Express. The team sampled seawater from the Arabian Sea off Mumbai.
“Combined with exceptional selectivity, record throughput, ultra-fast kinetics and long lifetime, this material could be a potential candidate for the efficient extraction of uranium from natural seawater,” said Ghosh at IndiaToday.in.
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