Making nuclear power with uranium scooped from the sea

Did you know that when you take a dip in the ocean, you are in fact swimming in uranium? Actually, the water only contains traces of the element, but with a super sponge, it could gather enough uranium to make harvesting it for power generation a real possibility, said researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The research, presented this week at an American Chemical Society meeting in Pennsylvania, illustrated a process that could more than double the amount of uranium taken when compared with an approach that was previously developed in Japan. Japan has been keen on mining uranium and has researched different ways of harvesting uranium from the sea since the 1960s. The country relied on nuclear power for nearly 30 percent of its electricity supply before the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant last year.

Nuclear power is way cleaner than electricity made from coal or natural gas, but it also carries greater risks. Both the federal government and private investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, are putting a lot of money into nuclear technology development, however. And some of the efforts involve creating much smaller power generation units that would cheaper and easier to build than the traditional nuclear power plants.

The researchers at the Pacific Northwest and Oak Ridge National Laboratory worked together to improve the uranium-scooping ability of an adsorbent that was first developed in Japan. The adsorbent is made up of amidoxime, which loves to hold onto uranium, and a common plastic material called polyethylene. The scientist from Oak Ridge looked into how well amidoxime binds with polyethylene in order to boost the ability of the adsorbent to soak up uranium. Researchers from Pacific Northwest then put this new material to test at the Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Wash.

“In an environment like sea water where there are multitudes of elements, amidoxime does a pretty good job of taking the uranium out,” said Gary Gill, a Pacific Northwest lab scientist who led the experiment.

The ability of amidoxime to take hold of uranium has been known for decades though, but making the process work for a commercial-scale mining is quite a challenge. For one thing, you will need a lot of sea water because its concentration of uranium is low: only 3 parts per billion. Then there are some other technical issues with pairing amidoxime with polymer to become an effective adsorbent at commercial scale.

But if there are ways to increase the rate of harvesting uranium from the same volumes of water and to be able to do it cheaply in large-scale operations, then you could tap into a rich source of uranium for energy. Our oceans contain 4.5 billion tons of uranium, enough to supply nuclear power plants in the world for 6,500 years, according to the Pacific Northwest lab.

Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory