by Kathleen Riley
Using a new
collection method, a team from Stanford was able to
extract three times as much uranyl from the ocean in
an 11-hour period than was previously possible.
This technique could prove to be an environmentally
friendly alternative to current methods of uranium
extraction, making nuclear power a more attractive
Let's face it.
Nuclear power isn't going away any
International Atomic Energy Agency
even predicts that overall nuclear power production will
increase by 68 percent within the
next 15 years.
Setting aside the
debate as to whether or not nuclear itself is a good alternative to
fossil fuels, the process of securing its main ingredient is far
from environmentally friendly.
That ingredient is
uranium, a highly-radioactive isotope that can be used to boil water
to create steam that can be used to generate electricity.
450 nuclear power plants use uranium, going through roughly 60,000
tons of the heavy metal annually.
It's a fairly
common element, but the main issue is that uranium is typically
retrieved by blasting a giant hole in the Earth's crust and then
extracting it from the surrounding waste.
To avoid that, a
team of researchers from Stanford University in California went to
work on a better solution.
The group was
adamant about finding a much more environmentally friendly
alternative to collecting raw uranium, so they developed a method to
extract supplies directly from the ocean.
Their findings (A
Half-Wave Rectified Alternating Current Electrochemical Method for
Uranium Extraction from Seawater) are published in the
Believe it or not,
the Earth's oceans contain a lot of uranium. But the problem
is that the concentration levels are very, very low.
are tiny, on the order of a single grain of salt dissolved in a
liter of water," Yi Cui, a participant researcher in the study,
"But the oceans
are so vast that if we can extract these trace amounts cost
effectively, the supply would be endless."
As the uranium
comes in contact with the oxygen from the ocean, it forms the
plan to collect the vast supplies by using amidoxime, a compound
that would pull only uranyl from the water. The amidoxine coats a
pair of carbon electrodes, which are able to accumulate large
amounts of the uranyl that could then be sent off for processing.
The team put their
method to the test and found they were able to extract three times
as much uranyl in an 11-hour period compared to their previous
method of using only an amidoxine-coated brush.
The new method also
sustained the electrodes for future uses.
this study shows how feasible uranium collecting can be,
much research still needs to be conducted in order for these
methods to be enacted en masse.
Unfortunately, it's also currently much easier to gather
uranium from the ground compared to the ocean.
debate on whether or not nuclear is a good alternative to
fossil fuels still remains. Although the process is
carbon-free, converting uranium to electricity creates a lot
of hazardous waste that's difficult to dispose of.
accidents aren't unheard of, and we definitely don't want
another Fukushima disaster to happen.
looking strictly at carbon-free alternatives of energy
production, nuclear doesn't seem like such a bad choice at
all if we can mitigate its downsides.
At least we
know that research to move us away from harmful fossil fuels
once and for all is making progress.