By Upasana Bhattacharjee
[su_pullquote align=”right”]Improved technology for extracting uranium from seawater means increased availability of nuclear energy.[/su_pullquote]
Researchers from Stanford University have found a way to improve the technology that extracts uranium from seawater. Having improved on the three major components involved in the process, the technology will greatly benefit the countries without uranium mines. Improved technology for extracting uranium from seawater means increased availability of nuclear energy. With research towards reactor safety and radioactive waste disposal underway, a future free from carbon seems closer.
Research in the past has shown that uranium dissolved in seawater chemically combines with oxygen to form uranyl ions. This is the uranium that exists in seawater and can be extracted to meet nuclear energy requirements.
The technology for extraction involves dipping a plastic fibre containing amidoxime into the water.
The uranyl ions stick to the compound amidoxime and once saturated, the fibre is treated chemically to free the uranyl. It is then refined in reactors. At present, this extraction technology would involve dipping the equivalent of fishing nets made of this fibre into the sea (during strong currents) to extract uranium from the water. The technology is dependent on three major variables: How much uranyl sticks to the fibres, how quickly can ions be captured, and how many times the fibres can be reused.
Stanford University has successfully augmented the performance of these variables of capacity, rate and reuse. A conductive hybrid fibre of amidoxime and carbon was created and electricity was passed through it (altering its properties) in order to collect more uranyl ions. Researchers report that the new technology has three times the useful lifespan of standard amidoxime and can absorb as much as 9 times the uranyl a standard sample can before it is saturated.
The challenges posed
[su_pullquote align=”right”]Although the development is far from being used on a commercial scale just yet, it has been hailed as a big step towards a future without fossil fuels.[/su_pullquote]
Although the development is far from being used on a commercial scale just yet, it has been hailed as a big step towards a future without fossil fuels. Primarily benefitting countries that lack uranium mines (Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan together account for about 70 percent of the world’s uranium production), this development increases the availability of nuclear power at a time when there is a pressing need to have energy resources that can be adjusted to match the demand as opposed to wind and solar energy (despite their falling prices) for a carbon-free future. The technology still needs to be made cost effective by reducing the power consumption and increasing the coulombic efficiency and extraction kinetics.Fukushima disaster had polluted the Pacific Ocean with radioactive materials | Photo Courtesy: Deviant World
Possibilities of a nuclear future
While the concentrations are tiny, given how vast the oceans are, the supply would be endless. Resulting in a significant increase in the availability of uranium, this technological advancement brings back the debate about nuclear power. While nuclear power is a vital energy alternative as it is cleaner than fossil fuels and more efficient, it presents grave dangers. Proper waste disposal systems for radioactive material must be planned before the technology is put to commercial use.
Safety measures along with mitigation measures to counter possible disasters like Fukushima have to be charted.
Research into these measures is underway and if adequately resolved, increasing the availability and accessibility of uranium (and thus nuclear power) serves as a warm greeting to a carbon-free future with environment-friendly energy resources.
Featured Image Credits: Pixabay
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