Minute amounts of uranium–3 parts per billion–is found in the oceans. Combined, however, oceans hold up to 4.5 billion tons of uranium. That could be enough to fuel the world’s nuclear power plants for 6,500 years. Japan and other nations have looked to the oceans as a uranium source since the 1960s, but extraction has been too expensive.
Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are working to make an extraction method efficient and cost-competitive. The research is being done for the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy.
Japan developed an adsorbent that attaches the uranium-loving chemical group amidoxime to a plastic polymer. ORNL examined the binding process between the plastic and chemical groups and used that knowledge to enhance the uranium-grabbing characteristic of the amidoxime groups on the adsorbent material’s surface. PNNL tested the adsorbent’s performance at its Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, WA, the Department of Energy’s only marine research facility. Using filtered seawater, PNNL established a laboratory testing process to measure the effectiveness of both Japan’s and ORNL’s adsorbent materials. Initial tests showed ORNL’s adsorbent can soak up more than two times the uranium than the material from Japan.
Source: PNNL Press Release, August 21, 2012.