Scientists believe they’ve found a viable way to extract uranium from the oceans, opening up a source of energy that could supply today’s nuclear power stations for 6,000 years.
Researchers from Stanford University have developed a technique that, they believe, will give us the option to extract nuclear fuel from seawater.
There is an enormous quantity of uranium in the oceans, around 4.5 billion tonnes, in the form of uranyl ions with a positive charge.
Until now, gathering it has been fantastically slow work because the amount you can harvest is incredible small. There is the equivalent of a single grain of sand in every litre of seawater.
Scientists would need to dip plastic fibres into the seawater coated in a chemical called amidoxime.
The uranyl ions then stick to the plastic fibres allowing for extraction and then eventually refinement.
What the Stanford team have done is taken this method and improved it threefold.
By creating a carbon and amidoxime fiber prototype they were able to pass electricity through the fibres with the resulting effect being a 3x increase in the amount of uranium collected and a 3x increase in the lifespan of the fibres.
Nuclear power is of course certainly not without its controversies, however for humans to reduce their carbon emissions drastically it does offer us a temporary alternative.
Professor Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and co-author of the Nature Energy article believes that as long as research on extraction is carried out in parallel with work on reactor safety and waste disposal challenges then this could offer new countries a homegrown opportunity for nuclear fuel.
“We need nuclear power as a bridge toward a post-fossil-fuel future,” explans Professor Chu.
“Seawater extraction gives countries that don’t have land-based uranium the security that comes from knowing they’ll have the raw material to meet their energy needs.”