As we shift from the use of fossil fuels, the need for more sources of clean energy grows. Nuclear power is a zero-emission clean source of energy that uses uranium to generate power. Uranium is a limited resource, and with the high demand for cleaner energy sources growing, finding better ways to obtain more uranium from the earth has become a priority. A new material developed by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences can absorb 20 times more uranium from seawater than current methods.
It is estimated that the ocean contains roughly 4.5 billion tons of uranium, which is 500 times more than what is found in the earth’s rock. However, its extraction from the water is far costlier than mining it from the earth.
Prior experiments have found that acrylic fiber sheets can extract paltry amounts of uranium from the water. However, given that seawater contains only about three parts per billion of uranium, it has been challenging to refine the extraction process and make it more affordable.
The Chinese team, which created the material, believes that it could offer a reliable energy source that may last millennia, based on the current energy consumption rates. The material, dubbed the polymer membrane, was inspired by the nature of blood vessels, which have small channels that branch into smaller tunnels. The material was saturated with amidoxime, which is a compound that binds to uranium ions.
To find out whether their membrane was effective, the researchers passed water infused with uranium through the material then utilized X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy to ascertain whether it had captured the element. They discovered that the membrane absorbed roughly 20 times more uranium than previous materials developed had absorbed.
The researchers note that the uranium-laced material could be cleaned using hydrochloric acid, which extracts at least 98% of the uranium absorbed. The material can also be reused a couple of times, which means that it can help decrease the cost of extraction of uranium from the ocean, greatly.
Reid Peterson of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory stated that the biggest obstacle when it came to extracting uranium from seawater was that the element’s low concentration made it economically challenging to harvest. Peterson maintained that this new approach would provide an opportunity to considerably improve those economics, adding that while uranium wouldn’t be replenished in the oceans, it wasn’t a crucial concern because a large reservoir of the substance exists.
This new information may impact terrestrial uranium extractors such as Energy Fuels Inc. (NYSE American: UUUU) (TSX: EFR) could evolve if a time comes and the metal starts being extracted from saltwater.
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