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Fueling nuclear power with seawater

PNNL tests adsorbent to extract uranium from the ocean

August 21, 2012 Share This!

  • PNNL is testing an adsorbent that could more effectively extract trace amounts of uranium from seawater and help fuel future nuclear power development.
    Photo courtesy of Tobin.

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When you take a dip in the ocean, nuclear fuel is probably the farthest thing from your mind. Uranium floats in Earth's oceans in trace amounts of just 3 parts per billion, but it adds up. Combined, our oceans hold up to 4.5 billion tons of uranium - enough to potentially fuel the world's nuclear power plants for 6,500 years.

Countries such as Japan have examined the ocean as a uranium source since the 1960s, but previous approaches have been too expensive to extract the quantities needed for nuclear fuel. Now researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are tweaking one of those concepts with the goal of making it more 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, Wash., DOE's only marine research facility. Using filtered seawater from nearby Sequim Bay, 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.

Results were presented today at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society, which runs Aug. 19-23 in Philadelphia. ORNL chemical engineer Costas Tsouris presented the research team's findings this afternoon, while PNNL chemical oceanographer Gary Gill presented a poster on the PNNL testing program this evening. Tsouris' presentation is part of a larger, day-long oral session on uranium extraction from seawater. Check out the ACS website (link below) for talk and poster abstracts.


PNNL poster: "Testing adsorbents to extract uranium from ambient seawater," Gary A. Gill, 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, Hall D, Pennsylvania Convention Center.

ORNL talk: "Marine testing of uranium adsorption from seawater," Costas Tsouris, 4:10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, Room 113 A, Pennsylvania Convention Center. ORNL news release

Complete oral session: "Extraction of Uranium from Seawater," organized by Ben Hay, Robin Rogers and Sheng Dai, all day Tuesday, Aug. 21, various locations at the Pennyslvania Convention Center.

ACS meeting website

Tags: Energy, Environment, Nuclear Power, Energy Production, Marine Research

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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