|U.S. Turns to Ocean for Nuclear Power|
|Written by Ronald Ho, Four Green Steps|
|Sunday, 16 September 2012 19:00|
Written by Ronald Ho, Four Green Steps
In stories, pirates may look for sunken treasure on the ocean floor, but real-life chemists hunt for treasure in the open sea. Seawater includes uranium in low concentrations but great quantities, and many scientists see it as a key to meeting the world's future energy needs through nuclear power.
Chemist Robin Rogers, who directs the University of Alabama's Center for Green Manufacturing, stated that the ocean actually contained more uranium than any land source in total but in a very dilute form which makes extraction very costly.
Scientists have tried to extract uranium from seawater since the 1960s. Research has been on-and-off, however, ever since people realized that extracting uranium from the ocean would be at least 10 times more expensive than from land because of the cost of sending out ships and crews and because of the low concentration of uranium in ocean water. Now modern-day methods are being applied to this decades-old search for a competitive, environmentally friendly alternative to traditional mining.
A shrimp-shell uranium net
Rogers and his colleagues at the University of Alabama are looking for ways to make ocean mining kinder to the environment. He found that shrimp and crab fishers on the Gulf Coast were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispose of shells and waste. He took some of that waste material and made it into a plastic-like, uranium-attracting material that is rich in the heaviest types of chitin, a biodegradable chemical that lends strength to shrimp and crab shells and the crunchy outer skin of insects.
Rogers still needs to find out whether his chitin-based uranium net can last as long as needed to harvest uranium in the ocean. He suspects it won't be as durable as the Japanese institute's plastic, but it may be worth using because it will be less polluting and may be cheaper to manufacture, he said.
Research for a far future
More work still needs to be done before dipping into the sea for uranium can compete with traditional mining. Some people, experts included, want nuclear energy to be banned entirely, for fear of what happens when nuclear power plants malfunction, as the Fukushima plant did in Japan last year and this research remains as a controversial topics.
Image courtesy of Creative Commons.
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