Advances in decades-old dream of mining seawater for uranium

August 21, 2012

Scientists today reported progress toward a 40-year-old dream of extracting uranium for nuclear power from seawater, which holds at least 4 billion tons of the precious material. They described some of the most promising technology and an economic analysis showing uranium from the oceans could help solidify nuclear energy potential as a sustainable electricity source for the 21st century. Their reports were part of a symposium at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society being held here through Thursday.

"Estimates indicate that the oceans are a mother lode of , with far more uranium dissolved in seawater than in all the known terrestrial deposits that can be mined," said Robin D. Rogers, Ph.D., who organized the and presented his own technology. "The difficulty has always been that the concentration is just very, very low, making the cost of extraction high. But we are gaining on that challenge."

Erich Schneider, Ph.D., another speaker at the symposium, discussed an done for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) comparing seawater extraction of uranium to traditional ore mining. It shows that DOE-funded technology now can extract about twice as much uranium from seawater as the first approaches, developed in Japan in the late 1990s.

That improvement reduces production costs down to around $300 per pound of uranium, from a cost of $560 per pound using the Japanese technology. However, extraction from seawater remains about five times more expensive than uranium mined from the ground.

Schneider explained, however, that the current goal is not to make seawater extraction as economical as terrestrial mining. Instead, scientists are trying to establish uranium from the can act as a sort of "economic backstop" that will ensure there will be enough uranium to sustain through the 21st century and beyond.

Nuclear power plants, he noted, are built to operate for 60 years or longer and involve a huge investment. In 2008, for instance, one energy company in Florida estimated it would cost more than $14 billion to build a new two-reactor plant. Before making that kind of outlay, energy companies want assurance that reasonably priced uranium fuel will be available on a century-long time frame.

"This uncertainty around whether there's enough terrestrial uranium is impacting the decision-making in the industry, because it's hard to make long-term research and development or deployment decisions in the face of big uncertainties about the resource," said Schneider. "So if we can tap into uranium from seawater, we can remove that uncertainty."

Another advantage of extraction could be avoiding some of the environmental costs of extracting uranium ore. Like other kinds of mining, recovering uranium can produce contaminated wastewater, impact the environment and have health consequences for miners.

The Japanese technology uses mats of braided plastic fibers embedded with compounds designed to capture atoms of uranium. The mats are 50-100 yards long, and suspended 100-200 yards below the surface. When brought to the surface, the mats get a rinse with a mild acid solution that captures the uranium for recovery. The mats then go back down in a cycle that can be repeated several times.

Rogers said the next steps are to improve both parts of the adsorbent system, the plastic substrate and the compounds that lock onto uranium. His research group is testing waste shrimp shells from the seafood industry to make a biodegradable sorbent material.

Explore further: How seawater could corrode nuclear fuel

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1 / 5 (4) Aug 21, 2012
How about bio-engineering clams or muscles to collect Uranium and incorporate it in their shells?
1.7 / 5 (7) Aug 21, 2012
scientists are trying to establish uranium from the ocean can act as a sort of "economic backstop" that will ensure there will be enough uranium to sustain nuclear power through the 21st century and beyond.

improvement reduces production costs down to around $300 per pound of uranium, from a cost of $560 per pound

extraction from seawater remains about five times more expensive than uranium mined from the ground.

So we need to sustain our use of uranium even if it means a massive artificial misallocation of resources($300 per pound) to pay for it when there would likely be other more economical alternatives. Ocean wind power may even be more economical than $300 per pound uranium. And why not use LFTRs if scientists are so concerned about supply? It sounds like these "SCIENTISTS" better learn the SCIENCE of economics.

1.7 / 5 (7) Aug 21, 2012
Here's a thought. If they want to extract uranium at any price from seawater, would reverse osmosis desalination be a more economic potential method of doing it? It would be like knocking to birds out with one stone. The soul purpose is to desalinate water cost effectively but why not filter uranium while they're at it? It would probably add to the cost of grey water but may lower the cost of uranium.
1 / 5 (9) Aug 21, 2012
Wouldn't be more economical to invest into cold fusion? All the fission technologies have their apparent drawbacks - not to say about marine water pollution with chemicals and absorbents. All these trolls involved just want to keep their useless jobs. They're sick.
1.7 / 5 (6) Aug 21, 2012
One pound of uranium can produce 20,000 kWh of energy in a power plant. At 3 cents per kWh wholesale price, that's worth $800. Knowing there is a practical way to extract uranium from seawater for $300 a pound is valuable information.
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 21, 2012
Knowing there is a practical way to extract uranium from seawater for $300 a pound is valuable information.
Unfortunately the cost of uranium represents only 8 - 15% of total cost of nuclear electricity - at least in my country. You should be way more cheaper, than this.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2012
343 - I am a supporter of nuclear - and hope that we one day develop lftr, and eventually fusion. However - we have to be honest about the whole process. 3 cents per kWh is just not realistic. Take a look at this article on the European problem. They are now talking more like 6p per KWh. We have to develop a smaller scale, safer approach - and wind and solar will be part of the picture - and their costs are going to opposite direction of nuclear. http://www.guardi...elay-edf
1 / 5 (5) Aug 22, 2012
At 3 cents per kWh, why not just give the energy away ?
not rated yet Aug 24, 2012
holoman, electricity will always be priced as there will always be input costs. Residential consumers can buffer the cost well, however, industry should get cheap as hell costs. It creates jobs, makes products cheaper such as aluminium where 20-40% of the cost is the electricty, and makes residential look for more energy efficiency, and use less.
With regards to most renewables, baseload power not amazing, however, combined with nuclear, and clean coal or clean NG its viable. Solar is a small scale thing. On houses etc. Wind can be small scale, but is better for larger scale, but again, baseload power problems.

As for pricing, natural uranium is over $100 a pound. This could easily be reduced, but production is low... not only that though, if we start using mox fuels, the amount of energy viable from that one pound more than doubles.
1 / 5 (5) Oct 01, 2012
3 cents per kWh IS the existing wholesale price of electricity. The real determinant of the price of electricity is natural gas, which will be cheap and abundant for at least 100 years.

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