60-Second Science

Nanofibers Extract Uranium from Seawater

Hidden within the oceans, scientists have found a possible way to power nuclear reactors long after uranium mines dry up. Christopher Intagliata reports
Worldwide, we know of enough uranium to power today's nuclear reactors for another 100 years, according to the Nuclear Energy Agency. But scientists say there may be a thousand times as much uranium lurking in the oceans, dissolved in seawater. Problem is, how do you harvest it? Some attempts have been made with plastic threads that attract the mineral.

But a better way might be to fish it out with nanofibers of chitin—the stuff shrimp and lobster shells are made of. Rather than start from scratch, researchers spun threads of chitin from liquefied shrimp shells. They chemically modified the nanofibers to make them stick to uranium, and dropped them in uranium-spiked water. After three days, they found that the shrimp-shell fibers had indeed collected uranium from the solution. They presented that research at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (pdf).

It's still too early to know how efficient the process is. But researchers say the nanofibers' huge surface area should allow for more harvesting power than the current plastic thread method. And chitin's biodegradable, thus more environmentally friendly, which is after all, nuclear power’s selling point in a warming world.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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