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Unlimited Nuclear Fuel Could Be Found in the Ocean

Feb 23, 2017 06:20 AM EST
In the ocean, uranium combines chemically with oxygen and forms positively charged ions called uranyl.
(Photo : David Cannon/Getty Images)

The pressing climate change issue has left us with no choice but to look for an efficient and cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels.

Scientist have long been proposing harnessing nuclear energy. However, obtaining uranium -- a critical ingredient of nuclear power -- is not simple.

Few countries have significant reserves that contain the element. But the process of how the element is obtained includes digging huge holes on the land, which is apparently not environmentally safe.

Scientists have long known that the ocean is rich in uranium. Forbes reported that 4 billion tons of uranium in seawater would fuel a thousand 1,000-MW nuclear power plants for 100,000 years.

But while the information seems promising, scientists have not been able to figure out how it can be obtained in an economically viable process. Until recently, when researchers from Stanford University in California claimed they have found a way to do so.

"For much of this century, some fraction of our electricity will need to come from sources that we can turn on and off. I believe nuclear power should be part of that mix, and assuring access to uranium is part of the solution to carbon-free energy," Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, co-author of the paper and a former U.S. secretary of energy, said in a statement.

In the ocean, uranium combines chemically with oxygen and forms positively charged ions called uranyl.

According to Science Alert, at present, scientists have to sift through the vast ocean by dipping plastic fibers coated in a chemical called amidoxime. The uranyl ions then stick to the plastic fibers, allowing for extraction and then eventually refinement to uranium.

But there is only about 3 particles of uranium per billion particles of seawater, making the current process certainly impractical and expensive.

The scientists at the Stanford University improved the process. As per the Huffington Post, the scientists created a carbon and amidoxime fiber prototype. And by charging it with pulses of low voltage electricity, they were able to gather nine times the amount of uranyl ions that they can get using the current process.

The paper was published in the journal, Nature Energy.

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