Nuclear power will soon be an important part of humanity. Some people even see this as a viable energy solution in a post-petroleum world. Its producers, though, are having a hard time getting its main and important ingredient, uranium, for the worldwide ore of this is currently declining. And like every other mineral resources, there will come a day when we just can’t excavate any of these anymore.
Fortunately, there is another vast reservoir of this mineral- not in the usual mines but in the world’s oceans. This ocean supply can even probably be measured in the billions of tons! Imagine how endless the supply could be. However, it’s nearly impossible to skim for this material due to its diluted nature. So, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed electrified fibers to just instead lure such.
They’ve found that plastic fibers coated in a chemical called amidoxime can attract a positively charged uranium ion, uranyl. When these amidoxime-doped fibers are submerged into seawater, uranium can be collected and then harvested using a separate chemical process. But scientists say it is not enough.
While uranium extraction is indeed possible with this process, the amount of uranyl sticking to the fibers should still be increased, the saturation of fibers with uranium ions should be faster and these fibers should be reusable.
Hence, building on Oak Ridge research, Stanford engineers created a conductive hybrid fiber to the uranium extraction equation. This new fiber incorporates carbon and amidoxime, and receives electric pulses down its length that change its properties. This can lead to more collection of uranyl ions in a shorter time span. Such fibers are also longer lasting which is more economical.
“We have a lot of work to do still but these are big steps toward practicality,” said Yi Cui, a Stanford materials scientist. “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”.
As the effects of manmade climate change continue to appear, creative solutions like this is really of big help to the society. Hopefully, this can move the world from a carbon-based energy system to a greener reality. This invention can be a step forward.