August 21, 2012
Scientists Making Advances In Tapping Uranium From Ocean
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
The sea holds 4 billion tons of the Earth's uranium, and scientists say they have made advances in finding a way to tap that source.
Reporting at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, Robin Rogers, PhD., and colleagues from the University of Alabama, say they are making progress towards the 40-year-old dream of tapping the sea for uranium.
The scientists have developed promising technology, and provided an analysis that shows uranium taken from the oceans could help solidify nuclear energy as a sustainable electricity source.
Erich Schneider, PhD. showed through an economic analysis done for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that the technology can extract about twice as much uranium from seawater as approaches that were developed back in the 1990s.
The improvement in the technology could drive the cost of uranium to around $300 per pound, which currently stands at about $560 per pound. Although the price seems appealing, it is actually deceitful because the price of extracting the uranium from the ocean is about five times more expensive than mining it from the ground.
Energy companies want to have an assurance that reasonably price uranium fuel is available on a century-long time frame, and knowing that the ocean can work as a backup source may help provide the companies the assurance they are looking for.
"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," Schneider said in a press release. "So if we can tap into uranium from seawater, we can remove that uncertainty."
Rogers said right now, "it doesn't appear to me to be economically viable in today's economy," to start the process of taping uranium out of the ocean. However, he said tomorrow may be another story.
He said that in Schneider's report, the main costs are transportation in getting out into the ocean, including how many ships will be used, paying ship captains, and paying ship crews.
Political questions were brought up among reporters during the press conference redOrbit was attending, and Rogers ensured that their motives are purely for science.
He said any type of nuclear power is going to get a lot of pros and cons from countries and individuals. He asked, "why would you not at least have the technology and the science ready if you have to use them," in the future.
Rogers said that scientists' policies are not to dictate the U.S. policies, but to understand what is feasible, and economical.
He said one aspect of the scientists' research would be to try and remove uranium contamination from the ground water.
Overall, he said the goal was to have a cleaner source of critical materials, and a sustainable source of critical materials.
"Estimates indicate that the oceans are a mother lode of uranium, with far more uranium dissolved in seawater than in all the known terrestrial deposits that can be mined," Rogers, who organized the symposium and presented his own technology at the event, said in a press release. "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."