Could the Extraction of Uranium From Our Seas Save the Planet? | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Could the Extraction of Uranium From Our Seas Save the Planet?

A recent publication in Nature Energy has suggested that the extraction of uranium from seawater could be an efficient way to source vast amounts of nuclear fuel. Ellen Daugherty reports

There is around 4.5 billion tonnes of uranium dissolved into our seas, but extraction is made difficult due to it being at relatively low concentration in a strongly saline environment. However, if a way of carefully removing the uranium from seawater was discovered, we could harvest amounts much greater than what would be possible on land. This is exactly what Stanford researchers set out to do.

This could lead to us to effectively exploit a hugely abundant resource
When uranium is dissolved in water, it forms uranyl ions (that have a positive charge) by combining with oxygen. There is a standard technique to extract it using fibres covered in a substance known as amidoxime. It picks up uranyl ions without removing any other positively charged ions, and these can then be removed and refined for use in a reactor. The Stanford researchers were able to improve the effectiveness of these plastic fibres by pulsing electricity down them. This allowed the amidoxime to pick up 9 times more uranyl ions, as well as making the whole process even faster. This could lead to us to effectively exploit a hugely abundant resource, instead of spending huge amounts of money and energy on digging for uranium on land. It is also a much cleaner process in terms of the environment.

How is uranium used as a nuclear fuel?

Nuclear power comes from the energy created in nuclear fission, where a neutron particle is used to split a uranium atom into two smaller atoms. When this occurs, a large amount of energy is released. There is also no air pollution, which is a huge advantage when carbon dioxide causes such a damaging effect to our atmosphere from burning oil and coal.

Is nuclear power environmentally friendly?

A long debated topic - with scientists angrily arguing “Yes, of course it is!”, activists protesting over the disposal of nuclear waste, and the media depicting three-eyed fish and human abnormalities as a consequences of nuclear power, the truth is often hard to find.

Despite not being a renewable resource, nuclear power should be seen as much more environmentally friendly than coal or oil, especially with this new, more efficient way of extracting uranium without the need to dig up large parts of land.

Around 13% of the world's electricity comes from nuclear sources, and this emits no harmful greenhouse gases in the process. However, the biggest problem with nuclear power is the waste that comes from it. Although, a relatively small amount of waste is produced for a lot of energy, there is an increasing problem with the disposal of radioactive waste. At the moment, this usually involves burial of the waste in deep underground sites, where it will remain for hundreds of years without decomposing. This is a significant negative impact of nuclear power, and the safety of nuclear dumps has been strongly questioned by environmental organisations, such as GreenPeace.

This breakthrough in fuelling nuclear energy, could be an important step from moving away from oil and coal

However, the pros and cons need to be carefully weighed up, as we have no renewable energy alternative that could produce the amount of energy needed to keep the modern population going as it is. This breakthrough in fuelling nuclear energy, could be an important step from moving away from oil and coal (who are the real culprits in climate change acceleration). It may not be a completely renewable resource, but compared to other non-renewables, this is by far the best option we have.

More research needs to go into how uranium seawater extraction would impact the ocean environment and marine wildlife, but for now, it is good to see such high-profile research dedicated to reducing our usage of coal and oil fuels. Hopefully one day we can completely say goodbye to non-renewable energy sources, but for now this seems like a pretty constructive alternative.

21 year old studying Biological Sciences, Science & Tech online editor. Especially interested in anything to do with zoology or anthropology, and an aspiration to be the next David Attenborough.


9th March 2017 at 6:18 pm

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