Innovations in Uranium Mining

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted August 23, 2012

Uranium and…seawater? A report presented at the annual conference of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia indicated that it may soon be viable to extract uranium from seawater, which (on a global scale) holds at least four billion tons of the element.

Previously, production costs for such a process meant a single pound of uranium cost $560 to harvest. With the new approach, it could cost as little as $300.

From the Daily Mail:

Dr Robin Rogers, from the University of Alabama, told the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia: ‘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.

‘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.’

The original extraction technique was first developed in Japan, and it uses braided plastic fiber mats 50 to 100 yards in length suspended around 100 to 200 yards underwater. The mats are impregnated with compounds that ‘trap’ uranium atoms for future harvesting.

The new process cuts down on production costs for these mats while simultaneously increasing efficiency both for the mats and the acids that are later used to bathe the mats in order to draw out the uranium.

The team led by Dr Rogers is also exploring the use of shrimp shells cast out as waste by the seafood industry in producing more sustainable mats.

Currently, nuclear power plants involve an enormous upfront investment and have a limited lifespan of around 60 years. So any developer must not only commandeer the necessary capital, but also see to it that mining costs for uranium can be supplied for nearly half a century. It’s a major commitment, to put it mildly.

Using seawater as a different kind of ore eliminates this uncertainty, makes the whole process more friendly to the environment by avoiding contamination problems, and generally poses a much more efficient solution all around. It remains to be seen how soon this can be put into practice.

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