Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Uranium is currently mined from ore deposits around the world, but there are fears that demand may outstrip the supply of ore as nuclear power becomes more widespread and while the world's oceans hold billions of tons of uranium at tiny concentrations of three parts per billion, extracting uranium from seawater has up to now been uneconomical. Now BBC reports that a new technique using uranium-absorbing mats made from discarded shrimp shells containing plastic fibers impregnated with molecules that both lock onto the fibers and preferentially absorb uranium has culminated in a field test that has netted a kilogram of uranium. "We began working with the Gulf Coast Agricultural and Seafood Co-operative... and with the shrimpers and crabbers there, and found they were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get rid of their waste [shells]" says Robin Rogers of the University of Alabama who outlined an improvement developed in his own group: seafood shells. Research has focussed on improving both the braided fibers of the mat and the "ligand" that captures the uranium, which has most often been a molecule called poly-acrylamidoxime. "We discovered an 'ionic liquid' — a molten salt — could extract a very important polymer called chitin directly from shrimp shells," Rogers added. Although the extraction process has not reached parity with the more mature — but more environmentally damaging — technology of mining uranium ores, work is promising enough to begin to remove a concern about the sustainability of those terrestrial sources and any stumbling block they may present to growth in the nuclear power industry. "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," says Erich Schneider, Ph.D. "So if we can tap into uranium from seawater, we can remove that uncertainty.""
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