Earlier this week, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory reported their advancement in technology that would allow us to harvest uranium from the ocean. The project was funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and results were presented at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia.

The combination of ORNL’s high-capacity reusable adsorbents and a Florida company’s high-surface-area polyethylene fibers creates a material that can rapidly, selectively and economically extract valuable and precious dissolved metals from water. Since the 1960s, many adsorbent materials have been developed and evaluated, but none has emerged as being economically viable. The new adsorbents are made from small diameter, round or non-round fibers with high surface areas and excellent mechanical properties. By tailoring the diameter and shape of the fibers, researchers can significantly increase surface area and adsorption capacity.

“We have shown that our adsorbents can extract five to seven times more uranium at uptake rates seven times faster than the world’s best adsorbents,” said Chris Janke, one of the inventors and a member of ORNL’s Materials Science and Technology Division.

Though the laboratory’s new technology is significantly less expensive than past methods, ocean-harvested uranium would still cost about five times more than mined uranium.

The downsides of additional uranium

While non-fossil fuel energy sources are generally good, nuclear fission has its problems.

One major concern, even for some anti-renewable folks, is the potential danger of radioactive materials. We’ve seen three disasters in less than one century of nuclear fission energy generation. Last year we saw the devastating effects of the Fukushima disaster, following accidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979. In addition to deaths from accidents, radioactive waste regularly released from the plants leads to increased cancer risk for anyone residing near a nuclear reactor.

An increased supply of uranium would fuel the anti-renewable energy crowd. There is an estimated 4.5 billion tons of uranium in the world’s oceans — enough to fuel the planet’s nuclear reactors for centuries. As long as there is supply, certain lawmakers will fight to utilize our resources and maintain existing nuclear reactors instead of building new renewable power plants.

Nuclear is great in that its power generation does not emit greenhouse gases. However, plenty of air pollution is created in the transporting process. If we utilize the ocean’s uranium supply, materials will have to be transported across half the country to reach certain areas.

It is also worth mentioning that nuclear reactors require an enormous amount of water. Considering this year’s drought is a sign of the new normal, continuing on the nuclear path could result in more power outages.

Main photo credit: Tobin/Flickr