Yellowcake Extracted from Seawater
For the first time, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and LCW Supercritical Technologies have created five grams of yellowcake — a powdered form of uranium used to produce fuel for nuclear power production — using acrylic fibers to extract it from seawater.
The researchers achieved the extraction in June this year and believe that it indicates that the approach can eventually provide commercially attractive nuclear fuel derived from the oceans — the largest source of uranium on earth. Seawater contains about three parts per billion of uranium. It's estimated that there is at least four billion tons of uranium in seawater, which is about 500 times the amount of uranium known to exist in land-based ores.
"We have chemically modified regular, inexpensive yarn, to convert it into an adsorbent which is selective for uranium, efficient and reusable," said Chien Wai, president of LCW Supercritical Technologies.
Wai is a former University of Idaho professor who, along with colleague Horng-Bin Pan, was involved in earlier DOE-funded research to develop materials in order to increase domestic availability of uranium, which is currently mostly imported into the U.S.
Wai says the fibers, which have affinity for more heavy metals than just uranium, can likely be used one day to clean up toxic waterways as they have potential to extract vanadium, an expensive metal used in large scale batteries, from the oceans instead of mining it from the ground.
The researchers are planning an uranium extraction field demonstration in the Gulf of Mexico. The material performs better in warm water and extraction rates in the Gulf are expected to be three to five times higher than further north, therefore making it more economical to obtain uranium from seawater.