London: Oceans which are a rich source of uranium may soon hold the future of nuclear power as scientists are developing a cost-effective way to extract the precious metal from the waterbodies through special mats.
A team of researchers led by Dr Robin Rogers, from the University of Alabama are involved in making cheaper and efficient mats and compounds that latch onto uranium.
The standard extraction technique, developed in Japan, uses mats of braided plastic fibres embedded with compounds that capture uranium atoms.
Each mat is 50 to 100 yards long and suspended 100 to 200 yards under the water.
After being brought back to the surface, the mats are rinsed with a mild acid solution to recover the uranium.
They are then dunked in the water again in a process that can be repeated several times.
Rogers and his team are exploring the use of waste shrimp shells from the seafood industry to produce a biodegradable mat material.
"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," Rogers said.
"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," Rogers was quoted as saying by the paper.
In the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia, it was discussed that fast progress is being made towards turning the oceans into a uranium reservoir.
Improvements to the extraction technology have almost halved production costs from around USD 560 per pound of uranium to USD 300.
Dr Erich Schneider, from the University of Texas, another speaker at the symposium, said the aim was to establish seawater uranium as an `economic backstop` that will sustain the nuclear power industry.
Before committing themselves to building nuclear plants, energy companies had to be sure they can source reasonably priced uranium for many decades to come.
"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," Schneider said.
So if we can tap into uranium from seawater, we can remove that uncertainty, Schneider added.