Advancing to Cheaper Extraction of Uranium from Seawater

Researchers have a new material that selectively binds dissolved uranium with a low-cost polymer adsorbent. This could lower the cost and increase the efficiency of extracting uranium from oceans for sustainable energy production.

There is about 4 billion tons of uranium in the oceans with a concentration of 3 milligrams per ton.

Popovs took inspiration from the chemistry of iron-hungry microorganisms. Microbes such as bacteria and fungi secret natural compounds known as “siderophores” to siphon essential nutrients like iron from their hosts. “We essentially created an artificial siderophore to improve the way materials select and bind uranium,” he said.

The team used computational and experimental methods to develop a novel functional group known as “H2BHT”—2,6-bis[hydroxy(methyl)amino]-4-morpholino-1,3,5-triazine—that preferentially selects uranyl ions, or water-soluble uranium, over competing metal ions from other elements in seawater, such as vanadium.

The fundamental discovery is backed by the promising performance of a proof-of-principle H2BHT polymer adsorbent. Uranyl ions are readily “adsorbed,” or bonded to the surface of the material’s fibers because of the unique chemistry of H2BHT. The prototype stands out among other synthetic materials for increasing the storage space for uranium, yielding a highly selective and recyclable material that recovers uranium more efficiently than previous methods.

In addition to the successful synthesis and testing of the adsorbent, complete agreement between computational and experimental results from small-molecule studies have been validated by a proof-of-principle synthesis of the adsorbent material that exhibits the same features as small-molecule ligand. This study ushers in a practical approach towards the polymer design and synthesis of adsorbent materials decorated with the tailor-made ligands.

Nature Communications – Siderophore-inspired chelator hijacks uranium from aqueous medium

Over millennia, nature has evolved an ability to selectively recognize and sequester specific metal ions by employing a wide variety of supramolecular chelators. Iron-specific molecular carriers—siderophores—are noteworthy for their structural elegance, while exhibiting some of the strongest and most selective binding towards a specific metal ion. Development of simple uranyl (UO22+) recognition motifs possessing siderophore-like selectivity, however, presents a challenge. Herein we report a comprehensive theoretical, crystallographic and spectroscopic studies on the UO22+ binding with a non-toxic siderophore-inspired chelator, 2,6-bis[hydroxy(methyl)amino]-4-morpholino-1,3,5-triazine (H2BHT). The optimal pKa values and structural preorganization endow H2BHT with one of the highest uranyl binding affinity and selectivity among molecular chelators. The results of small-molecule standards are validated by a proof-of-principle development of the H2BHT-functionalized polymeric adsorbent material that affords high uranium uptake capacity even in the presence of competing vanadium (V) ions in aqueous medium.

42 thoughts on “Advancing to Cheaper Extraction of Uranium from Seawater”

  1. 233U neutron/absorption is slightly over 2 at thermal energies, true. Shippingport did breed with Th and 233U, but that’s not what you said. You wrote some nonsense about ‘consuming all the thorium’ and how ‘you can’t do that with uranium’ when in this case, the fissile species is still Uranium. you are garbling everything with your half understanding. In the end, what you write is not what you may have had in mind.

  2. I am thinking you may be out of your wheel house since you think what I say was nonsense.

    “Reactors that use the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle require fast reactors to sustain breeding, because only with fast moving neutrons does the fission process provide more than 2 neutrons per fission. With thorium, it is possible to breed using a thermal reactor. This was proven to work in the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, whose final fuel load bred slightly more fissile from thorium than it consumed.”

  3. You can built a thermal reactor using Thorium that can consume all of the Thorium. You can’t do that with Uranium. Thorium has the potential of been a much better nuclear fuel than Uranium.


    Trump might be interested in this before helping U.S. Veterans obtain medicinal (from doctors) cannabinoids, uranium from seawater is not for health issues! TRUMPUP+one
    Would these be miracle fibers?

    Clean-up efforts

  5. Psst.
    Don’t tell anyone until it is done and active.

    Then tell, kindly, to everyone, “Please don’t attack us because you could blow the thing up.

  6. It would have to be a pretty large scale seasteading project, though. Not just large enough to have a reactor, but large enough for the political garbage necessary to be allowed to have a reactor.

  7. The best reason to use this tech is strategic independence from uranium (and other material) suppliers.

  8. A nice seasteading project could use a nuclear reactor and extract uranium from seawater to fee the reactor.
    If you have a seastead and it can produce all the energy you need without relying on land nations, you can have heavy industries on a seastead (iron/aluminum smelters and so on)..

  9. Fast reactors would make sea-water uranium extraction unnecessary, by using depleted uranium and spent fuel. They would also make rubidium available as a by-product – it constitutes several percent of the fission products in spent fuel, and would probably be available from any large scale reprocessing, in greater quantities than from natural deposits.

  10. ok fair enough. To be fair to me though, it’s really hard to tell nowadays given the amount of BS that is online, and after the horrorshow that is hbo’s chernobyl and them saying that the plant could have exploded like a nuclear bomb(?)(!) I guess my joke radar is permanently bent out of shape.

  11. Tanzania is next door and has Uranium reserves. I have no idea how friendly or not their relations are.

  12. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to be polyethylene. PE is cheap, but a different material can be worth it if it gets more reuse cycles.

    I did forget about biofouling. There are some ways to mitigate it, but it’s indeed a difficult problem.

  13. It WOULD create tons of landfill material because everything fouls in seawater and defouling is expensive. Have you ever seen goose-neck barnacles colonizing a rope? These sorbant “backbones” you mention are polyethylene ropes. I have no doubt you can get uranium at $600/kg using this technology, as described in the paper that Brett attached. Meanwhile, in the real world, I’m paying $105/kg and the spot price has averaged about $78/kg since 2015.

  14. Fair enough, but keep in mind that this is still at early prototypes stage. I expect that the wear characteristics are primarily up to the polymer backbone, which can be improved independently from the sorbent performance (the same sorbent molecule can be attached to different backbones).

    Even if the sorbent group itself deteriorates, that can probably be improved too, or potentially replaced, while keeping the backbone. The backbone is the bulk of the mass, so as long as that has good wear characteristics (in a future version), you can avoid producing much landfill material.

  15. Brett has a link to a publication in his response that describes the sorbent wears out before what we would consider to be “many use cycles”.

  16. “The prototype […] yielding a highly selective and recyclable material that recovers uranium […]” (end of 5th paragraph, emphasis added)

    They probably wash off the uranyl, possibly with something that converts it to uncharged uranium or an uranium compound, and reuse the sorbent. There’s no “spent” sorbent, other than by wear after many use cycles.

  17. I like Willauer’s proposal to extract CO2 from seawater. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and the ocean’s surface are in equilibrium, so using nukes to extract the CO2 and H2, and turn them into hydrocarbon fuels means a plentiful supply of energy to power our civilisation until the uranium and thorium run out.

  18. I’m hoping that fast spectrum MSRs will make Uranium mining uneconomic, by making full use of the already mined, and refined uranium available.
    I understand that you can make a good flow battery with Vanadium, and it is a fine alloying agent for steels.

  19. The current nuclear powers will be trying mightily to stop Silex technology from leaking to the hoi poloi – they don’t want everyone joining their club. Personally, I think it would be a good thing. It would force the big countries to replace gunboat diplomacy with actual diplomacy. The moral bar against using nukes would be just as high for new entrants, but the consequences for a big country waltzing in to a small one would put most wars in the ‘too hard’ basket, where they should be.

  20. Well, no country with control over some ocean coastline anyway.
    Rwanda would find it easier to import Uranium than to import enough seawater.

  21. Silex laser enrichment puts a ceiling on uranium prices going forward. It can process left over uranium hexafluoride tailings into nuclear fuel at prices not much higher than current. It will likely start its ascension to market dominance once current centrifuges start wearing out.

  22. It puts a ceiling on the price of uranium. Anti-nukes used to claim that the uranium will run out in less than a century. It also means that no country could have their uranium supply embargoed.

  23. The current uranium supply glut means any first world country that can buy uranium from abroad has no incentive to self-supply though. Cameco is shutting down one canadian mine completely and firing everyone.

    Though for anyone else that can’t easily buy abroad, this is an interesting alternative. Especially if you hang the sorbents on the intake of a desalinaization plant or an OTEC plant since that increases massflow. In some ways, that would be a somewhat virtuous cycle, using a nuke which needs cooling to suck in seawater, strip useful minerals out of it, then run it through a high temp desalinization cycle using reactor waste heat. You gets minerals and fresh water and electricity, and reduce your uranium supply problems.

  24. With current costs for nuclear and nuclear-hostile public and government stance the uranium could be free and that would not change anything…

  25. I understand your irrational desire to be anti-nuclear, but please.. even on the scale of weak concerns about nuclear power, this argument is AWFUL weak. I’m talking homeopathy-scale-weakness here. As others have pointed out you can’t go critical on natural uranium.

    You could argue that the absorbent itself is perhaps pollution, but even then the amount of absorbent pales in comparison to what we throw away on even an hourly basis – even in the worst case all of it got free. We don’t need a lot of uranium to power ourselves because it is so energy dense, so try again.

  26. It could collect every gram in the ocean, and it still wouldn’t go critical, Fissile U235 is only a small fraction of natural U. It takes very careful arrangement of fuel and heavy water in a CANDU reactor to achieve criticality.

  27. And when a length of the material floats away and collects uranium, does it reach critical mass on its own? That’s plastic pollution on a whole new level.

  28. Well, sodium chloride is commonly extracted from seawater, but that is an easy one. There is a plant in Israel that extracts magnesium from water in the Dead Sea. The Japanese have also done some work on extracting lithium from seawater as well. And I checked and noticed the rubidium is surprisingly common in seawater – 0.02 ppm, compared to uranium at 0.0016 ppm, and currently rubidium sells for $1200 per 100 grams. Of course, the entire world production for rubidium right now is only a few tons, so any seawater plant to extract it would massivley flood the market & drive the price down.

  29. really quite pricey – looks like it would make a lot of landfill material too – spent sorbant.

  30. The problem with mining is your country might not have ore reserves. Anyone can put a boat on the ocean and collect it from sea water.

  31. Vanadium is worth nearly as much as Uranium, so that’s not a terribly bad result. It depends more on what you need and want.

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