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Separating Uranium from Seawater to Fuel Nuclear Energy

October 2014

As nuclear power reactors are built worldwide, there is a growing concern over the availability of uranium, the primary natural resource used for nuclear energy production. Because most uranium is mined outside the United States, DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy is supporting efforts to improve domestic access to uranium.

Nearly 60 years ago, scientists recognized the potential of tapping the ocean to increase the world’s uranium reserve by 1,000 times — if they could develop a high-performance absorbent to extract the uranium from seawater. A team of national laboratories, universities, and research institutes is tackling that challenge.

At our Marine Sciences Laboratory, PNNL tested a polymeric adsorbent material developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, with promising results. The adsorbent material, referred to as AF1, extracted five times the mass of uranium compared to the baseline technique currently used, and can extract even more at higher temperatures. Additional tests are planned at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Miami to compare results.

The estimated cost of producing uranium from seawater — $606 per kilogram — can be cut in half as the industry increasingly reuses adsorbent materials. Delivering a U.S. source of uranium limits the future cost of this material for the nuclear energy market.

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