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     It's been a long time dream, extracting precious metals from seawater. And, it can be done IF you're willing to spend a lot of time and money on it. A news article in New Scientist reports the cost per kilogram of extracting uranium has now been cut in half, to $660.00. While that's still roughly 5 times more expensive than conventional mining methods, a turn to more nuclear power as a means to provide energy for the world without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere could drive up prices to the point where ocean extraction becomes viable. There's also another point to consider.

The world's oceans contain around 4.5 billion tons of uranium, enough fuel to power every nuclear plant on the planet for 6,500 years. The results were presented on 21 August at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia.
Discussion below the Orange Omnilepticon

      Before everyone runs to invest in Oceanic Uranium shares or starts picketing the shore with No Nukes signs, let's look at some caveats.

For one, the technology is still being developed; practical exploitation could be a long time off, if ever. Oak Ridge researchers have been following up on a method pioneered by Japanese researchers.

The technology Japanese researchers pioneered uses long mats of braided plastic fibres, embedded with uranium-absorbent amidoxime, to capture trace amounts of uranium in the ocean. The mats are placed 200 metres underwater to soak up uranium before being brought to the surface. They are then washed in an acidic solution that captures the radioactive metal for future refinement.

To make this process more economical, ORNL chemical scientist Sheng Dai says US researchers used plastic fibres with 10 times more surface area than the Japanese design, allowing for a greater degree of absorption on a similar platform.

This suggests further improvements are possible - especially if nanoscale manufacturing techniques can improve on the fibers. But - it's still experimental work at this point. The BBC has more, including a surprising tie-in with developments in the Gulf of Mexico and the shrimp industry. And here's a link to a pdf file explaining the basic Japanese technology behind it all.

Second, 6,500 years of supply for the existing nuclear plants is only an estimate. Increasing the number of plants, but finding ways to make them more efficient (and safer) could change that. Still, thousands of years of supply doesn't look like the worst news to come along, not with indications Peak Oil may have already occurred - and we want to move away from carbon based fuels ASAP. Wind and solar are picking up more and more of the slack, but the option of having a means of generating power in sizable quantities that isn't directly tied to the weather would give us more flexibility. (Leaving powersats out of the discussion for the moment.) Geothermal may offer some choices, but it is limited by areas where there is hot rock to tap, and possible seismic consequences from heavy exploitation.

Third, tapping the oceans for uranium avoids a lot of the problems of land-based extraction. No tearing up the landscape with excavations, no piles of slightly radioactive tailings, no contesting for leases in unstable areas of the world. Anyone with access to the oceans could potentially exploit this technology. But, refining and concentrating the uranium to usable amounts would still have problems of expense and waste, whatever the source of the uranium.

Four - This makes proliferation issues and waste management all the more critical to deal with. The United States still does not have a waste repository for current nuclear power plants. A long term investment in nuclear power can not be made without finding better answers first. Breeder reactors are one way of dealing with products of fission, by turning them into fuel. Another is using particle accelerators to transmute waste into less hazardous isotopes. Again, a lot of engineering is still needed in these areas. Proliferation issues also mean a lot more attention would need to paid to tracking who has what, where, and how secure it is if there's a shift to more nuclear power generation.

Five - the human factor. Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island have this in common. The most critical factor in managing nuclear power appears to be the competence of the people operating the facilities, and the willingness of the people footing the bill to pay for necessary safety measures, facilities, and the best people to run the facilities. Further, it's necessary to employ people who are both worthy of the trust invested in them AND allow them to exercise that expertise with safety as the primary criterion. The record of the for-profit nuclear industry is not encouraging, nor is the record of governments when it comes to competent oversight as opposed to CYA management or keeping well-funded lobbyists happy.

Six - The great unknown. There's room for changes in so many areas that could impact the practicality of going with more nuclear power if the oceans can become sources of fuel. There's no guaranty the process can be scaled up to useful levels. Improvements in solar power technology could change the price/performance numbers to the point that everything else becomes economically unable to compete. The Polywell experiments currently underway could turn out to be successful and practical fusion power could change everything. Or something else could turn up.


     We don't have the luxury of ruling anything out at this point. Continuing to explore this technology makes sense, if only for research. (It may well prove practical for extracting other critical materials from seawater for one thing.) Anything that diverts money away from further exploitation of fossil fuels is a good thing. Nukes may not be the most attractive option with a lot of dangers - but continuing to burn oil, coal, and natural gas is already killing the planet. Wind, Solar, Geo - we need to continue with those as well. We should be hedging our bets and making a lot of them, rather than looking for the One Sure Way - because it may not exist, or we can't get there from here.  

    And there's one thing that's far more dangerous than nuclear power: letting Republicans have control of the government. I think we can all agree neither America or the rest of the world can survive much more of that.


Uranium from the sea and more nuclear power:

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, ontheleftcoast, hannah, kurt, raoul78

    Choices made, choices being used up. We have to make decisions to find a way forward we can live with.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 10:55:31 AM PDT

  •  Yeah? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ontheleftcoast, Wee Mama, KenBee

    What about lithium from seawater? Gotta have that to have somewheres to put all that nuclear electricity.

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

    by JeffW on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 11:04:52 AM PDT

    •  Lithium is readily available in large quantities (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wee Mama, pistolSO, Deward Hastings

      on land and much cheaper to mine. It's roughly 20X cheaper than uranium. About $6/kg. However I'm not a fan of uranium reactors, I want thorium. LFTR, to be precise. Much better tech than uranium or plutonium reactors. Safer, fewer waste disposal issues. And they can be made small enough to point source them in neighborhoods or villages.

      Romney's religion is only an issue because he's a high priest in the Church of Mammon.

      by ontheleftcoast on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 11:13:51 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  If you're talking about fusion fuel... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wee Mama

      The Polywell team is hoping to be able to 'burn' a proton-boron mix. Readily available and without so much radioactive side issues to deal with, unlike the ITER approach.

      "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

      by xaxnar on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 11:22:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  No, I'm talking about batteries... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Wee Mama, ontheleftcoast, kurt

        ...and my point is why concentrate on one item. Magnesium is already being extracted from seawater electrolytically, so why not other elements? And I might add we have tons of uranium being stored in cooling pools and storage casks that should be recycled, rather than sitting around tempting some crazy persons.

        Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

        by JeffW on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 11:36:56 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well, IIRC, the ITER team uses Lithium... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

 molten form in a jacket around the fusion chamber where it gets bombarded with neutrons, creating tritium as one of the by-products, which then gets extracted and 'burned' in the fusion reaction they're using. Not fun if anything goes wrong...

          "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

          by xaxnar on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 11:44:58 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  to replace the entire nameplate electrical (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wee Mama, JeffW, Joieau

    generating capacity of the US with solar would take a land area equal to 2 Nellis Air Force bases.  I am not suggesting it should all go in one place; merely pointing out the scale.  Also, molten salt technology allows generation to continue into the evening hours.

    •  On the other hand... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Enough solar energy passes through one square mile in space to meet, well huge amounts of energy. (I forget the exact numbers, but I vaguely recall it being close to or more than the entire electrical budget of the globe.)

      We don't have to build giant solar farms on the ground if we put them in space in GEO - and we get much more energy that way without having to worry about weather or daylight.

      "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

      by xaxnar on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 11:27:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  And the numbers are: (0+ / 0-)
        The solar power is collected on the orbiting satellites, and the solar energy in space is much stronger than it is here on earth: "So up in space the average sunlight passing the earth from the sun is about 1,400 watts per square meter. And on the earth at mid summer, mid day in the desert, it's about 1,000 watts per square meter. And on the earth, of course, you add the additional factors of normal atmospheric absorption, you add weather, you add nighttime and the overall average sunlight which is available per square meter up in space is significantly greater than that which could ever be collected on the earth."
        source here.

        "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

        by xaxnar on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 11:48:20 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Could this be more efficient? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    By using the discharge water from desalination plants?

    I assume that most of the minerals dissolved in seawater are more concentrated in the effluent and less concentrated in the freshwater.

    -7.75 -4.67

    "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

    There are no Christians in foxholes.

    by Odysseus on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 12:10:48 PM PDT

    •  If that's the case, then maybe it would be (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      KenBee, Odysseus

      I don't know if anyone has looked into that. It sounds like something they'd want to do before diluting the waste water before returning it to the ocean. If the material they're using is picky about the ionic conditions around it, they might have to tailor it specifically to work in a higher saline fluid.

      "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

      by xaxnar on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 01:36:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Humanity will NOT do this, (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xaxnar, SpeedyGonzales, raoul78, billmosby

    There were several talks this week at the American Chemical Society meeting in Philadelphia with some relatively new technology:   The old technology has been understood for many decades.

    That said...

    Humanity will NOT do this.   What humanity will do is to choke to death on dangerous fossil fuel waste, while very uneducated and very unenlightened types run around having a fear and ignorance festival worrying about the fearsome radioactive tuna fish.

    I had occasion to hear from the great nuclear chemist Darleane Hoffman this week a tale about the great "Nuclear Free Zone in Berkeley."   She noted that when scientists pointed out that "nuclear free" would involve a ban on bananas, all of which are radioactive, the people responsible for this ignorance festival agreed that bananas were too dangerous and should be banned.

    The hatred of nuclear science - which in many ways the queen of sciences - is so deep (and so stupid) that humanity will get what it deserves.

    •  I never got around to (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NNadir, xaxnar

      collecting a gamma spectrum from bananas, but did see plenty of K40 in the wood from which certain waste boxes were constructed during my time as a nondestructive assay guy. I did try to get a spectrum from sea salt, but didn't have enough of it to rise above the background. I think our pre-WWII steel shielded environmental counting facility could have made something from those but never got around to asking about it.

      Anyway, this little tale of yours gives a new meaning to the phrase "going bananas". lol.

      Moderation in most things.

      by billmosby on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 09:10:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  News from the German department of I-told-you-so (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    raoul78, xaxnar, billmosby

    This is a bit OT, but still worth posting.

    The ‘energy turnaround’, advertised as replacing nuclear with renewables is in reality replacing clean and safe nuclear with dirty and dangerous fossil fuel, with a little bit of renewables for greenwashing. This time they are celebrating the opening of two new lignite (!) fired units at Neurath:

    The most disgusting part is that this plant is advertised as an enabler for renewable energy due to its ability to quickly respond to varying demand, while the Germans are destroying their by far biggest source of clean energy.

    The picture of the two new units at the Neurath power plant at the RWE site is a perfect illustration of Germany’s broken energy policy. A brand spanking new lignite plant, with some windmills in the background for greenwashing. To make matters worse, the hill the windmills are built on, Vollrather Höhe, is a spoil tip from the nearby Garzweiler open pit lignite mine.

    I also recommend the video on this plant, but take your blood pressure medicine before you start watching it:

    Note that I’m not directly opposed to wind and solar, they certainly have niches were they are very useful, I just think that the idea of powering an industrial society with diffuse and unreliable power sources is as likely as me riding a unicorn to work every day.

  •  IFR systems would multiply that by about 100. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Instead of 6500 years, 650,000. And also reduce the lifetime of the waste to about 300 years. Here's the most comprehensive publication on it to date. Pity it's only in dead tree form for now, but it was written by the two people who ran the IFR program at Argonne Nat'l Lab, where I worked for about 20 years. Here's a link to the wikipedia article. The picture on that page was taken from the roof of the lab I worked in.

    Oh, and one more thing, the supply of uranium in seawater would surely be replenished by the same erosion processes that put it there in the first place in 650,000 years, I imagine. Making it pretty much a renewable resource. Actually, somebody wrote a comment on this topic recently, and it would recharge faster than that. I went looking for it but couldn't find it easily.

    Moderation in most things.

    by billmosby on Thu Aug 23, 2012 at 09:06:39 AM PDT

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