Nanofibers to extract uranium from oceans

NEWS3_FIG2 OKWe can find uranium in nature in mineral deposits but also in oceans’ waters: they estimate that oceans contain thousand times the quantity of uranium present in mineral deposits known until now; luckily the concentration is very low but the volume of the globe waters is enormous, therefore if we just succeeded in extracting the half of the available resources, we would achieve the necessary quantity of uranium to power the operating nuclear plants for the electrical energy production for more than 6000 years. Recently, with the economic support of the U.S. Department of Energy, the scientists of Alabama University have succeeded in developing an absorbing and biodegradable material based on the most abundant polymer in nature, chitin, one of the main components of the exoskeleton of insects, crustaceans and shells. Thanks to an innovative productive process, they have obtained thin transparent sheets that integrate chitin nanofibers, opportunely modified for the purpose: by plunging these layers into ocean waters they assessed that they can, as if they were magnets, “attract” the uranium particles that then remain fixed to the material. The major problems concern the chitin extraction, in the specific case from marine shells. The adopted process, which provides for an electrospinning technique, is quite complex: chitin materials are immersed into a solution obtained from a new category of solvents, called ionic liquids, actually salts at the liquid state; afterwards they apply a very high 30,000 volt tension; a fast centrifugation leads to the formation of filaments, nanofibers, which some hours later aggregate one another originating chitin sheets. At the current state, the process costs are unaffordable and unacceptable, despite the uranium value that might be recovered, but in the next years, perfecting some machining phases, we will achieve cheaper solutions.

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