Sea water could one day become an abundant source of nuclear fuel, new research suggests.
Experts estimate that the oceans contain billions of tonnes of uranium that could be used in nuclear power stations. So far, however, it has proved too difficult to extract.
A US team is now developing special chemicals that can “grab” uranium ions - electrically charged molecules - from seawater.
Currently uranium is extracted from scarce solid ores such as uraninite.
Scripps Research Institute team member Dr Orion Berryman said: “There is about 4.5bn.t of dissolved uranium in the ocean. This is nearly 1,000 times more than the terrestrial uranium sources in the western world.
“Our work addresses the challenges of uranium extraction from a unique perspective - isolating the uranium atom from its native environment through encapsulation.”
The scientists are creating “ligands” - chemicals that bind to specific molecules - with a high affinity for uranium.
The hope is that the research will lead to economical ways of extracting uranium from the oceans.
Seawater contains uranium at a concentration of just 0.003 parts-per-m, compared with 20,000 parts-per-m in high-grade uranium ore.
However the volume of the world’s oceans is so huge that seawater could still provide almost limitless amounts of the precious metal, say the scientists.
The research appears in the journal Chemical Science, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.