Waste uranium can apparently be recovered very cheaply from the polluted runoff from uranium mining using E. Coli and a phosphate storage molecule found in seeds, British researchers have found. They used the common bacteria with a chemical parallel of what is already found in agricultural waste: inositol phosphate.
Inositol phosphate is insoluble, so it forms a precipitate on the bacteria. The E. Coli then broke down the precipitate; releasing the phosphate molecules which then attached to uranium molecules to form uranium phosphate, which can then be harvested to recover the uranium.
What they have developed is a way for one contaminant to clean up another.
Lynne Macaskie from the University of Birmingham in the UK led the research on radioactive waters and presented the findings at the Society for General Microbiology’s meeting at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.
Interestingly the UK has no uranium mining industry, but it does produce a significant amount of uranium in waste from nuclear plants. The process could be as effective with waste uranium from nuclear power production, the researchers claim. For energy security as well as health risks, both sources are worth cleaning up.
The process they developed is extremely cheap. A similar technique was invented in the 90’s but it was too expensive and was not nearly as effective. Macaskie’s process is six times more effective and much cheaper. It could cost at most $3 a gram to recover uranium using the technique, or as little as 14 cents a gram if using the cheapest source of inositol phosphate. That is about the going price for uranium itself.
Potential customers would come from the top three uranium producers – Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan. Other countries who might be interested are Germany, the Czech Republic and France; the latter, especially for its many nuclear plants themselves. The United States mines relatively small amounts of uranium, on a par with Niger, Namibia, Uzbekistan and Russia. But both the US and Russia have a lot of nuclear waste.
She told the Society that “By using a cheap feedstock easily obtained from plant wastes we have shown that an economic, scalable process for uranium recovery is possible”.
So agricultural pollution could be used to clean up nuclear waste. We live in strange times.
Image from the US Gov’t Fish and Wildlife Service
Via ENS Newswire