Fishing for Uranium

UA Professor Researches Unlikely Resource in the Uranium Extraction Process

More common than silver, tin, or mercury, uranium is found nearly everywhere on Earth — yet it is often difficult to obtain. On land, uranium mining is damaging to the environment and risky for workers. And though the world’s oceans contain some 4.6 billion tons of uranium, the element is found in very low concentrations there, making it expensive to collect.

But a UA chemistry professor has developed a cheap, environmentally friendly means of extracting uranium from seawater, using a substance found in shrimp shells.

Dr. Robin Rogers and his team produced an ionic liquid that extracts chitin, a polymer, from discarded shrimp shells. Chitin can be woven into mats designed to be suspended in the ocean, where they filter uranium atoms out of the water.

Rogers was already working with chitin when the infamous BP oil spill occurred, and he learned about an initiative by the Alabama Agricultural and Seafood Cooperative to construct a green treatment facility for their shell waste. “They were hard hit by the oil spill and we reached out to work with them,” says Rogers.

And they are still reaching. Rogers and his team are researching chitin as a component in medical products such as bandages, sutures, and drug delivery agents. Chitin may also be used in the development of advanced textiles and sensors, or even as a cosmetics additive.