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Seawater Uranium One Step Closer to Being A Viable Energy Source

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While the history behind nuclear energy utilizing fuel sources like Uranium may be marred with concerning events, the narrative behind this potentially climate-friendly power source is rapidly changing.  Modern reactors are safer than ever, and with the increased condemnation of fossil fuels, now is a pivotal time for a push forward with nuclear solutions.

“Nuclear energy is a low-carbon energy source to displace fossil fuels and provides an important guarantee for the green development of the economy and environment.”

With that in mind, researchers have recently developed a new solution that will potentially allow for Uranium to be harvested from seawater in a sustainable fashion.

The Breakthrough

The solution, which involves the extraction of uranium ions through an electrochemical reaction, was detailed in a paper titled ‘Self-Standing Porous Aromatic Framework Electrodes for Efficient Electrochemical Uranium Extraction‘.  Published in ACS Central Science, this paper saw researchers identify and set out to solve the following problem.

With uranium reserves in seawater “…estimated to be 4.5 billion tons, nearly 1000 times larger than terrestrial uranium reserves”, what can be done to access this vast source of latent energy?

Although we won't dive into the more technical details of the process outlined in its paper, the solution at which the team arrived saw the creation of a form of treated carbon fiber fabric with enough surface area to capture uranium ions that can then be harvested through an electrochemical reaction.

Overall, the team believes its work has “…provided an effective strategy for the uranium extraction from seawater through the electrochemical process.”

Understanding Uranium

Uranium is a heavy, naturally occurring metallic element. It's significant because it's a key ingredient in nuclear power generation, used as fuel in nuclear reactors to produce electricity. Uranium is energy-dense, meaning a small amount produces a lot of energy, making it a valuable energy source.

However, uranium mining and processing can be harmful to the environment while resulting in substantial habitat destruction and the release of massive quantities of greenhouse gases associated with the process.  It is for this reason that a viable means of uranium harvesting from seawater is so intriguing.

The Uranium Decay Chain

Uranium's energy release involves its atomic structure. Uranium atoms have large, unstable nuclei. When a neutron hits a uranium atom, it can cause the atom to split or undergo fission. This fission splits the uranium atom into two smaller atoms and releases additional neutrons plus a significant amount of energy.

Uranium

Source: https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2004/1050/uranium.htm

In nuclear reactors, this process is controlled. The released neutrons can strike other uranium atoms, creating a chain reaction. The heat generated from this reaction is used to heat water, producing steam which is then harnessed to drive turbines which generate electricity.

This controlled use of uranium's fission process is the basis for nuclear power generation, harnessing the substantial energy released during the decay chain.

A Uranium Free Future

Although nuclear fission is currently a top option for sustainable, clean energy, it is not without its own drawbacks.  As mentioned, when fuel sources such as Uranium decay, there are resulting radioactive isotopes known as ‘fission products'.  These byproducts must then be carefully contained, for sometimes extraordinarily long periods of time, until they are no longer hazardous.  For decades, scientists have recognized this and have been hard at work to develop a superior process known as nuclear fusion.

Where nuclear fission harnesses energy from the decay of heavy elements like Uranium, nuclear fusion harnesses energy from the fusion of lighter atomic nuclei (typically deuterium + tritium = helium + a neutron).  Interestingly, this is the same process that powers stars such as the Sun.  There are various reasons that fusion is viewed as being far superior to fission.  These include,

Higher Energy Output: Fusion releases significantly more energy than fission.  Fusing atoms together releases nearly four million times more energy than burning coal, oil, or gas and about four times as much as nuclear fission reactions.

Abundant Fuel Sources: The primary fuels for fusion, deuterium, and tritium, are more abundant than fissile materials like uranium. Deuterium can be extracted from water, while tritium can be produced from lithium during the fusion process itself, which has terrestrial and sea-based reserves sufficient for over a thousand years.

Lower Environmental Impact: Fusion does not emit harmful greenhouse gases like CO₂. Its major by-product is helium, an inert and non-toxic gas.  Unlike fission reactors, fusion reactors produce no high-activity, long-lived nuclear waste. The materials used can potentially be recycled or reused within 100 years.

Safety: Fusion doesn't have the same risks as fission reactors.  There's no risk of a meltdown like in fission reactors, as it's inherently difficult to maintain fusion reactions; any disturbance can cause the reaction to stop immediately.  Also, fusion doesn’t employ fissile materials like uranium or plutonium, limiting the risk of nuclear proliferation.

Although there are many hurdles left to clear until our ability to harness nuclear fusion reactions makes it a viable power source, the process has seen a resurgence in interest as of late due to various breakthroughs surrounding ignition.  For example, on various occasions, researchers have achieved a net energy gain in fusion reactions, where more energy was produced than was used to initiate the reaction​​​.

The timeline for a demonstrable fusion power plant is estimated to be around 20 years, though some startups claim it could be achieved in a decade or less.  However, these predictions are tempered by the complexities of plasma physics and the practicalities of building a functioning fusion reactor.

Overall, while nuclear fusion offers significant advantages over fission in terms of energy output, environmental impact, and safety, mastering this technology for practical, consistent energy production is still a work in progress, with an optimistic timeline of at least two decades before it becomes a viable energy source.


Top Nuclear Energy Companies

If humans are ever going to achieve the kind of feats discussed above, it will require the concerted efforts of public and private companies alike to continue building on past achievements for generations to come.  For now, the following are examples of companies playing an early role in such feats as each advances our understanding and capabilities within the Aerospace sector.

*Figures provided below were accurate at the time of writing and are subject to change.  Any potential investor should verify metrics*

1. Exelon Corporation

finviz dynamic chart for  EXC

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)
35,288,256,39715.00$2.14

Exelon Corporation, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, is the largest nuclear power plant operator in the United States. It supplies power and electricity to 10 million customers via 23 nuclear reactors and 14 nuclear power plants. The company also diversifies into wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.

2. NextEra Energy, Inc.

finviz dynamic chart for  LEU

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)
126,508,299,31019.73$3.78

As the world's largest utility company, NextEra Energy has nuclear plants in Florida, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. These plants play a crucial role in providing reliable and emissions-free energy, avoiding over 24 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

3. BWX Technologies, Inc.

finviz dynamic chart for  BWXT

MarketcapForward P/E 1 Yr.Earnings Per Share (EPS)
7,073,938,51226.20$2.44

BWX Technologies, an American company, supplies nuclear components, technologies, and fuel to nuclear plants in the United States. It also supports governments and private entities operating nuclear facilities. Their services include naval nuclear propulsion, nuclear medicine, and research test reactors. The company has been involved in supporting the deployment of small modular reactors in Poland.


Final Thoughts

These recent developments in uranium extraction from seawater, alongside the steady progress being made in nuclear fusion research, potentially herald a transformative phase in sustainable power generation. The process of harvesting uranium using electrochemical reactions promises a less environmentally intrusive alternative to traditional mining, addressing both the scarcity of land-based uranium and the environmental concerns associated with its extraction. Meanwhile, the pursuit of nuclear fusion, with its superior energy output, abundant fuel sources, minimal environmental impact, and enhanced safety, represents a beacon of hope for a future powered by clean, virtually limitless energy.