The U.S. Department of Energy is rewarding researchers at the University of Alabama with a $1.5 million grant for their work. It almost seems out of science fiction. They’re using shrimp in a way that could potentially one day power America’s homes and businesses. Robin Rogers is chair of chemistry at U.A. and the director of the university’s Center for Green Manufacturing.
Robin Rogers: “We’re taking a polymer that’s in the shrimp shells, and we’re turning it into a material which can remove uranium from the ocean.”
Uranium is found in the ocean in small concentrations, but given the staggering size of the earth’s oceans, all of that uranium added up amounts to far more than can be found on land. And so the DOE wants to be able to essentially mine that uranium for nuclear energy. Rogers says they have a material that can do just that. He says to think of it as like a magnet.
Rogers: “I think all my chemist friends will give me a hard time for saying that but essentially that’s what happens. We put something on the surface that attracts the uranium that’s in the ocean, grabs it, and won’t let go.”
The polymer they extract from shrimp shells is called chitin. It’s a natural, biodegradable material that Rogers says would be a great alternative to plastics that others are trying to use for the same purpose.
Rogers: “There are microbes in the ocean that degrade the chitin all the time, so it’s very biodegradable. So if this polymer were to break free, then the ocean would be able to easily deal with it, and return it to nutrients for everything else, whereas the plastics tend to get smaller but they stick around.”
The UA-based company doing the work is called 525 Solutions. Their goal is to develop products using chitin. The uranium extraction project is just one part of that.
You can hear a full interview with Rogers by clicking the audio above.
You can read more about the project at UANews.