E. Coli does more than just make people sick — it can also be used to clean up nuclear waste, according to researchers at Birmingham University. The research team found that E. Coli bacteria effectively breaks down phytic acid (a phosphate storage material found in seeds) and releases the phosphate molecules, which bind to uranium to create a uranium phosphate precipitate. The precipitate can be harvested to recover uranium, and voila – no more nuclear waste.
The uranium recovery process isn’t new. It was discovered in 1995, but scientists used an additive that was more expensive and less efficient than phytic acid. And since the price of uranium was low at the time, scientists saw no need to look into commercializing the process. But with an uptick in the price of uranium and the discovery of phytic acid’s effectiveness, the process has become economically viable.
In addition to cleaning up nuclear waste sites, uranium recovered with the phytic acid process can be reused for nuclear energy. And for countries like the UK that lack natural uranium reserves, E. Coli could be one of the keys to a low-carbon future.