Recent studies have shown that the uses of green algae are boundless. First, scientists at R.I.T. used algae to synthesize biofuel, and recently scientists at Northwestern University and Argonne National have found that freshwater algae can remove Strontium 90 from radioactive wastewater. These developments can significantly aid the future effort to clean up radioactive waste at the Fukushima Daichi Plant.

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Scientists discovered that the process begins when the green algae first absorb strontium, calcium and barium from water. The strontium and barium form crystals inside of each algae cell. The crystals remain inside the cells, but the algae filters out and excretes calcium and other minerals that may be present. The strontium is then isolated, and thus able to be treated.

Researchers are still figuring the best way to harness the algae’s capabilities. Since algae doesn’t differentiate between radioactive and inactive strontium (they are chemically identical), it is not known how the algae would hold up in a highly radioactive environment. But the good news is that they have been able to manipulate the algae’s process to be more strontium-selective, thus removing as much as possible.

The United States already houses over 80 million gallons of untreated radioactive waste, in which strontium 90 is a large component. With no sign of nuclear power plants closing anytime soon, there will be increasing volumes to deal with and the threat of accidental spills or crises. Even if contained, strontium 90 is very similar to calcium — so long-term exposure to the material greatly increases the risk of cancer as it can be stored in bones.

Although the study has just begun, the discovery of algae’s strontium-sequestering capability makes a giant step in nuclear waste clean up. Scientists are confident that algae could be a key factor in radioactive strontium treatment, as it has proven in the past to function under harsh environments.

Lead photo © Derekkeats

Via Phys Org