Graphic of underground stream with uranium being absorbed by apatite with detection wells upstream and downstream.

Using a mineral ‘sponge’ to catch uranium

June 9, 2021 8:13 am Published by

Remediation technology reduces uranium levels ten-thousandfold at legacy site in Colorado

A team of researchers from Sandia, Lawrence Berkeley and Pacific Northwest national laboratories tested a “sponge-like” mineral that can “soak up” uranium at a former uranium mill near Rifle, Colorado.

Graphic of underground stream with uranium being absorbed by apatite with detection wells upstream and downstream.
A graphical illustration of the apatite remediation test to absorb uranium conducted by Sandia, Lawrence Berkeley and Pacific Northwest national laboratories researchers. (Graphic by Sandia National Laboratories) Click to open a full-size image in a new tab.

The researchers found that the mineral, calcium apatite, soaks up and binds uranium from the groundwater, reducing it by more than ten-thousandfold.

“The apatite technology has successfully reduced the concentration of uranium, vanadium and molybdenum in the groundwater at the Rifle site,” said Mark Rigali, the Sandia geochemist leading the project. “Moreover, the levels of uranium have remained below the Department of Energy’s target concentration for more than three years.”

The contaminated mill site near Rifle is about 180 miles west of Denver. Since 2002, the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management has used the site to test a variety of different uranium-remediation technologies.

All forms of uranium are radioactive, and it is toxic when ingested. Molybdenum and vanadium, on the other hand, are beneficial at very, very low levels, but are toxic at high concentrations. While the Rifle test site is remote, there are thousands of sites around the world that are similarly contaminated with radioactive elements and heavy metals that threaten groundwater, surface water and food supplies.

Calcium apatite is a mineral commonly used in fertilizer and is also a major component of bones and teeth. The researchers formed a “sponge” in the ground by injecting two inexpensive and nontoxic chemicals, calcium citrate and sodium phosphate, into a well especially designed for injecting solutions underground at the former uranium mill.

Once in the ground, helpful soil bacteria ate the calcium citrate and excreted calcium in a form that allows it to rapidly react with the sodium phosphate to form calcium apatite, which coated sand and soil particles underground, forming the sponge. The apatite sponge captures contaminants, such as uranium, as it forms on the soil particles around the injection well, and afterward as the groundwater flows through the rough sponge. Once formed, the apatite is incredibly stable, and can hold onto captured contaminants for millennia.

Soaking up half of the periodic table

Mark Rigali, front, with poster and three on-lookers with Colorado mountains in the background.
Mark Rigali, a Sandia National Laboratories geochemist, left front, presents the apatite remediation technology to legacy management stakeholders during a demonstration at the former uranium mill near Rifle, Colorado in 2019. Ken Williams, the Lawrence Berkeley environmental remediation program lead, stands behind him and observes. (Photo courtesy Tashina Jasso, DOE Legacy Management).

“The apatite-based approach for uranium remediation has been by far the most effective and long-lasting without any significant negative side effects,” said Ken Williams, the environmental remediation and water resources program lead at Lawrence Berkeley. “It’s basically been a win-win-win situation. The first win is the ease of operation with only one injection needed. The next win is uranium being removed to incredibly low levels. The third win is the lack of significant deleterious consequences.”

Williams has been testing different uranium remediation techniques at the Rifle site for more than a decade, since he was a graduate student. As a student, he was involved in a project at the site where they fed soil bacteria vinegar to remediate uranium that had some unfortunate side effects.

The apatite remediation technology was invented by former Sandia chemical engineer Robert Moore. It has been used at the DOE’s Hanford Site in southeastern Washington state to protect the Columbia River from strontium-90, another radioactive isotope.

Geologists know that apatite can capture elements from more than half of the periodic table of elements, Rigali said, but the team conducted initial laboratory-based tests to confirm apatite would bind dissolved uranium. These tests were conducted by Jim Szecsody, a geochemist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

In addition to reducing the amount of uranium in groundwater more than ten-thousandfold, Williams and Rigali found that the apatite reduced the amount of vanadium by more than a hundredfold. Vanadium is another contaminant left over from uranium milling, along with molybdenum, selenium and arsenic. Auspiciously, the apatite-based remediation technology captures these other toxic chemicals too, they said.

Read the complete news release.

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