Researchers have come up with a new way to remove uranium from contaminated groundwater which should come as a major boost to the mining industry. Much of the opposition to uranium mining is based on the environmental damage done to ground water in the region.
The answer may lie in a bacteria species called Geobacter sulfurrenducens, whose hair like filaments called pili can allow it to remove uranium from contaminated ground water. The news of the discovery was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It would be an inexpensive and simple method of cleaning up pollution and developing radioactive technologies.
These tiny ‘nano wire’ type filaments of the bacteria are known to solidify the sediments in toxic soluble uranium, making the uranium less soluble and thus less likely to spread its contamination. It also makes the uranium easier to remove from the sediments. The process is a by-product of the normal metabolism of the bacteria as it generates energy by altering the chemical properties of other metals.
Dr Gemma Reguera and her team at MSU have now found a way of genetically increasing the concentration of the bacteria so that the amount of solid uranium deposited around a cell is directly proportional to the number of filaments it has. While an individual filament is merely four nanometers across it can create a network of many times the size of the cell.
Dr Reguera hopes that these nano-wires will be incorporated into devices, for use in places like Chernobyl and Fukushima where the radiation is too high for the bacteria to survive. Geobacter are currently used in a variety of industrial applications, owing to their ability to convert metals outside their cells using these filaments.