Algae has potential to be a helpful agent in controlling nuclear waste, according to research published this March out of Northwestern University. Algae has the ability to separate in nuclear waste calcium from strontium, and strontium is the metal that, when spewn in large quantities into the environment in nuclear accidents or in unmanaged waste, can cause serious damage to humans and ecosystems. Freshwater algae have this ability because they have evolved to separate calcium from barium, an element they benefit from. The algae have been observed removing strontium from water in a similar fashion.
Researchers have found that the algae Clostenum moniliferum (the bright green algae seen in ponds) can sequester strontium in the form of barium-strontium-crystals.
The algae do this by soaking up barium, strontium and calcium from their environment. Then, the strontium and barium is sequestered in the crystals formed in the cells. The calcium, on the other hand, is excreted from the cell.
Researchers used nonradioactive strontium in the experiment. Although nonradioactive, this type of strontium is chemically identical to radioactive strontium. The researchers are hoping that because these algae have shown to be able to live in harsh environments that they would then be able to survive in a radioactive environment. However, researchers are also looking at the mechanisms behind the process to draw ideas from.
Strontium 90 (radioactive strontium) is a dangerous radioactive fission materials created within a nuclear reactor. In the US, approximately 80 million gallons of radioactive waste sluge has been shown to contain strontium 90. It is especially dangerous because it is chemically similar to calcium and, therefore, is attracted to bone.
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