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Chemistry Professor Led Group Won R&D 100 Awards

Breakthrough in Uranium Recovery from Seawater through Controlled Radical Polymerization

Breakthrough in Uranium Recovery from Seawater through Controlled Radical Polymerization

Chemistry professor Sheng Dai led a group of scientists at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and 525 Solutions developed U-Grabber, an adsorbent material designed to extract uranium and other metals from water inexpensively and efficiently. The project received 2016 R&D 100 Award, known as the “Oscars of Invention”, honoring innovative breakthroughs in materials science, biomedicine, consumer products and more from academia, industry and government-sponsored research agencies since its inception in 1963.

U-Grabber is made from polyethylene fibers, similar to PVC, woven into braids and grafted with chains of a uranium-attractive chemical called amidoxime. The free-floating uranium in the water binds with the fibers and can be extracted, purified and sold as nuclear fuel.

The fibers can be reconstituted and reused, are cheap to produce at scale and can bolster dwindling terrestrial supplies of uranium. They can also be customized to bind with other toxic or valuable aqueous metals, providing an environmentally sound method of cleaning bodies of water such as mines or fly ash ponds.

The development team was Sheng Dai, Suree Brown (UT), Robin Rogers (525 Solutions), Christopher Janke, Richard Mayes, Tomonori Saito and Ronnie Hanes (525 Solutions).

“Suree Brown played the most important role in developing this technology,” said Dai. Brown is a chemistry alumna and now a Research Associate working in Dai’s group at UT.

Brown was born and raised in Thailand. After obtaining her B.S. in chemistry from Chulalongkorn University, she came to UT to pursue a PhD in chemistry under professor Craig Barnes, during which time she acquired skills and experiences in organometallics and olefin polymerization.

Brown started working with Dai during the final year of her PhD study. After obtaining her PhD in 2002, she continued to work with Dai at ORNL and later on at UT.

“I had the privilege to work with various advanced materials, including nanomaterials, polymers, and hybrid materials, for a wide variety of applications, including radiation detection and uranium recovery from seawater.”Brown said. “We cannot do the work we do without the help and support from the chemistry department as a whole and the staff here.”

Brown is happily married. She and her husband enjoy reading, swimming, and spending time with children and animals.

U-Grabber is one of the seven winning projects at the Lab this year. Read the full article on ORNL’s website.