Using Algae for Nuclear Remediation
C. moniliferum, strontium-eating algae. Courtesy of Nature.
Japan's Fukushima nuclear trouble has not only exacerbated recovery efforts in the Tohoku region, but also limited travel to Japan altogether. I had planned to lead a group of architecture students to Japan in May, for example, but had to postpone the trip based on the U.S. State Department travel warning that remains in effect until the fallout may be adequately contained. As water exhibiting dangerous radiation levels pours from the Fukushima reactors into the ocean, it is difficult to imagine how emergency crews can sufficiently control this ongoing calamity.
In a bit of positive news, a Northwestern University researcher has recently proposed the use of algae for post-nuclear disaster remediation. Noting that C. moniliferum naturally removes strontium from water, materials scientist Minna Krejci tested the algae's ability to deposit the radioactive isotope strontium-90 safely into crystalline structures called vacuoles. Because strontium-90 is similar in its atomic makeup to calcium, it is especially dangerous because it can easily find its way into similar places, such as milk, bones, and blood. C. moniliferum can distinguish between the elements, however, and targets strontium-90 while ignoring the more prevalent calcium.
Although this bioremediation process works, questions remain about its actual application. How much algae would need to be deployed at Fukushima, for example, and how would it be administered to the affected area? Moreover, how long would C. moniliferum continue to remedy continual leaks effectively? Some complain that this process will only encapsulate strontium-90, rather than convert it to a safer substance. However, Krejci's research gives hope to a seemingly intractable and far-reaching problem.