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Whisky Grains and Coffee Grounds Could Help Clean up Nuclear Waste

Distilleries could soon be helping save the environment as they bottle up their next batch of brown

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smithsonian.com

From food scraps to spent nuclear rods, dealing with our waste is an expensive and complicated affair, often costing billions of dollars a year. But a new method uses otherwise discarded biologic materials like spent whisky grains, seaweed and even coffee grounds to tackle this problem, soaking up the most toxic radioactive waste.

In order to keep radioactive waste from melting down, workers will often flood the site with water to cool it and prevent a catastrophic explosion, Gretchen Gavett wrote for Frontline. But while chilling may stop a meltdown, workers must then dispose of millions of gallons of contaminated water.

So for large amounts of nuclear waste, workers either seal the site up and wait for the waste to decay (which is slow) or use artificial materials to sop up the radioactive isotopes for disposal (which is costly).

For the massive amounts of radioactive mess at sites like Scotland’s Dounreay power plant—an infamous and troubled former plant currently used as a radioactive dump for nuclear waste—workers won’t be finished preparing most of the waste for long-term storage until 2030, according to their website. Even then, parts of the site will be sealed off until 2300 when radiation levels have subsided.

But for inexpensive and possibly faster cleaning, scientists from Scotland’s Environmental Research Institute turned to biologic materials (like spent whisky grains, coffee grounds  and seaweed). Using a process called “biosorption,” these non-living biological materials bond with metallic particles to soak up common radioactive isotopes like Strontium-90.

Once the radioactivity of the waste is absorbed, the biologic materials can be gathered, packed up and safely stored off-site without the need for other costly artificial additives, Dounreay Shaft and Silo project leader Mike Gearhart tells the BBC.

"We are pleased to be working with ERI to identify a sustainable solution that can be sourced locally,” Gearhart tells the BBC. "We still have a number of issues to address but results to date have been very promising."

Gearhart’s team is still testing whether whisky grains and coffee grounds can help speed up Dounreay’s cleanup, but biosorption has been used at other sites to soak up gold and silver from sewage as well as removing contaminants like mercury and arsenic from water, Aamna Mohdin reports for Quartz.

If it does work, distilleries could soon be helping save the environment as they bottle up their next batch of brown.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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