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Recent & Active Research — Uranium

During a period of nearly three decades (1951-1980), the Grants uranium district in northwestern New Mexico yielded more uranium than any other district in the United States. There has been renewed interest in uranium resources because ore values are rising due to concern about greenhouse gas emmissions from burning hydrocarbons. There also continiues to be a legacy of health and environmental hazards related to abandoned mines in New Mexico. Our staff and students have conducted several recent studies regarding uranium mineralization and mine-site remediation.

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The current and recent research projects shown below are listed in random order.
Uranium Transport and Sources in New Mexico: A five-year EPSCoR program
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In 2013, a team of New Mexico Tech researchers began a study of uranium transport, uranium source characteristics, and uranium legacy issues in New Mexico. The effort was funded by Energize New Mexico, a five-year NSF EPSCoR program that concluded in 2018 and that encompassed five research components focused on developing non-carbon emitting energy technologies. The uranium team, which included researchers from UNM, addressed uranium deposits and mine waste mainly in the Grants Mining District, including Laguna Pueblo, and on Navajo Nation lands. These uranium studies span a range of science and engineering disciplines, and not only provide new conclusions impacting remediation, hazard management, and uranium extraction, but hold implications for human health.

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Uranium dissolution from dust in bodily fluids
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Many metals can be harmful to humans when they are taken into the body. We often think of drinking water when we think of these sources, however, toxic metals can also be taken into the body as inhaled particles or as part of our food. In this study, dust particles were mixed with one of two simulated lung fluids in an airtight glass reactor (configured as the figure to the right) where the solution was heated to a constant temperature of the standard human body temperatures – 37?C (98.6 ?F) – in a vessel purged with oxygen just before adding the dust sample. The study found that the uranum in some dust samples (and lab standards) dissolved better in one or the other of the fluids and that this phenomenon seemed to be based on the mineralogy and available surface area of the dust and the pH of the fluid.

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Uranium transport by wind-blown dust
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Understanding the relationship of dust to uranium contamination can be critical to predicting if and how uranium moves by dust from a mine site, as well as predicting if the health of nearby community members and mine workers can be affected by mining activities. In this study, dust traps were installed at several locations at Jackpile Mine, a remediated uranium mine site at Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, to evaluate this problem. In all samples, uranium levels were low, however, they were statistically high enough to help researchers determine dust influences on the movement of uranium.

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Microbiology of a reclaimed uranium mine
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Microbes can play an important role in geology and in the precipitation and dissolution of mineral components. Uranium is most commonly mobile in the environment with a charge of 6+, referred to as oxidized uranium, usually forming the uranyl molecule, UO22+. It is most commonly precipitated with the oxidation state of 4+, referred to as reduced uranium, to form minerals as the molecule U3O8. Microbes, which are constantly seeking metals and molecules that they can use as nutrients, energy sources, and electron acceptors, often reduce such metal species (changing uranium 6+ as UO22+ to uranium 4+ as U3O8, for example) as part of their metabolic processes; however, not all microbes reduce all metal species. Identifying microbes that can reduce the uranyl molecule and therefore create an environment ripe for uranium precipitation could be important for understanding how uranium deposits occur and for identifying possible tools for uranium mine remediation.

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Inventory of historic uranium mines
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Although no uranium mines are operating in New Mexico today, the legacy of the mining industry requires continuing evaluation and remediation of inactive or abandoned mine features, which number around 300 for the uranium industry alone. The sites of mining activities can offer physical and chemical threats to individuals, communities and the environment. Dr. Virginia McLemore has assembled a team of New Mexico Tech students to evaluate mine sites throughout New Mexico as part of the Abandoned Mine Lands Project.

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