Capsule could purify radioactive milk, juice

Decontaminating milk, baby formula and other drinks following a radioactive disaster such as Fukushima may soon be simplified using pellets invented by a U.S. chemist.

Decontaminating milk, baby formula and other drinks following a radioactive disaster such as Fukushima may soon be simplified using pellets invented by a U.S. chemist.

Allen Apblett, a Canadian researcher at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, suggests the ceramic pellets he invented could be used by food manufacturers to process large batches of liquids such as apple juice or brown rice syrup contaminated with radioactive or non-radioactive toxic substances.

For consumers, the pellets could be put inside a pill-sized capsule. The capsule could be dropped into a beverage and it could be stirred, drawing the contaminants inside the capsule. 

The capsule would be removed before drinking, Apblett said while describing his invention at a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego, Calif., on Tuesday.

Following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, radiation was detected in milk, water and some vegetables, prompting restrictions on imports of Japanese food products.

Traces of radioactive cesium were detected in Japanese infant formula and small amounts of radioactive iodine were found in milk in the northwest U.S.

Apblett said his pellets are made of a common ceramic called alumina and are coated with several different kinds of tiny nanoparticles designed to absorb a variety of radioactive materials such as uranium and strontium, as well as non-radioactive toxic elements such as lead and arsenic.

Many of them were originally developed to mine uranium from seawater or decontaminate waterways. The nanoparticles, microscopic grains of materials called metal oxides, are tightly attached to the pellets and will not detach into the liquid, Apblett said.

The pellets would be placed in a porous capsule and would be too large to fall out.

Apblett said he estimates such a capsule could remove all the radioactive strontium from a container of milk within 12 hours without changing the taste of the milk. He added that rigorous tests have been conducted to make sure the pellets themselves don't contaminate the milk.

The used pellets don't contain enough radiation to be harmful, he said. He hopes consumers will ship them back to the manufacturer for recycling. He wouldn't estimate how much the pellets would cost, but suggested they could be made cheaply if mass-produced and should obviously be "a fraction of what you would pay for a quart of milk."

Apblett, who is originally from Summerside, P.E.I., said he is working with a local student startup company and a few other organizations to try to commercialize the technology. Initially, he envisions it being used to purify calcium supplements of contaminants such as lead.