Scientists have made a major breakthrough to further abilities in producing Plutonium-238. This is a dream come true for furthering deep-space exploration.
Nuclear Fuel, Plutonium-238 isotope is a fantastic low decay radioactive isotope of Plutonium. The stable isotope is incredibly dense and with the low decay, it can last for decades.
- Oak Ridge National Laboratory houses the Department of Energy researchers who work tirelessly to make further deep space explorations possible. They are researching and developing new ways for the production of Nuclear fuel that made interstellar mission Voyager possible.
What is being automated in Plutonium-238 production?
- The announcement on Tuesday asserts a pivotal step in making the production of this Nuclear fuel, Plutonium-238, automated.
- Prior to this, the production process required scientists to handcraft pellets for making possible the production of this deep space exploration fuel. This marks a crucial point in the history of the USA as well as deep space exploration. Stockpiles of the Plutonium-238 have dwindled since the time of world war.
- It is a race against time for NASA to create Plutonium-238 so they may be able to pursue their deep-space exploration programmes. Plutonium-238 may be a crucial aspect for the upcoming Artemis mission – which is facing a financial crisis already.
- If the stockpiles of Nuclear fuel are completely depleted, deep space exploration is essentially impossible.
- The part of the production process that is now made possible delves into the creation of pellets constituting neptunium and aluminium. These erasing-rubber sized pellets were previously shaped and mixed by hand. With automation, lab experts expect to hasten the process of making Plutonium-238.
- Previously, lab-researchers were able to produce only 50 grams of Plutonium in a years time whereas, with this breakthrough, they may be able to produce as much as 400 grams a year.
History – From World War to Deep Space
- Plutonium-238 production is originally a byproduct of creating weapons-grade nuclear Plutonium-239. While Plutonium-238 is not used in nuclear weapons, physicists were able to find a way to make radioisotope thermoelectric power generators. During the 1960s, these thermoelectric generators are able to harness the immense amount of heat generated by Plutonium as it decays.
- In good time, NASA scientists made use of the generators for powering spacecraft. Plutonium-238 was consequently used for four decades in powering dozens of space missions. These missions include Voyager’s Pluto flyby and consequent departure from our solar system.
- In 2009, the National Academy of Science publishes a paper entailing the depletion of the incredibly useful and scarce resource. Therefore, in 2012, the US Congress allowed $10 Million per year for the research and production of Plutonium-238.
- It was only by the end of 2015 that the Oak Ridge researchers were able to produce a minuscule 50 grams of the Nuclear Fuel, Plutonium-238. For the first time in 27 years, it was made possible to create the resource that makes deep-space exploration possible.
Though a far cry from the ultimate goal of producing 1.5 Kg a year, the automation process is going to put USA back on track to win the rat race of exploring whatever little we can of the universe.